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Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado - The Last Concert
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61 (excerpts)
(Overture 1826: Incidental music, Op. 61 1842/43) [40.11]
Deborah York (soprano)
Stella Doufexis (mezzo)
Damen des Chors des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique (1830, revised 1831/32), Op. 14 [55.46]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado
rec. live 18-19, 21 May 2013, Philharmonie, Berlin
Set includes 2 CDs; 1 Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc
Full details at end of review
BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS BPHR 160081

This marks the second anniversary of Claudio Abbado’s death on 20 January 2014 aged eighty. The set - on CD and Blu-ray (audio and video) - captures Abbado’s final concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker‏ in May 2013. It was the end of a treasured partnership that bore plentiful and remarkable fruit.

Abbado first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker‏ in 1966, the start of a unique relationship that was to last nearly half a century. Succeeding Herbert von Karajan into the biggest job in the world of classical music Abbado was elected by the members of the orchestra as chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker‏ serving from 1990 to 2002. He became only the fifth chief conductor in the orchestra’s history. Following his resignation from that post Abbado would return to the orchestra as a guest. The relationship between orchestra and Abbado remained cordial and these appearances as guest were clearly events to savour.

In May 2013 there was a series of three concerts at the Philharmonie which turned out to be Abbado’s last with the Berliner Philharmoniker. They were described as a “triumph” by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Abbado’s programme comprised two key works from composers both close contemporaries: Felix Mendelssohn’s enchanting A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hector Berlioz’s progressive Symphonie fantastique.

Inspired by Schlegel’s translation of Shakespeare’s original play Mendelssohn was only seventeen when he wrote his overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Some sixteen years later in 1842-43 owing to a commission from Frederick William IV of Prussia, Mendelssohn returned to the text, writing incidental music for a stage production. The score was complete with two women soloists and women’s chorus and incorporated the overture into the score. Sadly today Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is rarely performed in its entirety. In 1995 during his tenure as chief conductor Abbado and the orchestra recorded some fifty minutes of excerpts from the incidental music and coupled these with the Symphony No. 4 ‘Italian’ for Sony Classical. This live May 2013 concert performance contains forty minutes of excerpts including the overture but without any passages requiring narration. Right from the opening measures of the youthful overture one feels the uplifting and glowing magical atmosphere of an enchanting fairyland. Sticking in the memory are the outstanding violins in the Overture, the horn playing in the Notturno and the trumpets in the Wedding March. Performed in English Ye spotted snakes is sung by soprano Deborah York and mezzo Stella Doufexis as the first and second fairies. They are joined by the fresh and sparkling twenty-strong women’s chorus — a wealth of charm.

In 1830 the twenty-six year old Hector Berlioz’s wrote his epic Symphonie fantastique subtitled An Episode in the Life of an Artist. This is a richly scored work for large orchestra and ground-breaking in its day. His best known work, Berlioz wrote his own programme note for the five movement score. This follows the self-destruction of an artist over his infatuation with a beautiful woman. In reality this is a musical self-portrait and the object of Berlioz’s own self-destructive passion was the Irish actress Harriet Smithson his muse whom he was later to marry. Abbado recorded some Berlioz but I know of very little with the Berliner Philharmoniker. He released a recording of Symphonie fantastique but that was with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1983 a fine performance which has been criticised in some quarters for the balance of its recorded sound. Having attended live performances of Symphonie fantastique three times in the last year and less than a week ago by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra I did wonder if this new Abbado account from 2013 would be one performance too many. Thankfully there is nothing to fear as it soon becomes evident that Abbado and his players revel in this early romantic showpiece; enjoying every second. Immediately noticeable in this splendidly moulded performance is the composure and technical precision of the players. Striking are the vivid orchestral textures, astutely chosen tempi and dynamic contrasts which are ideally emphasised and provide plenty of dramatic bite. The graceful lilt the violins give to charming waltz themes in Un bal is memorable as is the simply stunning cor anglais in Scène aux champs, the magnificent brass especially the contribution from the glowing trumpets and also the precision of the bassoons in March to the Scaffold. With a performance as excellent as this the Symphonie fantastique didn’t feel as overlong as it can often do in the wrong hands.

