is a model of its kind. Centring on one of the major living
conductors, it exudes style and panache – not to mention sensitivity.
Paul Smaczny is
an expert at creating a mood with ne'er a gimmick in sight.
The opening passages of the Introduction present a simply wonderful
poem by Hölderlin against dawn scenes on a (German?) lake. The
sounds of the music of Luigi Nono (Prometeo), a composer
so long associated with Abbado, provide more atmosphere than
any commissioned film-music ever could.
The move to Abbado
conducting Dvořák 'New World' (slow movement) serves to
highlight the best in both pieces. We see Abbado, old, using
a minimum of gestures. Later, he rehearses, affectionate yet
objective, speaking sometimes over the music, sometimes using
a look. And there is humour there, too. In the Scherzo he corrects
a rhythms and adds 'und zusammen, vielleicht' ('and together,
perhaps') with a most appealing smile. He is first among equals,
that much is clear.
Taking us through
this journey of Abbado's life is the actor Bruno Ganz, a friend
of Abbado's. Snippets of interviews abound, mainly from players
from the Berliner Philharmoniker and other orchestras associated
with Abbado - who, after all, are the ones that know -
but also with Daniel Harding, looking extremely undergraduate-ish.
Players featured include Albrecht Mayer (principal oboe, BPO)
Wolfram Christ (viola, Lucerne Festival Orchestra) and Kolya
Blacher (concertmaster, Lucerne).
Perhaps the most
memorable moments in the film, musically, come with black-and-white
footage of Abbado conducting Bruckner's Symphony No. 1 (yes,
the first one – well, sort of) with the Vienna Philharmonic
in 1958. It is electric, Abbado's small but expressive beat
galvanising the players to give their all. And to go with this
is a similarly black-and-white interview with Abbado in which
he tells of his earlier days, when himself and Zubin Mehta joined
the chorus to gain experience. Some Stravinsky – Symphony
of Psalms posing ensemble difficulties that Abbado patiently
works on. The conductor mentions his year with Bernstein before
coming to Vienna.
Other aspects of
Abbado's work are of course highlighted. His work with young
people, explicitly in the guise of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra,
is well known and here he is, rehearsing Mahler's Ninth, evidently
relaxed and enjoying the contact with youth.
It is Kolya Blacher
who talks about the transition from silence to sound as a place
in its own right, and one that takes on special significance
with Abbado. Of course there is also post-performance silence,
a phenomenon explicitly demonstrated on the DVD by footage of
a Brahms German Requiem. Maybe he learned all that from
the Master, Bernstein ... but it is there, wherever it
Amongst the other
excerpts we are privileged to be exposed to are a simply superb
Elektra and part of Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra.
Also notably present are Beethoven’s Ninth (BPO, May 2000) and
part of the now-famous and excellent Lucerne La mer.
Towards the end
of the film we hear a radio announcement of Abbado's decision
to leave Berlin; players from his orchestra speak of their shock.
By this time Abbado clearly had a strong relationship with the
We are lucky to
be able to enjoy such an in-depth portrait of Abbado. There
is no great 'dwelling' on his illness, more a celebration of
what he is and has been. Personally I cannot bring myself to
refer to him as a 'great' conductor, but he is clearly an important
one and one that, perhaps, sits on the fringes of greatness;
which is more than most conductors can claim these days.