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Claudio Abbado - The Last Concert
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream [40.11]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique (1830, revised 1831/32), Op. 14 [55.46]
Deborah York (soprano), Stella Doufexis (mezzo), Damen des Chors des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Berliner Philharmoniker / Claudio Abbado
rec. live 18-19, 21 May 2013, Philharmonie, Berlin
Book includes English sung texts and German translation.

Here’s a selective reissue of the package Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings issued in 2016 of Claudio Abbado’s final concert with the Berlin Phil. Then it comprised two CDs, one Blu-Ray disc and a lavish book. This time there are two hybrid SACDs and a smaller format book, but one that still includes the same essays on the music, Abbado and the Berlin Phil and photographs from 1985 to 2013. It makes an attractive commemorative package for around 50% of the original issue price. You don’t get the video but click the link to see if you’d mind. I’m torn between not wanting to be distracted by a clearly ailing maestro yet being fascinated by seeing his ability nevertheless to work chemistry with an orchestra he loved. With just audio you can concentrate on the delivery of the music. In his review of the original issue my colleague John Quinn found the sound of the Blu-Ray audio better than the CD, but still considers the latter “impressive”. Given that this reissue is now in SACD, played as SACD the difference in sound quality should now be minimal. I should, however, point out that the Blu-Ray not available in this reissue also contains two documentary videos, one of Berlin Phil players talking about the Abbado years, the other, albeit incomplete, on Abbado’s first year with them as chief conductor.

The Overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream Mendelssohn wrote simply as a reflection of the elements of Shakespeare’s play. Its opening four chords immediately fix our attention and take us into the fairy world. Abbado gives them poised treatment, a combination of warmth and mystery. Next, the soft, animated violins’ staccato brings us close up to the fairies themselves after which their verve fills out the sketch with the added underlying pizzicato of the violas (tr. 1, 0:39). This is like observing a rustling and then becoming aware of a force of energy beneath it. But the fairies are only one of three worlds in this play. Abbado knocks us back with the full orchestra entering as the court in full pomp with a second theme (1:13) with in its wake sweeping orchestral descending phrases, in Abbado’s hands like servants entering with masses of paraphernalia. A third theme from a pair of clarinets (2:06) introduces the court’s lovers. Elaborated by the violins it allows Abbado to add elements not heard before: tenderness, consideration, humility and a burning ardour mostly kept under check. There’s no control about the fourth theme (3:17) which introduces the third world with the stomping entry of the “rude mechanicals” turned amateur actors and the braying and discordant leaps down a ninth from first violins’ high D illustrating Bottom the weaver’s hee-haws when turned into an ass. Abbado shows this is both splendid in its own assertiveness and ridiculous, but so then are all the fanfares, which are the court’s response. The fairy world, as it returns, is more fascinating with its brass and woodwind calls, its more tripping descending scale pizzicato. These illustrate Puck pretending to be the lovers to confuse them as they chase each other. Lamenting first violins from Abbado give us an eloquent and rather individually-felt picture of them sinking down exhausted. In the development the lovers’ music returns as an achingly high-pitched woodwind chorale amid the fairies’ rustling and you recall the lovers asleep in the wood, not quite in harmony after the mistakes of Puck with his magic flower juice. But the strings’ relaxed and relaxing response makes it clear that all will soon be well and even Bottom’s braying has taken on a less shocking normality. The court flourishes, but what seems to be an ending proves only a return to the fairy world beginning, in which the second theme of the court is transformed into the tenderness and empathy of the third theme of the lovers, whereupon the four chords of the opening return to identify themselves as the working of magic.

I compared the 2016 live recording by the London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Eliot Gardiner (LSO Live LSO 0795). His opening chords have a softer, more pristine quality while his fairies are less present than Abbado’s and thereby more mysterious. His court has a more business-like vigour, taking less pride in its activity than Abbado’s. Gardiner’s lovers are more blithe, gentle and carefree yet they are less expressive than Abbado’s and therefore less appealing. Gardiner’s Bottom’s hee-haws are more deliberate, as if even when flummoxed he must still be concerned with display. Later Gardiner secures more dynamic contrast between the feathery rustling of the fairies and Puck’s loud brass calls. In the lovers’ sinking down Gardiner shows their tiredness with a touch of desolation, but not the weariness that Abbado conveys. His return of the lovers’ theme is less aching but Bottom’s braying remains discordant. His court sweeps by in peremptory fashion: it’s business as usual but, emphasising the contrast, the transformation of its theme is spaciously treated, though I prefer Abbado’s greater warmth and flow.

