Notes and Editorial Reviews
Featuring: Bruno Ganz • Daniel Harding • Marcel Prawy • Albrecht Mayer • Wolfram Christ • Kolja Blacher Berliner Philharmoniker • Wiener Philharmoniker Lucerne Festival Orchestra • Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester
One of the world's finest and most-respected conductors, seventy-year-old Claudio Abbado is legendary in stature. In this profile Abbado talks about his life and work, his conception of music, his favorite compositions. Never-before-seen interviews are combined with images of the conductor in rehearsal and in concert, interviews with friends and colleagues, and archival material. The resulting portrait presents this "silent thinker" in a new and unexpected light.
Picture Format: 16:9
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Subtitles: EN, GE, FR, IT, SP
R E V I E W S
This DVD presents a reverential look at conductor Claudio Abbado that focuses on the maestro’s accomplishments during the past decade. It’s a very high quality production with expert photography and rich color, save for about five minutes of black and white footage from the 1960s, where Abbado is seen with the VPO in the Bruckner First, while rehearsing Stravinsky (during which the conductor looks exasperated when he says “it must be together”), and in a brief interview with Marcel Prawny. Almost nothing is furnished to display Abbado’s prowess in the opera house (the only opera segment is from a seethingly brilliant Salzburg Elektra), and no details are offered on how he decided to become a conductor (reportedly, it was on hearing a concert performance of Debussy’s Nocturnes when he was eight). So this disc might more aptly be titled “A Sketchy Portrait.” At one point, Abbado mentions that his favorite audience is one that remains quiet (instead of instantly applauding) at the close of works dealing with death, and such “hearing the silence” is portrayed to mesmerizing effect here following the end of the Brahms Requiem. Rehearsal and concert excerpts are adroitly mixed among an array of interviews with Abbado, several of his players, and his good friend, the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz.
The film begins with a view of a mountain lake, as Hölderlin’s poem The Course of Life is recited by Ganz. The poem contains an arc metaphor, and slowly a large C (for Claudio) materializes on the screen (rather like the opening credit sequence in the 1979 sci-fi film Alien). Depending on your point of view, these visuals by director Paul Smaczny will be seen as either pretentious or just a bit arty (I opt for the latter). The music here is from Nono’s Prometeo (it’s also used to link each of the film’s nine segments). We are led next into a 2002 concert reading of the slow movement from Dvo?ák’s “New World,” where I was shocked at Abbado’s wan and emaciated appearance (he had undergone surgery for stomach cancer the previous year). As happens elsewhere, we are soon switched to a rehearsal of the same work (all the dissolves, cuts, tracking shots and other cinematic devices are executed very suavely throughout the film).
What then follows is the first of nearly a dozen interviews with Ganz, who is like a Boswell to Abbado’s Johnson, and he’s given nearly as much on-screen interview time as the conductor himself. Ganz is best known to me for his performance in The Boys from Brazil (1978), where he plays a biologist (Dr. Bruckner!) who shows a Nazi hunter (Laurence Olivier) how Hitler replicas could be created through genetic cloning (by the way, Jerry Goldsmith’s film score uses an “evil” motif seemingly torn right out of the last chord in “Das Trinklied” from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde). Ganz, who also appears as Speaker in the excerpt here from Beethoven’s Egmont, offers penetrating observations on Abbado as both man and conductor. From Ganz and others we learn that Abbado is a collegial, rather than autocratic, leader who is a very private, reserved person. One violinist recalls the shock felt on hearing the news that this modest, self-effacing conductor was resigning his lifetime appointment in Berlin. Of course, a cynic might well wonder if the orchestra’s flagging record sales (in sharp contrast to the lucrative revenue generated by Abbado’s self-aggrandizing predecessor) had anything to do with that decision.
I find it difficult to assess Abbado’s historic importance as a conductor. He was excluded from IMG’s “Great Conductors” series, but then the only living maestro selected was the long-retired Carlo Maria Giulini. Most of Abbado’s recordings strike me as literal, straightforward, a little cool, and lucid rather than inspired. I like several things he has done, such as the well-executed 1976 Chicago Mahler Second, but even there I still prefer the greater commitment of two conductors as different from Abbado as they were from each other: Klemperer (his 1951 live Amsterdam account on Membran) and the quirky Scherchen (deleted MCA). But many of these later Abbado performances show a different and more compelling side. The incredibly transparent and stunning La mer excerpt from Lucerne, probably taken from the complete live performance reviewed by Henry Fogel, shows a more expressive mode, and there’s simply no denying the extraordinary unanimity and power of this 2001 “Eroica” finale. The latter has some of the most responsive Berlin-playing I’ve heard since the Furtwängler era. With the DVD’s last work, we come back full circle to the “New World” (this time the final pages). This concert reading may not capture the emotional catharsis of the classic Talich studio version (Supraphon), but it comes darn close. Abbado’s final, benedictory gesture to his players at the work’s end is very moving. Abbado comes across to me now as an engaging, talented, and dedicated artist whose near-death experience has transfigured him into arguably the world’s finest living conductor. Ultimately, I found this disc to be a revelation. It’s highly recommended.
Jeffrey J. Lipscomb, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Work(s) by Various
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