Claudio Abbado: Hearing the Silence
Sketches for a portrait by Paul Smaczny
Narrator: Bruno Ganz
Sound: PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English, German, French, Italian and Spanish
EUROARTS DVD 2053279 [67:00]
The menu system for this DVD runs against an extract from the Largo of Dvorak's New World Symphony. The sound quality is noticeably poorer than the main film, which makes the inevitable repetition whilst one decides on subtitles and audio options even more irritating. I will keep on saying it - classical music DVDs should have no music at all on the menus!
The film itself opens with a quotation from a poem by Hölderlin. This probably works in German but I found it very hard to follow a lengthy and complex extract from the work of an 18th/19th century German Romantic poet via short subtitle-length translations. I doubt anything else can be done short of scrolling the entire quote up the screen slowly but it did start me off confused. A pity because, as becomes obvious later, this poem does contain a key to Abbado's outlook and we come back to it later.
The documentary is narrated mostly by the actor Bruno Ganz who knows the conductor well. He serves as an observer and considered commentator on a complicated man. As a non-musician Ganz provides the viewpoint that we, the viewers, need to grasp the Abbado phenomenon. Fascinating facts emerge, such as how Abbado and his student friend Zubin Mehta joined the Vienna Musikverein chorus as a means of getting in to watch normally closed rehearsals by some of the great conductors of the previous generation: Bruno Walter, Herbert von Karajan, Josef Krips and Herman Scherchen. Abbado himself talks of the art of conducting without really clearing away any of the mystique surrounding it. Daniel Harding talks about the working musician he knows as do members of the various great orchestras, Berlin, Vienna, Lucerne and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, with which Abbado is associated. Interestingly from a British point of view, I noted no reference to his time with the LSO with whom he made some top class recordings. He does discuss his departure from Berlin, a uniquely daring decision that shook the orchestra, and his formation and subsequent work with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The Lucerne are very much 'his' orchestra as was shown in the Proms 2009 and which London can experience again later in 2011.
The film is punctuated by extracts from concerts he has recorded with the above orchestras - including the Largo mentioned above - but more fascinating is the use of initially unidentified extracts from something extremely modern. It turns out to be Prometeo by Luigi Nono whose tough avante-garde music Abbado has always promoted. This alone takes one away from the Mahler and Beethoven and Dvorák with which he is mostly associated these days.
One emerges from these 'sketches for a portrait' awed by the grace and humility of the man but perhaps little wiser except for the reminder that this master of the great Germanic repertoire is in fact an Italian. He has a glorious home somewhere on the coast of Italy that will make you green with envy.
A fascinating documentary about one of world's great musicians.