The move from CD to DVD in classical recordings can mean seeing too much of the orchestra. Not so with Claudio Abbado conducting Mahlerby Stephen Everson / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Recordings discussed in this review
Mahler, Symphony No 2 “Resurrection,” LFO, Claudio Abbado, EuroArts, DVD
Mahler, Symphony No 4 and Alban Berg “Seven Early Songs,” Renée Fleming, BPO, Claudio Abbado, DG, CD
Mahler, Symphony No 5, LFO, Claudio Abbado, EuroArts, DVD; Mahler, Symphony No 6, BPO, Claudio Abbado, DG, CD
Frank Scheffer, Conducting Mahler and I Have Lost Touch with the World, Juxtapositions, DVD
DVDs have begun to play an increasingly significant role within the classical recording industry. EMI’s recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, released this summer, is almost certain to be the company’s last operatic studio recording. Most new recorded opera now comes in the form of films of stage productions on DVD. For opera, there can be a real advantage in this: CD’s give access to only part of the operatic experience. (This need not be without its merits, since even in the opera house, the best way to avoid irritation is often just to shut one’s eyes and listen.) The advantages in the case of the symphonic repertoire are less obvious, however. The format of the camera’s eye moving from the conductor on to the fingers of some violinist or flautist as they start to play can quickly seem tired and begin to distract from the music. At a concert, the orchestra is usually far enough away for the eye not to notice the physical idiosyncrasies of the players; but in close-up, on screen, they can start to unnerve.
There are no such worries about the DVDs released by EuroArts of concerts from the Lucerne festival, with its new orchestra (LFO), conducted by its founder Claudio Abbado. This is partly because Abbado is such a compelling presence and partly because of the nature of the orchestra. Although it plays together for only three weeks each year, during the festival, it has already become what is probably the finest orchestra in Europe (and hence the world). It is not that this represents a sudden and surprising flowering of the Swiss orchestral tradition—the LFO’s roots lie firmly in Vienna and Berlin. It has as its core the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (another of Abbado’s creations), which is supplemented by an extraordinary set of musicians. Some, like the flautist Emmanuel Pahud, the oboist Albrecht Mayer and the clarinettist Sabine Meyer, are, or have been, principals with the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics, but many are chamber musicians or soloists in their own right. So members of the Hagen and Alban Berg Quartets play in the string sections, as do the Capuçon brothers. Few orchestras can ever have mustered such a concentration of individual musicianship.
Crucial to the success of the enterprise, however, is the shared commitment to making orchestral playing even on the scale of a Mahler or Bruckner symphony a kind of chamber playing (which is why Abbado was so concerned to recruit chamber musicians). This was something that Abbado had certainly inculcated into the culture of the Berlin Philharmonic (BPO) during his tenure as music director, but the circumstances of playing together for such a short period allow the Lucerne players a collaborative intensity that goes beyond even what could be maintained in Berlin. According to Michael Haefliger, the festival’s director, Abbado’s idea was to create “a family, an orchestra of his friends, to make music at the highest level in surroundings that are beyond the routine of everyday orchestral life.” Its recordings of Mahler’s 2nd and 5th symphonies show just how successfully that idea has been realised. The filming reveals the sustained concentration of the musicians, which far from distracting the viewer, sustains one’s own concentration.
And then there is Abbado himself. He has never been a conductor with the overt physicality of a Leonard Bernstein. Indeed, watched in a concert from behind, his conducting can look low-key. Captured on camera from the front, however, he has an intensity of expression that cannot but draw one in. He makes no unnecessary gestures, but every movement has an effect on the orchestral balance and the way each phrase is shaped by the players, who watch him like hawks. It is a commonplace that it is not conductors who make music but the instrumentalists they conduct, but watching Abbado and hearing how responsive are the Lucerne’s players to his every slight gesture, it is easy to fall under the illusion that it is he who is producing the sounds himself.
Three years ago EMI released on DVD the performance of the Verdi Requiem that the BPO under Abbado gave in January 2001 to mark the centenary of the composer’s death. This must be one of the most shattering of all classical recordings. Only a few months before, Abbado had undergone major surgery for stomach cancer, and even on the DVD one can sense the audience’s shock at how frail and emaciated Abbado looked as he came on stage with the soloists. Just in itself, there is something gripping about seeing the Requiem conducted by a man who has so obviously been darkened by the shadow of mortality, but the effect on the soloists, orchestra and chorus is electric. They respond to Abbado’s every movement to give a performance of the work that is probably the most intense on record. By the summer of 2003, when he gave Mahler’s 2nd in Lucerne, he looked much recovered, and more so still for Mahler’s 5th of the following year. But there is still a real sense of physical frailty, of his finding reserves of energy only because the music demands it, and it is difficult not to be moved by this. Such a reaction would be merely sentimental were the performances themselves not so accomplished and so powerful. That one does not need to watch Abbado in action to be gripped is amply demonstrated by the CDs that Deutsche Grammophon (DG) has released of performances of Mahler’s 6th and 4th that he gave in Berlin with the BPO in 2004 and 2005 respectively. They manifest the same combination of refinement and cumulative power.
In 1995, the BPO took part in the Amsterdam Mahler festival, where all of the composer’s symphonies and song cycles were performed by it, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Abbado, Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Chailly and Simon Rattle. Juxtapositions has recently released the documentary of the Dutch film director Frank Scheffer, Conducting Mahler, which was filmed during that festival. It includes interviews with Abbado, among others, as well as a couple of filmed extracts of his rehearsals, one of which is particularly revealing about his approach to Mahler. Stopping the orchestra in mid-flow, Abbado tells them to remember that a passage marked forte should be played only forte and not louder, and watching him conduct in the Lucerne concerts, it is striking just how often he signals to the musicians to play more quietly. These performances are models of how it is possible to achieve huge concentration and emotional power without artificially inflating the music by means of vulgar musical gestures.
In live recordings of Mahler No 2 in 1992 and of Bruckner No 9 in 1996, both with the Vienna Philharmonic and both on DG, his fastidiousness over orchestral texture and balance perhaps resulted in performances that did not quite fly. In all of the current releases, however, Abbado’s restraint makes the emotional impact of the works all the greater. Time and again, Abbado and his orchestra manage to make time stand still without any threat of inertia because they are able to produce a liveliness of articulation and phrasing even at the lowest volume and slow speeds. This makes their transitions to faster more violent passages all the more devastating. Take the last movement of the “Resurrection” symphony: when the choir first comes in, it sings so quietly but with such sustained tone that one is drawn forward to listen—only to be thrown back by the force of it when suddenly they sing out at full volume.
I know of no finer recordings of Mahler symphonies than these from Lucerne and Berlin. Mahler’s writing has never sounded more varied, or so accomplished. One hears details that had never registered before, and not merely because the orchestral sound is so transparent, but because Abbado and his players manage to make musical sense of passages that are merely notes in other performances (try the scherzo from Mahler’s 4th). Abbado is able to remind one that Mahler is often a witty composer, something that is too often forgotten. Interviewed in Conducting Mahler, Abbado remarks that he thinks “the fantasy of Mahler knows no limits,” and these performances do rare justice to that limitless musical imagination.