10/05/2001 - 10/06/01
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto # 1
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphonies # 5,6 & 7
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Claudio Abbado (conductor)
Though not quite as controversial as the cardinals in Rome electing Karol Wojtyla Pope, the appointment of Claudio Abbado as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic sent shockwaves of internationalization throughout the European classical community. The occupation of that most Teutonic of chairs by an Italian signified the conscious ending of an era and, although he had already proven himself in the much more comfortable seat of the Vienna Philharmonic, so close both geographically and culturally to his native Milan, Abbado would prove a challenging choice. After a distinguished run at the Philharmonie and in the midst of a courageous battle with ill health, Maestro announced his plans to retire, forcing the city fathers to seek a successor. Now miraculously recovered and about to embark on the daunting new venture of creating his own orchestra (no one has successfully pulled off this trick since Beecham), Abbado is running one last victory lap through the hallowed halls on West 57th Street, demonstrating his well-oiled machine in a significantly altered set of programs.
Abbado’s musical legacy is a refinement of the silken sound of the Berlin strings and a healthy moving away from the uncompromising beat of von Karajan towards a more expressive orchestral rubato. The choice of an heir apparent was a bit controversial itself: Simon Rattle prefers a grittier, harder-edged sound and an aesthetic heart much closer to the sleeve than the Berliners possess at present (in terms of compatibility of sound, James Levine would have been a better choice); his tone is more of a Caruso sob while theirs, nurtured under Abbado, is an elongated, aristocratic voce di testa. Further, the once rich and proud Philharmonic now appears before us a tatterdemalion. Rattle turned down the job in Philadelphia partly because the board wished him to participate in their fundraising campaigns; ironically, in Berlin, where the management wouldn’t dream of insulting the leader with such hints of extra-musical activity, they may not have the ability to raise enough funds to pay his princely salary in future.
Although their economic health may be faltering, the fiddles (and everyone else) at the Philharmonic are extremely fit. Presumably to buoy our spirits, Abbado changed the programs of his three concerts radically: the music of Wagner and Mahler (and Webern in the concert which I did not attend) was jettisoned in favor of rousingly supercharged Beethoven. Technically, the performance of the 7th Symphony was as flawless as a live reading can be, sounding more like a completed version published for the CD market with all mistakes airbrushed and corrected. Abbado prefers the modern sound for Beethoven (curiously, the performance of early 19th century music with 21st century instruments now sounds somewhat old-fashioned, while period instrument versions appear in the raiments of novelty), dictating the use of soft timpani sticks and employing a largish ensemble, although assigning horn and woodwind parts to the smallest number of chairs possible. For some anomalous acoustical reason, Maestro kept his entire forces scrunched up at the back of the stage, not allowing the crew to spread out their chairs after the piano from the opening work had been removed. Whatever the physical phenomenon, the sound was spectacularly projected to our appreciative ears. This was not my own personal fantasy performance, the interpretation, especially of the second movement, an emotional stretch for me (I still prefer the slow, almost ponderous approach rather than Abbado’s coolly urbane Andante), but it was hard not to be bowled over by the sheer perfection of execution. In a nod to von Karajan, Maestro brooked no pause between movements three and four and launched a head-spinningly fast apotheosis of the dance. Needless to say, the crowd erupted in applause.
The orchestra was strong even in the first half of the concert, grinding out a rugged, atavistic accompaniment in the Brahms, even though soloist Maurizio Pollini was suffering through a rare off night. This usually reliable artist made literally dozens of mistakes in the first movement, recovered somewhat for the slow section and then seemed to be on a different astral plane from his colleagues during the Rondo, consistently phrasing his melodies in a radically different manner from the other instrumentalists. His struggles took him nowhere near the emotional center of the work. In the film A Trail on the Water, Maestro Abbado bemoans the fact that audiences really don’t listen to the performances which they attend. His comments were proven true this night, as the assembled throng feted Pollini with many repetitions of a standing ovation and were all abuzz at the interval about his extraordinary pianism (which opinion I normally wholeheartedly share). A certain type of mass hysteria often grips audiences at classical concerts; attendees have an emotionally vested interest to validate each event with a four star rating. They want so much to experience the highest level of performance (especially in the concerts which they hand pick and pay good money to hear) that they convince themselves that this is exactly what they are doing.
That patented Berlin sound was most luxurious in the encore, a resurrection of one of the pieces excised from the originally announced program. The Tristan Prelude und Liebestod was ravishing and featured the complete string section, reassembled during the applause for the Beethoven. Seldom have I heard a more sensual contrast between string tutti and solo wind, a more anticipatory pause before that first gigantic pluck of irresolution, a more fluid romantic line. Abbado seems to be making a point here: he is leaving his instrument in the best acoustical shape, a multi-faceted Strad recently and lovingly air-dried in the strong Cremonese sun.
The second concert was the better of the two. Abbado came down firmly on the side of the absolute in the old argument about the ”Pastorale”, choosing to showcase the sheer luxuriousness of his forces and downplaying the programmatic qualities of the music. This was an hour of sheer poetry, unencumbered by brooks and meadows, storms and little creatures (“those damn cuckoos” as Bernstein used to say). I sat transfixed by the Berliners’ abilities to perform so lovingly, to play with such a perfect unison, to stop on the edge of a dime. The strings bow as one man (there are still precious few women), the solo winds virtuosi all (regular readers of these pages will know of my tendency to bash the horn section; this night I could only marvel at the displayed riches of new solo hornist Stefan Dohr). For sheer beauty, this was an unparalleled reading of the 6th. The audience reaction was warm, but a far cry from the enthusiasm of the night previous. Sad to say, large crowds of music lovers are easily manipulated and react with a more spirited kneejerk when the ending of a piece is loud and boisterous. This particular proto-Romantic essay ends quietly and with great serenity (the “New World” problem) and its corresponding response is always subdued (when Barenboim performed the entire Beethoven cycle last season here with that other great Berlin orchestra, the 6th was the only symphony to be followed by a concerto).
The opening Fifth was just as expertly played, thrilling and lovely by turns. But here the pulchritude was not totally satisfying. As magnificent as Abbado’s suave approach is for these classics, and as strikingly executed as they are in performance, these would not be my desert island choices for the symphonies of the master. What is missing from this type of approach is the visceral. Fate should be played by Charles Bronson in Beethoven’s imagined scenario; Abbado casts rather David Niven. Not that the cosmopolitan sophistication of this veneering is incorrect; I simply prefer the raw nerve endings of a Furtwaengler (even such a gentle conductor as Bruno Walter used to pull out all of the stops in this particular piece). But this was still unbelievably impressive music making and meshed nicely with the heightened emotional state of New Yorkers these days.
It is dangerous to open a concert season with performances by the Berlin Philharmonic. They set the bar so high that most orchestras can only stare upwards in wonder. Their overall sound is very possibly the best in the world (only the Concertgebouw and, on their very best nights, Philadelphia can give them a run for their money) and it has been well looked after these last dozen years. That sound will remain in my mind’s ear for a while, so please take any of my caviling about the Cincinnati Symphony or New York Philharmonic this coming week with the industrial strength box of salt.
Frederick L. Kirshnit