Abbado in Japan
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
A Night on a Bare Mountain (original version, 1867) [15:24]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
L’oiseau de feu – Suite (1919) [25:37]
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado
rec. live in Suntory Hall, Tokyo, October 14, 1994
NTSC 16:9 PCM Stereo Dolby Digital 5.1 Region 0
EUROARTS 2012478 DVD [97:00]

This is a great reminder of the rapport enjoyed by the Berliners and Claudio Abbado, who, as was his wont, conducts from memory. Caught in Japan’s Suntory Hall in front of a preternaturally silent audience, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is heard at its stunning best. Seeing as well as hearing the concert means one can fully appreciate Abbado’s superb baton technique, expressive yet always a model of clarity.

Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain is heard in the original version. It may come as a surprise to use the phrase “almost primal” in reference to a BPO performance, but it is absolutely right here. Hard-sticked timpani add to the effect; the brass section is lighter than one might expect in other hands, perhaps not in Abbado’s. This is a terrific performance, impeccably detailed and together; Abbado really gets the gestural aspect of the original. The BPO is on fire and Abbado certainly is all smiles at the end, and justifiably so. A July 1994 performance of this piece with the ECYO was released by Orfeo on Abbado’s death (see review).

Abbado left some of the finest recordings of Stravinsky available: one thinks of his series of early ballets with the LSO on DG from the 1970’s (Petrushka was in fairness recorded in 1980); his London-recorded Pulcinella and Jeu de cartes from that period also delight. Here he is with the Firebird Suite; finely sculpted throughout. The opening “Introduction” begins with a real pianissimo – one has to strain to hear, but it is all there – textures a beautiful but never thick. No surprise that there is virtuosity aplenty for the Firebird itself, not least from the woodwind. Ensemble is beyond criticism, so much so it is difficult to believe this was live. When we come to the “Infernal Dance,” it begins with a erfectly together first chord; everything is superbly done yet the excitement is all there. A special mention for the superb bassoon solo in the “Lullaby” before the BPO reveals its full majesty in the Finale, where the final pages blaze.

The opening to the Tchaikovsky is incredibly finely judged; there is tremendous energy and drama in the main body of the first movement. It is the detail that truly impresses though, from the fine judgement of tutti diminuendi through to the woodwind lines. There is a beautifully blended string bed leading into the second movement horn solo (violas are to the conductor’s right); the horn solo itself is impeccable, not least when the oboe enters and the two then duet: eloquence is the watchword here. Again, there is a sense of rightness to the music’s trajectory. Climaxes are moulded expertly, the aftermath receiving the same exquisite level of consideration as the preparation.

The sheer beauty and precision of the staccato all round in the third movement is highly impressive; yet also note how a sighing suspension against this allows for lyric contrast. The pacing of the Andante maestoso of the finale is perfectly judged, a sense of forward motion laced with dignity. Timpani crescendi seem to erupt from the ground itself; this is a deliberately unstable account. While hairpins are micromanaged, Abbado keeps the larger picture in mind at all times. The ovation is richly deserved.

In contrast to the standard of the music making itself., booklet notes are appalling. Nothing on BPO and Abbado at all, much less the context of this concert. Back cover blurb very clumsily translated, clearly. The track listing on the first page of the booklet, too, has a “Tempo I” highlighted in bold for no apparent reason. The emphasis of the cameras is understandably Abbado-focused and some might miss watching the odd soloist; a rather nice touch is a pan along the desk of the first violins in the Moderato assai e molto maestoso of the last minute of the Tchaikovsky.

Colin Clarke

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