Claudio Abbado: The Last Concert
This opulently arrayed set presents a record and film of Claudio Abbado’s final concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, recorded a matter of months before his death, with a Blu-ray bonus of the 1991 documentary charting his first year as the orchestra’s chief conductor.
In the excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, every line is a soloist’s line. Literal representations of ‘character’ translated from words (sung in English here) to music – Bottom’s bray, faery frettings – are less prominent than in fine recordings old and new. To the fore comes an expressive counterpoint which underscores the pomp of the Wedding March but also its urgency. The clarinets in the Intermezzo anticipate Mahler’s use of the instruments, whereas their closing of the curtain on the finale’s revels (from 3'00") is positively Brahmsian. Only with the later concert in the mind’s ear do the tempo shifts and tuttis in the earlier BPO/Abbado recording (Sony, 5/97) sound marginally more heavy and coarse. Every last detail demands attention.
The filmed tributes from Berlin Philharmonic members resist beatification. Abbado’s rehearsal methods remain a bone of contention, or an enigma. Orchestral players usually want conductors to speak less, beat more. With Abbado it was the other way around. The idea that he could not discipline his players, that he relied on them to come to agreement, seems naive. He wants them to think and listen for themselves at the same time as trusting him.
The qualities of this Symphonie fantastique are less easy to summarise. We are used to hearing in Berlioz the very essence of excess made manifest, and nothing is too much here, but it’s far from a pretty performance. Beethoven’s ‘Scene by the Brook’ is a strong presence in the background flow of Berlioz’s ‘Scène aux champs’, making the rupture of the central storm (more psychological than climatic) all the more brutal, and lending fathomless melancholy to its aftermath. He has abandoned picaresque fidelity to the obbligato cornet in the waltz and spurns the still-controversially measured metronome marks for the last two movements, though the offstage effects of timpani and bells are thrillingly calculated. When the mood was upon him in concert, Abbado could lick the finale into a frenzy with a liberal smear of greasepaint. That’s gone, along with the brazen rough-housing of his Chicago recording (DG, 5/84). It’s now infernally chilly down in Berlioz’s hell, but no less infernally real for all that.
All four manifestations of the concert presented by the set have an almost indecent, gossamer transparency, but those with the patience and hardware to download the 5GB package of ‘original master’ files will find that it preserves an even more vivid dynamic range than the Blu-ray audio.