Claudio Abbado made his Lucerne Festival debut in 1966 and thereafter was closely associated with the festival, especially towards the end of his life. Only recently I reviewed
a disc which included fine performances that he gave there in 1978 and 1988 now this disc documents not only his last appearance in Lucerne but, indeed, his final performances anywhere. In fact this is a performance which I’ve heard before – or very nearly so – because very shortly after Abbado’s death in January 2014 BBC Radio 3 broadcast the last concert that he gave at Lucerne, which included Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony and ended with a reading of Bruckner’s Ninth. This disc doesn’t offer quite the same thing for the Bruckner performance is edited from more than one performance, given between 21 and 26 August. However, it’s as close as we’re likely to come on a commercial CD to being Abbado’s last performance.
It’s important to remember that this wasn’t planned as his last concert: as is pointed out in the booklet, Abbado had future plans despite his failing health. I remember being both moved and impressed when I heard the radio broadcast of the Ninth but I was wary of making a judgement about the stature of the performance so soon after the passing of such an admired artist in case emotion got in the way of objectivity. Now, some months later I think it’s possible to make a properly balanced judgement.
Abbado establishes tension right at the outset of the first movement, the horns calling across wide vistas. Within a couple of minutes the richness of the orchestral tone has already become apparent and at 2:37 the first great tutti
has huge depth and sonority: the orchestra sounds imperious at this point. However, though the power of that moment impresses what made an even greater impression on me as the movement unfolded was the delicacy and finesse with which the many quiet passages are delivered. At about the seven minute mark I wrote in my notes the word ‘radiance’ and that’s a defining impression of this performance. The music flows very naturally and convincingly – one realises how much of it is lyrical in character – and the climaxes, when they come, grow organically: the climax just after 10:00 is a typical example. The quality of the playing is superlative and the control of dynamics, so crucial to a successful Bruckner performance, seems unerring. One sometimes reads in a review that climaxes are “thrust home”. That’s not the case here: the climaxes are grand and imposing but also inevitable. This is true, for instance, of the sonorous passage around 17:00 but note how feather light is the playing in the soft string passage that follows immediately after. From 24:21 Abbado and his hand-picked orchestra control superbly the terraced build-up to the movement’s majestic conclusion. Overall there’s a lyrical, even smiling quality to the performance of this movement. So often I’m impressed by a fine Bruckner performance; here I’m impressed but also I enjoyed
I think it’s absolutely essential to hit the “pause” button at this point to allow yourself a gap during which the first movement can settle in your mind. In the scherzo that follows we find that an excellent contrast is presented between the delicacy of the material in the opening pages and the weight and power of the ‘stamping’ passage for full orchestra. The tuttis
blaze but, once again, it’s the sheer refinement of the playing that registers above all. That’s especially true of the trio, which is delivered with a Mendelssohnian grace and lightness; hereabouts there’s some excellent woodwind paying to savour.
There is only one word to describe properly the performance of the great Adagio
: magnificent. This is emphatically not an elegiac performance; rather, it’s noble in character. Abbado shapes Bruckner’s long paragraphs with complete understanding and always there’s a wonderful sense of line. The playing is simply peerless: the strings are rich and deep in tone while the brass sound is burnished and, where required, effortlessly powerful. From 19:05 the ascent to the final climax is invested with great majesty and the climax itself is momentous. Ushered in beautifully by the flute, the final pages (from 23:23) have a very natural and satisfying dignity: if one had to write finis
to a highly distinguished conducting career it would be hard to think of a more fitting way to do so. Mercifully, the spell is not broken by applause but I’m sure there was a great ovation after these performances and, indeed, two booklet photos show a smiling Abbado acknowledging the applause with his players.
In fact, the booklet contains four pictures of the conductor and three of them, including the cover picture, show him smiling: this is not a mourning release. That said, the picture that resonates most strongly with me is inside the jewel case where the CD itself rests. This shows the players milling around on the platform after the performance – or perhaps after a dress rehearsal – and on the left Abbado can be seen striding off the platform alone and without fuss or fanfare. That, I think, rather sums up the essential dignity and humility of the man.
I don’t think this recording needs any special pleading simply because it happens to document Claudio Abbado’s last symphonic performances. It stands on its own merits as a very fine performance indeed of the Bruckner Ninth. Abbado’s conducting is magnificent and the playing of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is fully worthy of his interpretation; indeed, it enhances the interpretation. That orchestra was hand-picked by Abbado and now that he is no longer there to lead it and to attract such high quality players it is to be hoped that it will continue at this illustrious level.
The recorded sound is excellent, capturing and conveying the wonderful sound of the orchestra very well indeed. The documentation is satisfactory.
There are a good number of top quality recordings of Bruckner’s last symphony in the catalogue. I think we can set sentiment aside and say that, judged solely on its musical merits, Claudio Abbado’s final recording deserves to be ranked among the elite versions.
Masterwork Index: Bruckner