The selection from Mendelssohn’s later incidental music on this CD begins with the Scherzo which introduces the first appearance of the fairies in the play. Mendelssohn brought to it the same animated rustling strings of the Overture but now with the added brightness of woodwind. Abbado’s approach is perky with delightful, mercurial woodwind, yet with energy ever present and thereby a hint of the demonic, especially in the sequences of gradual building up of power. The second theme’s parade of semiquavers in the strings (tr. 2, 0:51) is jocular, then glides deftly back to the opening. Sforzandi are distinctive: Abbado’s fairies are a head-on presence. I like the way Abbado has the second theme changing character: more purposeful the second time, richer and then edgier the third time. Gardiner’s Allegro vivace is swifter, timing at 4:17 to Abbado’s 4:47. His fairies are brighter, friskier, the sforzandi played more cheekily so there’s more sense of mischief. Dynamic contrasts are more marked, especially the quiet and very quiet passages, so you sense shadowy beings. But Gardiner brings less contrast to the returning second theme.

You spotted snakes is the fairies’ song to lull their queen Titania to sleep. Titania requests the song at the pause in the orchestral introduction (tr. 3, 0:09), then, over the soft flutes from 0:11 to 0:19 assigns tasks after the fairies have sung her to sleep. Titania does speak in the Gardiner recording but not the Abbado. In this Deborah York is a touch matronly First Fairy but only doing her job in banishing those snakes and she also conveys some enjoyment in it. Stella Doufexis’ Second Fairy, whose target is spiders, is haughty without a smile but deputies tend to be less assured. York has the advantage of descant passages, lots of F sharps and the occasional top A, which she does beautifully. She does, however, make one slip, or perhaps wanted variety, in echoing Doufexis’ ‘Hence away!’ at 2:40 with ‘Go away!’ The ladies from the Bavarian Radio Chorus are all comfort and contribute with the fairy soloists in a stream of comely ‘Goodnight’s which seem themselves a spell. Gardiner’s fairies are soloists from the Monteverdi Choir. His overall manner is lightweight and diaphanous but less emotionally engaged than Abbado, who gets more glowing warmth from the chorus. Gardiner may well argue that the fairies shouldn’t be regarded as human, but Mendelssohn here writes very human music for them.

The Intermezzo shows Hermia in distress searching for Lysander in the wood, achieved by the insistently restless interchange of oboes doubled by first violins and flutes doubled by clarinets, over now malevolently rustling tremolando other strings. A rising motif in the same orchestral pairings from tr. 4, 0:44 has vestiges of hope, later expanded by the cellos doubled by bassoons, but the despairing mood can’t be remedied, only obliterated as A minor changes to A major and a pair of bassoons signals the carefree, increasingly cocky arrival of the bumptious amateur theatricals. Gardiner takes the A minor section faster, 2:19 against Abbado’s 3:00, conveying more of the first element of its Allegro appassionato marking, but he gives us a breathless Hermia where Abbado’s greater emotive colouring shows us more inner turmoil. Gardiner’s theatricals have a comely ruddiness, not really puffed up like Abbado’s. Only in Gardiner’s recording does a 24 second monologue by Hermia over a cellos’ high E, beginning ‘Never so weary, never so in woe’, separate the A minor and major material.

The Nocturne comes when all is well after Puck has reanointed Lysander’s eyes with the magic flower juice and he’ll love Hermia again. Is there a lovelier orchestral Nocturne, especially with the gorgeous glowing tone of the Berlin Phil horns? And Abbado makes it an exemplary Andante tranquillo, becalmed yet at the same time with a burnished progression. The central section gets up a bit of a storm but you know that’s only going to reinforce the unassailable following calm. Gardiner’s account does have softer horns at the opening as Mendelssohn marked and more dynamic contrast in presentation, but his horns aren’t as dolce, nor as smooth. His timing of 6:11 against Abbado’s 5:46 makes for a less well-oiled sense of progression and a less tense central section.

