Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Claudio Abbado's Brucknerian Farewell

Deutsche Gramophone 479 3441 (2014)
Bruckner: Symphony #9
Claudio Abbado/Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Recorded at the Lucerne Festival on August 26, 2013, this is a fine, serviceable performance of Bruckner's sprawling unfinished valedictory symphonic essay, albeit, disappointingly, not among the very greatest.

Claudio Abbado, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 80, brought a workmanlike attentiveness to all his recordings, seeming always most confident and comfortable in the role of orchestral accompanist, a role he filled very well indeed, whether leading opera performances or collaborating with soloists. Those concerto recordings may eventually be considered the true essence of his voluminous legacy. One recalls, for example, the outstanding 1967 readings of the Prokofiev Third and the Ravel G-major with the young Martha Argerich (DG (Originals) 447-438 (1996 re-issue)). But the conductor also left behind some extraordinary symphonic recordings which have rightly been hailed as classics; a 1966 reading of Beethoven's Symphony #7 for Decca (Eloquence 2069 402 (2014 re-issue)), and an excellent Tchaikovsky survey for CBS (Sony 88697836722 (2011 compilation)); a now-near-legendary album of music by Alban Berg (DG (Originals) 449-714-2 (re-issue 1997)), a truly glorious 1977 rendition of Mahler's Symphony #2 "Resurrection" with Marilyn Horn, Carol Neblett, and the Chicago Symphony (DG (Galleria) 427-262-2), and a delightful disc of Schubert's Rosamunde incidental music D 797 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (DG 431-655-2 (1991)).

The sound on this super-audio disc is excellent, as one would surely expect, though to my ears there is a certain ambient dryness, which the work's broad dynamic contrasts only tend to  accentuate; the bass seems overly "rumbly" in spots, and there is what I would describe as a mildly claustrophobic, compressed quality in the loud tutti passages. (I should note that my benchmark recording of this work, both for performance and sound, is the iconic, unsurpassed 1959 reading by the 83-year-old Bruno Walter with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, a performance that affects and moves on all levels of perception, intellect, and emotion.)

Where Bruckner was concerned, Abbado was, alas, no Bruno Walter. Especially in the opening movement of this Ninth, Abbado overemphasizes the superficial episodic aspects of the music at the expense of sustained dramatic tension and overall coherency of the long line. Though vast in scale, Bruckner's symphonies are not structurally convoluted. And yet, to be effective, a conductor must recognize and emphasize the deep, internal associations within the score. Recurring themes are one thing; it is quite easy for listeners to mentally coordinate Bruckner's big, obvious recapitulations. Sructure and the tension that holds it together are another matter, requiring, above all, concentration, subtlety,and profound understanding.

Indeed, the greatest Bruckner performances come from conductors who comprehend the way these works operate in both temporal and spatial contexts, as if perceiving them from above and outside the constricting dimensions of time and space. In practical terms, this means seeing the score as more than a mere series of vertical chord progressions, but, in fact, an extended unified horizontal statement, in which every constituent part relates to the whole. Yes, these compositions are episodic, but never disorientingly "herky-jerky" or excessively "stop-and-go". If the tempi are managed properly, never too fast, broadening out as the orchestral texture expands like the breathing of a titanic organism, the episodes should flow naturally, unobtrusively, one into the next, and the work will end leaving listeners sighing for still more. Beautifully detailed as it is, Abbado's performance left me feeling mostly indifferent, and this impression remained unchanged after several subsequent hearings.

Still, notwithstanding its shortcomings, the last new entry in this important conductor's discography instantly assumes the status of a testament, an historical document, and a memento of no small sentimental value.  In this regard one might place it, comfortably, alongside Pierre Boulez great 1996 live recording of the Eighth, recorded on the centennial of the composer's death in St. Florian's Cathedral itself (DG 459-678-2 (2000)), though I doubt it will be something I would care to revisit quite as ofen.

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