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Abbado in Bruckner: Depth without weight

Sometimes the great symphony orchestra conductors find their ultimate muse a notch or two below Parnassus. One is Daniel Barenboim: After uneven years with the august Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he is doing the best work of his life with the Berlin Staatskapelle, formerly cloistered in East Berlin, and making up in soul and tradition what it lacks in glamor. Even more so, Claudio Abbado’s current work with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra has all the depth and distinction that was often lacking in his all-too-slick Berlin Philharmonic tenure.

This is old news to Lucerne regulars, who shower the maestro with flowers at the end of a performance – and not just a few pedals, but buckets. Okay, this could be the work of a few fanatical fans. Also, one isn’t sure to believe stories of the frail, aging Abbado, cold sober at the end of a performance, but seeming to be utterly drunk on the music he just conducted. But the Bruckner Symphony No.5 performance on August 20 didn’t lie. A good third of the audience was still applauding long after the orchestra left the stage – though not before musicians were seen hugging each other in mutual congratulations.

I wouldn’t have believed such things had I not seen them myself. As with Barenboim’s Berliners, there are moments that tell you that this Lucerne group is perhaps not a great orchestra but one that achieves greatness. One brass entrance after another was ragged. That simply doesn’t happen with world-class orchestras, but many things happen that eluded Abbado when he was following in the footsteps of the late Herbert von Karajan. Perhaps this orchestra is reaching levels it has only glimpsed, as opposed to orchestras with greater reputations who have hit the heights before with other great conductors and have less a sense of discovery.

In some ways, there are two Abbados, pre-cancer and post cancer. When he came back from his illness, diagnosed in 2000, he was gaunt but different, less concerned with polished surface and able to reach the molten core of any given piece. You can’t help worrying that each season will be his last, especially since pianist Yuja Wang, one of his favorite collaborators, mentioned that they’re now recording live together, presumably because Abbado doesn’t command the strength for retakes. Walking into the concert, I ask a Lucerne official, “How IS he?” (One need not be more specific.) The reply: “He’s great. You will see.”

There he was, tanned and animated, conducting without a score and standing throughout the Bruckner – though some senior conductors opt for sitting. The first half was Mozart concert arias with soprano Christine Schafer, all interesting pieces but lacking the kind of dramatic engagement when composer had when he was working with a plot of his own choosing. Schafer still has much to offer as an artist, but the once precise, crystalline voice is blunt, a little leather-y and a limited servant of her imagination.

With the arrival of the Bruckner symphony came recollections of Carlo Maria Giulini – another senior Italian conductor whose brand of profundity involved such slow tempos that one critic described his conducting of Verdi’s last opera as “Parsifalstaff.” That’s not Abbado. He has maintained the middle-of-the-road tempo schemes of earlier years. The singing line of Verdi operas is not left behind. Expression can be weighty but still lithe. The musical modules of any Bruckner symphony, all distinctive in their color and motion but joined abruptly to one another, flowed together in ways that I’ve rarely heard. Even the finale was light on its feet. The repetitive sequences of any Bruckner symphony that no doubt inspired conductor Franz Welser-Most to pair Bruckner with John Adams this summer at the Lincoln Center Festival never felt like individual repetitions but all of a larger piece. The Lucerne orchestra’s sound isn’t exactly sensuous but feels like an imposing wall of music, not unlike the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan, an ensemble trained to counteract the natural decay of sound, resulting in a solidity that elevates whatever music is being played at any tempo. The magic was mostly found in the specific phrase inflections. Short motifs that can easily pass as being mostly structural entities become infused with meaning (as opposed to laden with meaning). Abbado is a master of integration and shows that one element of the music need not be sacrificed at the emphasis of another. Long may he live.


  1. I was struck by your comment regarding the exhilarated applause for Abbado, “I wouldn’t have believed such things had I not seen them myself.”

    I am an American composer who has lived in Germany for over 30 years. My wife was first trombone of the Munich Philharmonic for 13 years.

    The extraordinary type of ovation you describe cannot be fully explained solely in musical terms. Without being overly reductive, one must consider some of the cultural characteristics of the German-speaking world, especially its long history of deep respect for authority, and its admiration for closely coordinated, collective action. (This includes German-speaking Switzerland.) In the modern world, the Maestro and “his” absolute authority over a large orchestra, and his precise coordination of human endeavor, remains one of the few institutions left where the German-speaking world’s relatively unique sense of consumate authority and order can be expressed. As you say, it has to be seen to be believed. In fact, many Germanic people take this phenomenon for granted and notice nothing unusual in it – though some do.

    The Germans have a word that does not exist in English, Begeisterungsfähigkeit, which roughly means the capacity to be enthused. In orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic, the characteristic of Begeisterungsfähigkeit is one of the principle criteria for selecting its members – the ability to give a full, abounding, and even absolute enthusiasm and devotion to the conductor and the orchestral collective. The Berlin Phil is sometimes referred to in Germany as “the wobblers” since swaying around in their seats as they play is considered an important manifestation of Begeisterungsfähigkeit.

    Audiences sometimes follow in this abounding enthusiasm and devotion. I have seen it in extremes that awaken frightening historical resonances.

    And by the way, thank you for the interesting blogs.