The Wedding March is then for all three pairs of court lovers. Back comes the confident and beaming court music of the Overture, now rather a medley of fanfares with cymbals Mendelssohn added as an afterthought. Abbado makes it all well-rounded, though for me the violins’ dotted rhythm in the first contrasting, which is to say less brazen, section (tr. 6, 1:24) is a little tense. The second such section (2:18) when the first violins, cellos and sometimes first oboe have the melody is smoother. Gardiner is less monumental but his timpani are more prominent and he brings in the cymbals, which Mendelssohn doesn’t, from the outset. His account is more varied, with a more lithe, darting first contrasting section and more lilt, light and shade and grace in the second. But in his incidental music rather than the concert version Abbado presents you lose the grand coda, with trilling woodwind and then strings, as the march recedes to be replaced by the Overture’s fairy rustling and Oberon’s speech beginning “Now the hungry lion roars”.

The finale, Through the house give glim’ring light, is only the second Shakespeare text Mendelssohn set to music here and this fairy chorus repeats the words said by Oberon and Titania over the four chords from the Overture which also begin the finale. There’s another Oberon speech over material from the end of the Overture from 2:39 in the Abbado recording until 3:35, when the chorus repeats Oberon’s final command and then, over those four chords’ closing appearance from 3:48, Puck’s epilogue. As earlier, these speeches are in the Gardiner recording but not the Abbado. The chorus itself sings most of the time over the rustling strings which identified the fairies in the Overture. Oberon commands them to ‘Sing and dance it trippingly’ and the chorus is marked ‘With dance’. Here the less substantial character of Gardiner’s chorus is more effective than Abbado’s and for him Deborah York’s solos seem to me a touch too tinged with valediction. But you might see this as a fitting departure from fairyland – and for Abbado.

CD2 brings Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The two key features to its opening movement (tr. 1) are well summarized in its title ‘Daydreams – Passions’, that is the artist’s musing on the nature of ideal beauty in the form of his beloved and the violent states of mind that this engenders. Abbado’s musing in the introduction is both expansive and intensely emotional and not just from the first violins: your attention is drawn to the chromatic underpinning of the cellos then the second violins from 0:47. The later cellos and double basses’ contributions have a threatening, baleful presence. The musing takes on a more heavenly fantasy with some golden first and then third horn solos backed by very soft, muted first violins’ tracery just before the lead-in to the main body of the movement and the idée fixe, the theme recurring through the work that embodies the beloved (5:24). Here Abbado’s beloved is both lithe and resilient: you appreciate her grace but are wary of her toughness. She sets Abbado on fire with volatile dynamic contrasts. Abbado’s development is purposeful and grim as the strings’ scales headily dash up and down, with wind cries at the apexes of this progress. But how should the late espressivo first oboe solo sound? This one (12:05) is rich, regal, yet with both gravity and urgency while its hint of alarm is then expanded by the other woodwind and strings, the launching pad for an electrifyingly fiery beloved in the tutti climax. After this the coda is compassionately smooth, an exhausted longing for repose which is Abbado’s un-mawkish take on Berlioz’s marking religiosamente.

I compared the 2010 live recording by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Riccardo Muti (CSO Resound CSOR9011501). Muti’s introduction is soft, dreamy and tenderly appreciated with an emphasis on meditation: you feel the pauses between the statements are as important as the statements themselves. The overall effect is of warmth of appreciation, heart quickening excitement rather than distress. Muti balances well the violins, potentially disruptive lower strings and sweetly wandering first flute and clarinets. Muti offers serious observation rather than Abbado’s angst. Muti’s beloved is more suave and sophisticated, curvaceous and coy than Abbado’s, but the artist’s instantaneous reaction in the strings other than first violins comes with more edge from Abbado. Muti’s development is clean cut: the wind cries less alarming than Abbado’s. The oboe solo is a melodious soul. You might picture a carefree, innocent girl skipping along but swallowed up by the beloved’s return and the artist’s determined ecstasy. The emphasis of Muti’s coda is on the tranquillity of absence of sensation, religious in the sense of purgation.

In Abbado’s account you feel there has been little repose as the introduction to the second movement Ball (tr. 2) is from him a swirl of movement and colour. His waltz is wirily expressive, with a touch of edge, partly owing to Abbado’s emphatic marking of the strings’ sforzandi as they trip down in semiquavers and then the accents of the flute and clarinets above them, but it grows lighter in mood and more comfortable. You note how, as marked, unlike in its first appearance there’s no self-conscious wisp of rallentando at the apex of the theme second time around (compare 0:51 and 1:53). The mood is somewhat disturbed again at the entrance of the idée fixe, very comely on flute and clarinet but also proudly displaying its curves. The outline of the music is idyllic but Abbado gives us a shadow lurking in this comfort zone. The waltz returns with more density as the second violins are now supported by violas and first cellos while the first violins offer twirls of decoration, though at ppp not always easy to make out. The waltz is at its most blithe when taken up by woodwind, after which the dance gets carried away by its own momentum, well almost, until the beloved returns with a voluptuous clarinet solo here. Even this, however, is set aside by Abbado’s glorious close with a now supercharged dance. He creates something very wild about the combination of rising violas and cellos against falling clarinets and horns (6:45).