Described as a ‘hardcover luxury edition’ this box bound in red linen is certainly carefully designed, high-end merchandise. Containing some 96 minutes of music the concert is presented on CD and Blu-ray:
a) 2 Audio CDs in 2.0 LPCM Stereo, 24-bit/48 kHz and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio 24-bit/48 kHz.
b) A single Blu-ray disc in lossless studio master quality audio
i) Pure Audio in 2.0 LPCM Stereo 24-bit/48 kHz and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio 24-bit/48 kHz.
ii) High Definition video of the concert in 2.0 LPCM Stereo 24-bit/48 kHz and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio 24-bit/48 kHz.
The bonus video content includes a documentary:
‘Abbado in Berlin – The First Year’ - A 1991 film by Bob Eisenhardt, Susan Froemke and recollections of Abbado by Peter Gelb.
‘Members of the Berliner Philharmoniker remember Claudio Abbado’.
There is also a short promotional feature about the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall (which is the Berliner Philharmoniker’s video streaming service).
c) A personal download code for high resolution studio master audio files in 24-bit/48 kHz.
d) A 7-day voucher for the Digital Concert Hall.
e) The 56 page integral booklet in German and English contains helpful information
on each work and numerous Abbado photographs, many not seen before.
i) Essay ‘Unequal Brothers’ - Felix Mendelssohn and Hector Berlioz by Tobias Möller.
ii) Essay ‘The Democrat’ - Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker by Julia Spinola.
This is a substantial box with the dimensions 24.5 x 15.5 x 2.3cm box weighing 550g.

The accompanying booklet that forms part of the box is as comprehensive as one expects from this source. It contains two instructive and interesting essays: Unequal Brothers - Felix Mendelssohn and Hector Berlioz by Tobias Möller and The Democrat - Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker by Julia Spinola. A further article titled Biographic Notes by Oreste Bossini provides some useful information about Abbado’s career. With regard to the bonus video content the 1991 documentary film Abbado in Berlin – The First Year by Bob Eisenhardt, Susan Froemke and Peter Gelb, lasting almost an hour, is a real eye-opener. I certainly hadn’t given too much thought to the political situation in Berlin when Abbado arrived around the time the Berlin Wall had been taken down. Without giving too much away, the thoughts of some of the orchestral players in regard to the departure of Herbert von Karajan are worth hearing too. Oh, and there’s a rare glimpse into Karajan’s personal suite at the Philharmonie. There are other interesting episodes such as Abbado’s seemingly casual attitude about signing a contract with the orchestra, the Sabine Meyer affair is touched upon and the nerve-jangling footage of teenage pianist Siiri Schütz making her debut with the orchestra in 1991 leaves one wondering about the efficacy of exposing immature performers on the concert platform at such young ages. A shorter documentary titled Members of the Berliner Philharmoniker Remember Claudio Abbado allows several players to relate their own personal reminiscences of working with Abbado. It is touching to watch Abbado on film stating his ideal relationship with the orchestra “The important thing is to love the music and ignore the politics. All the petty things that go on don’t interest me. I want to achieve my aims in life through music. That’s the most important thing.”

Put together over three performances at Philharmonie, Berlin the video of the Abbado concert has been well filmed and recorded. No worries at all with the sound quality which is as good as I have heard, vividly clear with a fine presence and excellent balance. Daniel Finkernagel and Alexander Lück are the video directors whose work is generally admirable too. Minor grumbles are that the women’s choir of Bayerischen Rundfunks are virtually ignored on screen and some key episodes of orchestral playing were missed, for example the trumpets in the March to the Scaffold.

Recordings of excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Symphonie fantastique are numerous, however, these magnificent Abbado accounts are a match for any in the catalogue. During this recording the affection and respect that the Berliner Philharmoniker holds for Claudio Abbado is palpable. The stunning performances come across as quite special, near magical, music making.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)

Contents
CD 1
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (excerpts)
(Overture, Op. 21 1826: Incidental music, Op. 61 1842/43) [40.11]
Deborah York (soprano)
Stella Doufexis (mezzo)
Damen des Chors des Bayerischen Rundfunks
CD 2
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique
(1830, revised 1831/32) [55.46]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado
rec. live 18-19, 21 May 2013, Philharmonie, Berlin
i) 2.0 LPCM Stereo, 24-bit/48 kHz
ii) 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio 24-bit/48 kHz
1 Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc
All recordings in lossless studio master quality as well as High Definition video
i) 2.0 LPCM Stereo, 24-bit/48 kHz
ii) 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio 24-bit/48 kHz
Running time: 96 minutes
Video of full concert
Picture: Full HD 1080/60i - 16.9
Sound:
i) 2.0 LPCM Stereo, 24-bit/48 kHz
ii) 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio 24-bit/48 kHz
Running time: 107 mins
Bonus videos:
Video Direction: Daniel Finkernagel & Alexander Lück
i) Documentary: ‘Abbado in Berlin – The First Year’ - A film by Bob Eisenhardt, Susan Froemke and Peter Gelb [59.50]
ii) Members of the Berliner Philharmoniker Remember Claudio Abbado [15.36]
iii) Promotional feature: About Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall (which is the Berliner Philharmoniker’s video streaming service) [01.28]
Running time of bonus content: [76.54]
Region code: ABC (worldwide)
German/English/Japanese
Plus Download Code
For high resolution audio files of the entire album (24-bit/48 kHz)
Digital Concert Hall
7-Day Ticket for the Berliner Philharmoniker’s video streaming service


 

 




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