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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Overture The Creatures of Prometheus [5:39]
Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874-1951)
A Survivor from Warsaw op.46 [7:02]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird – Suite no.2 [22:07]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet – Suite no.1 – The Death of Tybalt [5:11]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Night on the Bare Mountain (original version) [13:22]
Maximilian Schell (speaker)
Vienna Youth Choir
European Community Youth Orchestra, Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (Mussorgsky)/Claudio Abbado
rec. Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, 13 August 1979 (Beethoven, Schönberg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev), 29 July 1994 (Mussorgsky)
ORFEO C892141B [53:41]

This issue has no doubt been prompted, or at least been given greater significance, by the death of Claudio Abbado earlier this year. It comes as a timely reminder of the wonderful work he did with these two fine youth orchestras. He was the very first conductor of the European Community Youth Orchestra — as it was then known — founded in 1976. Ten years after that, he himself founded the Vienna-based Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester.

Most of this CD, then, consists of music from a concert by the ECYO at the Salzburg Festival in 1979, the final track being from the same festival and venue, some twenty-five years later. From a purely musical point of view, that final track, with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, is for me the most interesting, as it contains the still comparatively rare original version of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain, which Abbado had recorded with the LSO a couple of years previously. It’s a wild, chaotic piece, but full of extraordinary music – and is a completely different composition from the Rimsky-Korsakov version we are more used to hearing. The young players get stuck in with relish, and if the ensemble is often far from perfect, that doesn’t matter too much – indeed, in this savage music, it almost enhances the impact.

The earlier part of the CD begins with a lively performance of Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture, with beautifully turned woodwind solos. Then Schönberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, with the celebrated actor Maximilian Schell providing the narration. It’s a difficult piece to bring off; the speaker must co-ordinate closely with the music without seeming bound by it — this being the one and only thing Survivor has in common with Peter and the Wolf. To describe Schell’s performance as ‘melodramatic’ is unfair, because this composition is exactly that – a melodrama. It’s a word that came into general use in the nineteenth century, meaning simply melody+drama, without the disparaging sense that it has now gained. Schell is, for my taste, over the top, which doesn’t do this undeniably powerful work any favours. However, the orchestral playing is excellent, as is the full-throated contribution of the Vienna Youth Choir at the climax.

The performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite no.2 of 1919 is, again, superbly played by the young orchestra, but is, I’m afraid, marred by two things: a recorded balance which renders the opening nearly 45 seconds functionally inaudible, plus a number of audience members who consistently choose the quietest moments to cough fortissimo. That’s especially distressing in moments like the ineffable coda to the second movement, ‘Ronde des princesses’, but also affects the ‘Berceuse’, with its exquisitely phrased bassoon solo, and the tremolando transition to the finale. Strange, as this concert was recorded in August. Perhaps it was cold in Salzburg that Summer.

The Death of Tybalt from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet has a breathless sense of excitement, but also suffers from some very shaky ensemble – it feels like an encore that may not have had quite enough rehearsal. I found it interesting, though, to hear Abbado’s remarkably slow tempo for the final stages of this piece, the section that follows those fifteen massive staccato chords. Checking with the score, I see it’s marked Adagio drammatico, with a very slow metronome mark of crotchet = 48; in other words, 48 to the minute. It’s so rarely taken at this speed and the pay-off is felt in enormous dramatic weight and power.
My reservations make it clear, I hope, that this is a somewhat specialised issue; but admirers of this wonderful conductor — of which I am definitely one — will want to hear this, and will find much to enjoy.
Gwyn Parry-Jones

Masterwork Index: The Firebird