What do you want of this ball? If happiness, Muti brings this in fuller measure than Abbado. The waltz trips more lightly, you could say insouciantly, the rallentando at its apex glorying in its self-consciousness. The idée fixe is a rather dreamy, graceful addition, perhaps growing a touch wistful and the beloved’s late return on clarinet is even sexier than Abbado’s. But if you want that sense of living life at the edge, admittedly stronger in other movements, Abbado gives you that. Muti’s close of the movement, like the rest, is stylish but its very elegance for me mutes some of its drama.

Come In the meadows (tr. 3), the central and longest movement, Muti brings you contrast (happiness turns sour) and Abbado consistency (happiness and sadness are ever inextricably linked). In the shepherds’ piping introduction Abbado’s cor anglais is forward and confident. The distant oboe ‘echoing’ response is sweetly in agreement. But, in their brief passages of duet, for me Abbado seems to hint that these shepherds have too much individual strength really to be able to unify. Abbado’s presentation of the movement’s main theme on flute and first violins is spaciously ruminative and has a searching intensity, as in the second movement looking for an idyllic experience yet shot through with restlessness. Put it another way, the deliberation of the searching creates a strained quality. Relief comes when the cellos and bassoons give us a warmer, flowing version of the theme but this is suddenly truncated by a passage of longing, then resolve, then vehement call to action. The reappearance of the idée fixe gets a violent orchestral response. Abbado is unstinting in revealing that it comes face to face with terror, yet it’s succeeded by the most melting clarinet solo you could wish while it’s given greater stability and sense of the potential norm by the second violins’ repeat. Whiskers of the idée fixe shared by flute, clarinet and oboe realize the idyllic ideal from 11:46, but at 12:27 comes a roll of thunder from two timpani, which becomes four timpani that are the only and desolate answer to the cor anglais piper in the epilogue. Or rather almost, because in the strings’ close Abbado movingly clings to the idyll.

Muti’s opening cor anglais is more benign, so his two shepherds are more compatible in duet. Muti makes the main theme a natural extension of this joyful simplicity and tranquillity, letting it gently flow with some elements of contrast but without Abbado’s tension. The return of the theme with Muti is suavely relaxed but I appreciate the build up to the climax following the reappearance of the idée fixe as a structure rather than a drama, so the fortissimo climax seems just a phase within a wider picture rather than confronting terror ‘in the moment’. Muti’s following clarinet solo, in comparison with Abbado’s, seems matter-of-fact. Muti achieves a dreamy state when the idée fixe returns, but the idyll hasn’t been desired as much as by Abbado and so there isn’t Abbado’s sense of fulfilment. However, Muti’s epilogue is moving in a different way. His cor anglais’ very simplicity brings an increasing poignancy in the realization of his isolation. The four timpani response doesn’t have Abbado’s directness: rather is it a disturbingly more distanced threat, while Muti’s strings’ close seems a spectral echo.

March to the scaffold, the fourth movement (tr. 4), is the artist’s nightmare. Abbado emphasises the heaviness and brute force of the proceedings as well as the orderliness of the march itself. You can also hear clearly how what Berlioz termed the “fierce and sombre” first theme evolves while the jocular nature of its counterpoint is brought out by Abbado with the downward thrust of violas, cellos and double basses against the rise of the four bassoons (0:38). Soon the juxtaposition is of falling violins and rising lower strings laced with spasmodic fortissimo howls. Abbado gives this all a tremendously garish, larger-than-life swagger. Then comes the ‘stately and brilliant’ second theme with trumpets and trombones to the fore (1:35), also with over-the-top treatment from Abbado evidenced in its manically fast delivery and low B flat burps from the third trombone. However, before this nightmare becomes too enjoyable the staccato strings introduce a more trenchant style and brutality returns centre stage. Just before the closing ‘fatal blow’ the artist has a final glimpse of his beloved, the idée fixe a clarinet solo to be delivered “very sweetly and passionately”. Here it’s passionate but too bright in tone and swiftly despatched to be sweet.

