Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker – The
Last Concert Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Ein Sommernachtstraum, Op 61 Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Symphonie fantastique, Op 14
Deborah York (soprano), Stella Doufexis (mezzo)
Damen des Chors des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado
rec. live, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany: 18, 19 & 21 May, 2013
2 CDs + 1 Pure Audio Blu-Ray Disc. HD Video Blu-Ray Disc
Full content details at the end of this review. BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS BPHR160081 [2 CDs: 107:00 + 1 Blu-ray: 75:00]
Since his death in January 2014 several discs have been issued in tribute to the great Italian conductor, Claudio Abbado. Hitherto arguably the most notable was the recording of the principal work in his very last concert, a magnificent, searching account of Bruckner’s Ninth in which he conducted the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (review). That Bruckner performance took place in August 2013. Some three months earlier Abbado had conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for what turned out to be the last time in a programme of music by Mendelssohn and Berlioz. The orchestra has now issued a recording, edited from the three concerts.
As is usual with the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own label the presentation is lavish. Each work is offered on a single CD and in addition the whole concert is included on a Blu-Ray disc which can be used either to view the concert or to listen to it in BD-A sound. Purchasers of the set also have the opportunity to download the performance in high resolution audio files. The discs are encased in the label’s usual linen-backed case into which is bound the booklet which contains essays about the music and the conductor and which is illustrated by a large number of photographs of Claudio Abbado.
Abbado served at the fifth Chief Conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker from 1990 to 2002. He was elected by the members of the orchestra in 1989 to succeed Herbert von Karajan; he was the first conductor that the orchestra had appointed in this way. At the beginning of the accompanying documentary that chronicles his first year with the orchestra he is described as the “dark horse” candidate and so, perhaps, he was if only in the sense that he offered such a contrast to his predecessor. Abbado’s style was collegiate, his views were left-leaning and he was a committed if selective advocate of new music. He brought a significant amount of change to the orchestra and the way it worked – and to its sound. And though, like any chief conductor, he had his critics his tenure was a significant success. Without the changes that he fostered I wonder if the orchestra would have felt ready to elect Sir Simon Rattle as his successor. He returned to the Berliner Philharmoniker as an honoured guest many times between 2002 and 2013 – one of the photographs is a charming picture of Abbado and Rattle greeting each other with warm smiles in 2002.
When these Berlin concerts took place Abbado was a few weeks away from his eightieth birthday. His last years had been clouded by a battle against cancer but even though his face is somewhat drawn he looks absolutely dapper. His gestures are economical but his direction of the music is spirited and frequently you can see signs of his enjoyment of the music.
Neither work is new to his discography. He recorded Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Berliner Philharmoniker in the late 1990s. That was a Sony Classical disc containing 11 numbers. Here he offers seven numbers: the Overture; Scherzo; ‘You spotted snakes’; Intermezzo; Nocturne; Wedding March; and Finale. With the Chicago Symphony he made a recording of the Berlioz symphony for DG but according to the documentation accompanying this set he had never programmed it with the Berliner Philharmoniker prior to this concert.
Abbado was a noted Mendelssohn conductor and his DG cycle of the symphonies with the LSO has always been highly regarded. (Click here for details of the CDs and download option.) This present performance is very fine indeed, starting with those magical woodwind chords at the start of the Overture; these are perfectly voiced and balanced by the Berliner Philharmoniker’s princely woodwind section, not forgetting the horns. Then the deft strings shimmer with elfin delicacy. This is an entirely winning performance of the Overture. Abbado himself is relaxed yet supremely attentive in his shaping of the music and in his attention to detail. I’ve long thought that this overture is one of the most perfectly fashioned pieces of music that I know and I absolutely loved this account of it.
The items that follow are delivered to the same exalted standard. The woodwind sparkle in the merry dance that is the Scherzo and, as it should, the music seems to vanish into thin air at the end. The two soloists and the ladies of the Bavarian Radio Choir – some 20 of them are on duty here – offer delectable singing in ‘You spotted snakes’. The closing section of the Intermezzo is, in effect, a rustic dance and Abbado is visibly delighted at the way the orchestra delivers it. The Nocturne features a distinguished, warm-toned horn solo. At the very end of this number there’s not absolute unanimity in the voicing of the final chord. It’s a tiny blemish – and the only one that I noticed throughout the concert – but it reminds us that the Berliner Philharmoniker is indeed comprised of “mere” mortals. After a joyful rendition of the celebrated Wedding March the Finale features the singers once again. The words are not enunciated with great clarity by the choir but they make a lovely sound while Deborah York’s singing is once again engaging. The orchestral contribution to this number is enchanting but, in truth, that word could fairly be used for the entire performance which seems to me to be an entirely happy musical occasion.
The second half of the concert brings us to Berlioz for which a much larger orchestra is required. I admired Abbado’s meticulous shaping of the hesitant opening of the first movement. The Allegro agitato surges excitingly. It’s invidious to single out contributions when the whole orchestra is on top form but the sound of the Berlin strings is simply wonderful The Waltz is graceful and elegant, the four harps rippling beautifully. Abbado doesn’t use the optional cornet part; I don’t regret that.
