TCHAIKOVSKY: The Tempest, Marche Slave, Romeo & Juliet,
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra,
DG 453 496-2, Full
Price, 1 disc, 69 mins.
Claudio Abbado's artistic relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic has not
always been as successful as it should have been, particularly in the recording
studio. Abbado is, however, a phenomenon live, one of the most mercurial
musicians not just of today, but of the last 40 years or so. For this reason,
most releases of his discs on DG now come from live performances. These
Tchaikovsky performances - the earliest (The Tempest) dating from
1994, the others from 1996 - are a perfect example of Abbado's ability to
thrill - they are all quite simply wonderful.
Why Abbado can achieve this where other conductor's fail rests principally
in his relationship with the music and the composer. At rehearsal, Abbado
often appears to stand outside the music, preferring instead to concentrate
on the terseness of the technique. That he conducts everything without a
score suggests a mind that can add texture to the notes. In concert, he is
capable of generating a tremendous electricity - intensity and emotion are
rawly laid bare - and, more importantly, the orchestra are almost totally
unprepared for what might happen. These performances are special for this
precise reason: there is not the slightest hint of preparation, just the
enjoyment and energy of pure music making.
The performance of The Tempest illustrates Abbado's ability to make
a piece of music sound much faster than the actual performance is. It is
exciting, but without being driven. Mikhail Pletnev's Russian National Orchestra
version of The Tempest comes in at 21 minutes 41 seconds, Abbado's
at 23 minutes 10 seconds, yet it is Abbado who draws the greatest thrills
from the entry of the storm. The panorama in Abbado's performance is elemental
- a storm of tornados and hurricanes, compared with the more usual gales.
Again, Abbado's portrayals of Caliban and Ariel are at once grotesque and
mercurial, the passionate drawing of Miranda's and Ferdinand's love music
exultant. Abbado gives Miranda, through the Berlin strings, a canopy of sound
so powerful and evocative one can quite see why this music has the power
to numb the senses.
It is a similar story in the Romeo & Juliet. Here, however, passion
is more central to the entire span of the music, and having an orchestra
like the Berlin Philharmonic, with it's luscious string tone, is luxury indeed.
Woodwind solos are phrased with character, almost hypnotically. The entry
of the solo trumpet, and cascading strings, is richly evocative - quite the
finest performance of this section I have heard since Guido Cantelli's (still
unsurpassed) Philharmonia recording. The Berlin strings in the love music
that follows are endowed with the most sweet and broadly brushed tone imaginable.
Marche Slave is designer virtuosity itself.
The triumph on this disc, however, is the 1812 Overture. Although
this should be nobody's favourite music, Abbado's performance is absolutely
riveting. I had to listen to the opening bars many times to appreciate just
how rich the cellos are in this performance. Indeed, the depth of tone Abbado
achieves on the lowest strings of both cellos and basses are amongst the
most sinister I have heard from this orchestra. What follows is just electrifying
- brass blazing, woodwind bustling, violins and violas scurrying. The ending
With the exception of The Tempest (which can sound a bit recessed)
, the recorded sound is very good indeed. Take the 1812 by the throat, and
at near full volume, and this disc will offer an extraordinary listening
The Tempest, Marche Slave, Romeo & Juliet -
1812 Overture -