Muti’s marchers are less heavy, more lithe and orderly than Abbado’s, offering a more sanitized execution. The passages with the bassoons to the fore have playfulness as if this movement is a kind of scherzo and this treatment is attractive, as is Muti delighting in the deft delivery of the first theme’s counterpoint. His second theme, like Abbado’s taken fast, is a jollier, merrier affair as if we’re at a carousing carnival. Later Muti’s strings are insufficiently staccato to suggest they can deliver pain. However, the clarinet solo of the beloved is softer, passionate and has more poise which provides for the victim a final recollection of sweetness.

Sabbath Night’s Dream, the finale (tr. 5), must be the nightmare to end all nightmares, yet fascinatingly that’s not altogether the effect of Abbado’s performance. It begins spookily enough with the ghostly pattering of muted upper strings gruffly thrust aside by cellos and double basses. Then screams from piccolo, flute and oboe ending with a garish slide down an octave. The idée fixe is now reduced by the clarinet (1:27) to a lolloping bacchanal, backed by timpani and its repeat made more ‘trivial and grotesque’, as Berlioz wanted, with piccolo in tandem. First time it starts softly but the crescendo is quick, with second timpani added, as if the beloved rushes on to appear unmistakably lurid. Yet solemnity comes with the funeral knell of heavy bells and the intoning of the Dies Irae, the Latin hymn describing the Day of Judgement, by the tubas (3:20), the effect here weighty but rather polite. You really need the instruments Berlioz originally used, ophicleide and serpent, to convey the intended burlesque parody, as Emmanuel Krivine does in his 2014 live DVD recording with the period instruments of La Chambre Philharmonique (Alpha 714, review). On the other hand it might be argued this is at the same time a reminder of responsibility if your fantasies have not quite got the better of you. This thought is supported by the regal quality of the Berlin Phil’s following brass chorale, if only to be immediately sent up by the woodwind and strings’ response. In the next airing of the Dies Irae, bass drum, cellos and double basses’ thwacks on the weak beats create the appropriate disorientation. Then Berlioz adds to the structure the Sabbath Round Dance (5:20), a lively affair whose energy is generated by the lower strings but given a seal of approval here by rather nobly rounded brass punctuation. Abbado presents all the strands of this movement with admirable clarity, yet I experienced it first as celebration, somewhat less as wild abandon. The mixing of the features starts at 7:12 with what must be the glummest Dies Irae on horns and cellos followed by a creepy version of the Round Dance on the violas at 7:21. They come fully together at 8:25 with Abbado making the Dies Irae now very stark. Other special effects Abbado lets us enjoy are the violins and violas’ col legno at 8:55 depicting the rattling of bones, whereupon the Dance is overlaid and underlaid, presented in omnipresent trills by woodwind and first violas. It all becomes a splendid romp with the seven-note descending motif on the tenor trombones heard four times especially memorable. And here’s a paradox, a nightmare ultimately to savour, but I felt this as Abbado’s celebration of a lifetime’s music-making, which is a good way to bow out.

In Muti’s finale, apart from the softer and therefore more unearthly upper strings, I found the opening less graphic than Abbado’s. The woodwind glissando is lighter, as is the clarinet idée fixe presentation. Muti’s beloved does sound more like a dancer, sprinting forward, but with a festive smattering of grace which dilutes the grotesque quality Berlioz wanted. Muti’s bells are more docile, when loud sounding like a dapper church clock, but when soft second time around like a ghostly echo. Muti gets more drama from more marked dynamic contrasts than Abbado but the latter is generally more vivid in weight of articulation. The Dies Irae is a prime example, with Muti’s comparatively mundane as it lacks Abbado’s weight and swing. Muti’s following brass chorale has a somewhat gaunt, glaring splendour but I can’t discern parody in the neat woodwind and strings’ response. Yet the disorientating emphasis on the weak beats in the bass is more successful. Muti’s Round Dance is more deft than trenchant, the latter quality however being provided by the brass punctuation. There is, on the other hand, an attractive attention to light and shade, vivid lead-up to the fusion of Dies Irae and Round Dance and the special effects are clearly delineated, while the trombones’ motif at the end shines forth gloriously.

For comparison I chose contemporary live recordings, both of which have been praised in MWI reviews and I wondered how late Abbado would fare alongside them. It turned out for me that his accounts were emotionally more engaged and dramatic, living life to the full, so I didn’t miss their smaller helpings of lightness and elegance.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous reviews (original release): John Quinn ~ Michael Cookson ~ Gwyn Parry-Jones

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