Much of the music in ‘Scène aux champs’ is terribly exposed and a successful performance has to balance precision and poetry perfectly; that’s just what happens here. Abbado demonstrates his mastery in conducting that is akin to a painter subtly touching in a canvass; this is true tone painting. I was gripped throughout. Towards the end the four timpanists provide the rumbles of distant thunder most effectively. All the playing is highly distinguished but special mention must be made of the cor anglais player, Dominik Wollenweber. I’m sure it’s to him that Abbado directs a smile of appreciation at the end of the movement.
The ‘Marche au supplice’ is suitably menacing and full of foreboding. Abbado keeps everything under tight control yet the results are still exciting. At the start of ‘Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat’ there’s a wonderfully spooky atmosphere. When the tolling bell is heard I’m not quite sure how the effect is achieved – Abbado looks upwards to the back of the hall behind the orchestra – but the bell sounds echo round in a very atmospheric fashion. As Berlioz moves into a higher gear the playing evinces a good deal of demonic energy and even if the performance isn’t as abandoned as a conductor like Munch might make it the results are still very exciting. The composer’s fevered imagination is well to the fore here and the symphony is driven to a thrilling conclusion. At the end Abbado is visibly out of breath.
There follows a huge standing ovation and it’s very pleasing to see the veteran conductor greeted with such affection and respect on what was to be his last Berlin appearance – though no one knew that at the time. He had done a great deal for this orchestra and for that, as much as for the splendid concert he’d just conducted, he deserved the acclamation. It’s noticeable that at one point the orchestra steadfastly refuse to stand to share in the applause, leaving their conductor to take the limelight. Abbado is clearly moved by the reception. This was not planned as his Berlin swansong but he certainly ended his long association with the Berliner Philharmoniker with a concert of high distinction.
The visual element of this package includes two films. In one members of the orchestra offer recollections of Abbado which show clearly the respect in which he was held both as a musician and as a man. The other is a 1991 documentary film which chronicles his first year as Chief Conductor. Actually, we only seem to get part of the film. When the film gets to October 1990 and the collapse of the GDR government we see the caption “End of Part 1” but there’s no more. That’s a pity but the material that is included is very interesting. A key message that comes out is the great change between the Karajan era and the new world that was ushered in with Abbado’s appointment. He and the orchestra had work to do in order to put behind them the unpleasantness that had clouded the end of Karajan’s regime but this was accomplished. Abbado emerges as a very modest man of quiet charm. One sequence shows this first rehearsal. They’re working on Mahler’s First and towards the end of the finale the horns stand to play their fanfare. There’s a look of amusement and surprise on the conductor’s face that is a treat to behold. He stops the rehearsal and with wit and courtesy asks the horns to pay the passage seated. I also like the sections in which we see him working with thoroughness yet in an encouraging and friendly way with a teenage East German pianist, Siiri Schütz on a Mozart piano concerto which she then plays with him and the orchestra in the Philharmonie. What an experience at the start of her career.
All aspects of this release, as well as the performances themselves, are handsome, as is always the way with this label. The written documentation is both excellent and comprehensive. The picture quality on the concert film is crystal clear while the camera work is clearly the work of experts in this field. As for the sound, I got very good results playing the Blu-Ray video through my television. The CD sound is impressive but the BD-A format is finer still. With the BD-A you get even more presence and impact in the sound of the instruments and also an excellent sense of the hall ambience around the orchestra. I listened to the BD-A and viewed the video using the 2.0 PCM Stereo option.
At one point in the 1991 documentary we see Abbado’s first press conference in Berlin. Answering a question, he comments that he’s never liked the term “great conductor”. That’s as may be and I understand and respect what he says but the truth is that Claudio Abbado was a great conductor, certainly one of the very finest of the post-Second World War era and this handsome tribute from the Berliner Philharmoniker proves the point.
Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker – The Last Concert CD 1 [40:11] Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)Ein Sommernachtstraum, Op 61
Deborah York (soprano), Stella Doufexis (mezzo)
Damen des Chors des Bayerischen Rundfunks CD 2 [55.46] Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)Symphonie fantastique, Op 14
Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado
rec. live, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany: 18-19, 21 May 2013 Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc
Stereo: [2.0 PCM Stereo 24-bit/48 kHz]
Surround Sound: [5.0 DTS-HD MA 24-bit/48 kHz] HD Video Blu-ray Disc
Live Concert Videos in High Definition
Picture: Full HD 1080/60i - 16.9 (4:3 for ‘Claudio Abbado in Berlin’ documentary)
Stereo sound: [2.0 PCM Stereo 16-bit/48 kHz]
Surround sound: [5.0 DTS-HD Master Audio 24 bit/48 kHz]
Region Code: ABC (worldwide)
Running time: 107:00
Subtitles in English and German (Mendelssohn) Bonus Videos
‘Claudio Abbado in Berlin – The First Year’ (1991)
‘Members of the Berliner Philharmoniker’ Remember Claudio Abbado’
‘The Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall’
Subtitles in English, German & Japanese
Running time: 75:00 BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS BPHR 160081 [2 CDs + 1 Pure Audio Blu-Ray Disc/ Video Blu-Ray Disc]