  2. Greg Keyes says:

    I enjoyed the review and the interesting responses. While Begeisterungsfaehigkeit might explain the German public’s reverence for conductors, I think the cultural generalizations William makes are unhelpful with regard to the specific playing cultures of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics. BPO has a unique artistic culture and also an increasingly international composition. The BPO wave, which one sees in the string section, and which a violinist confided to me is 50% show, is a unique phenomenon. Yes, they move a lot, but this has to do more with the orchestra’s passion and sense of personal accountability, the opposite of obeying a maestro, as you indicate. Each musician plays with a strong soloistic personality. This has nothing to do with German-ness, or other cultural stereotypes. Other German orchestras don’t play this way. The Vienna Philharmonic, to my eyes (I’ve lived in Vienna for many years) does not move much. Their playing culture demands greater conformity: the section players play softer than the principals, etc. I would call them inconsistent. In terms of performance, to say that they’re imprecise is also a generalization. When they make the effort, they can play with a phenomenal precision (A Heldenleben two years ago with Mehta comes to mind). It depends on the occasion and the conductor. Try to find any Neujahrskonzert with sloppy attacks or loose ensemble. These cultural reductions are risky.

    And while I very much enjoyed Mr. Stearns’s review, I was perplexed by his reference to sloppy brass attacks. I listened to both performances live and heard no such imprecisions. A video of the marvelous performance is on youtube, and these errors simply aren’t there. It seems like a case of trying to find phantom flaws (If he can point them out, I’ll happily stand corrected). And even if it were true, this in itself should not disqualify the LFO as a great ensemble. (I’ve heard plenty of sloppy brass attacks from world-class orchestras on off nights, including New York, Vienna, and St Petersburg.) It’s unquestionably a great orchestra on a technical level far above that of Staatskapelle Berlin. The incredible precision and colorfulness in the strings, the impeccable woodwind intonation, and the homogeneity of the brass are all simply world-class.

    • Thanks for writing. You sent two versions, and I’ve posted the longer of the two. Regarding the brass imprecision, I remember being quite surprised to hear them under those august circumstances. They were in the first movement while the orchestra was settling into the performance and/or perhaps reaching for something beyond its typical self. The Bruckner was performed numerous times by that orchestra during that period, so it’s difficult to tell if what’s on You Tube is the performance that I personally attended. The other possible factor is digital editing – a term that I heard tossed around quite a lot for years but didn’t personally experience until a few years ago when I returned to working in radio. One need not be a particularly skilled editor to correct such problems. Sound waves can be examined in microscopic detail and shaved with the utmost delicacy, and in ways that would be undetectable in a multi-channel recording. This isn’t a criticism or to accuse anybody of cheating. Digital editing is a modern convenience that should be used, judiciously, in a world viral distribution.

      • Greg Keyes says:

        Thanks, and sorry for the double post, I was confused whether I had posted or not. You’re right about the youtube video; it was probably a different performance and/or spliced. But your description of “reaching beyond” is quite apt for this orchestra and conductor. They’re searching for something beyond technical perfection (I saw the group do a Mahler 3 of formidable technical precision with Boulez). I don’t think it’s possible to create the magical moments they’re capable of by playing it safe. And when it all gels, it’s a thrilling and unique experience that we’re fortunate to take part in.

        • Indeed! Have you heard that live 1943 Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 recording with Edwin Fischer and Wilhelm Furtwangler? That’s one of the great instances of great musicians reaching beyond themselves – the price being fistfuls of wrong notes on Fischer’s end. I think it’s one of the great recordings of anything.

          A rather different lesson, for me, was learned from the Carlos Kleiber video of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. You can tell that two performances were deftly edited together, and which one is which, because one of the principal players had a conspicuous haircut between concerts!

          • Greg Keyes says:

            Not familiar with that Brahms 2, but many thanks for the lead; I’ll look for it!

            Funny catch with the Kleiber video! We know CDs are spliced, but with video we’re sometimes too trusting, because we’re seeing it seamlessly. But did you mean Brahms 4 with Bavarian State Orchestra? I didn’t know he recorded the 2nd with them.

  3. Thanks for your insights. Placido Domingo once told me that when he sang Otello in Berlin he had more than 20 curtain calls. And I certainly know what you mean about the Berlin Phil’s wobbling. Interestingly, the Vienna Phil tends to waft back and forth like underwater seaweed. The Bavarian Radio Orchestra, which is very close to my heart, didn’t like the way its concert in Philadelphia was going several tours ago and called a sectional rehearsal at intermission. I’ll be following the Philadelphians on tour throughout Germany and will check in periodically. Thanks again! DPS

  4. Your intuition about the Vienna Phil waving back and forth like sea weed is interesting. Just as with the “Begeisterungsfähigkeit” of the Berlin Phil, the Vienna Phil also follows in a tradition described by a word that doesn’t exist in English: Gelassenheit. Roughly, it means accepting what may come with a kind of relaxed imperturbability. There is a joke that the Germans say the situation is serious but not hopeless, while the Austrians say it is hopeless but not serious.

    The aesthetic of Gelassenheit formulates a great deal of the relaxed, somewhat imprecise elegance of the VPo, while the intensity and precision of Begeisterungsfähigkeit shapes the aesthetic of the Berlin Phil. It sort of describes a basic difference between Prussians and Austrians. Interestingly, Heidegger expanded on the concept of Gelassenheit and made it an important term in his existentialist philosophy. He described it as accepting being regardless of its uncertainty and mystery – something that is, in a way, very Austrian.

  5. By the way, my first post in this thread still has not appeared even though you responded to it. It seems to be awaiting moderation approval.

  6. I’m traveling and working with some temperamental internet connections. I think I did all the right things, but we’ll see what turns up.


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