Given the energy crisis and other financial pressures, shelling out for Claudio Abbado – The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon & Decca, 4862510, at c£670.00 might seem like one extravagance too far. Those who have already invested in various boxed subdivisions of the same material won’t in any case be interested, though the ingenious (if weighty) packaging that houses the ‘complete’ edition has award-winning potential: a lift-off covering for the whole box reveals, at first sight, a two-shelf collection, then turn the set round and it’s exactly the same on the other side, collections arranged back-to-back, so to speak. There are two thick, cd-size booklets – one each to serve their respective collection – and a larger hard-backed book placed on top with pertinent, well-written essays and a listing of the works included, many of them in duplicate versions.
And so, what of Abbado himself, born 90 years ago this year? Did he have a specific ‘sound’?
While interviewing him some fifteen years ago we were discussing the finer aspects of interpretation when he made one point that I will never forget. ‘The thing is that if you underline a detail to the extent that it stands out, that’s already too much.’ Are his under-linings always that subtle? In a word, no. Take Beethoven’s Fifth, the first movement on his Vienna Philharmonic recording. Beam up from 3:30 into the development section and note how the descending cellos join and intensify the argument. The only other recording (in my experience) that tells it as it is as forcefully as this was taken down ‘live’ by the New York Philharmonic Symphony under Leopold Stokowski, and released on the Orchestra’s own label. Abbado’s Berlin recording is similar, but less striking.
And there are his two versions of Beethoven 9, the finale’s ‘hokey-cokey’ march (with bassoon and tenor solo) lively in Vienna, then in Berlin, faster, wittier, almost impatient to reach the fughetta that follows. Its thrilling and contrasts markedly with the almost Böhm-like sobriety of the Vienna recording. So we’re not talking ‘early’ or ‘late’ Abbado but changes of heart that could take place at any given time. And influences? I remember years ago giving my first gramophone society talk, in Cirencester, playing part of Abbado’s Berlin Brahms Three and an audience member shouting out ‘regurgitated Furtwängler!’. Not quite, though Furtwängler was Abbado’s rostrum idol.
As to Mozart, a solidly built LSO ‘Jupiter’ contrasts markedly with the later, more keenly inflected Orchestra Mozart version which, for all its keenness of attack avoids, in the Andante cantabile, the abruptness that characterises Martin Fröst’s Swedish Chamber Orchestra version (ie the staccato quaver chords that fall in the second and fourth bars, see my last post). Here those chords are altogether gentler though no less emphatic; true to his principles, Abbado is refusing to ‘underline a detail to the extent that it stands out’. Also the later version is more generous with repeats, specifically in that same second movement. Violin Concertos with Giuliano Carmignola head towards the period performance world without quite entering it and greatly benefit from the compromise. Abbado, his orchestra and his soloist weave in and around each other like so many prima ballerinas.
Two Brahms symphony cycles again touch on the repeats issue, the First observing the repeated exposition in Vienna but not in Berlin (I personally favour losing it). The richly recorded Berlin set seems the more comfortable with itself (the early Berliner Staatskapelle Third suffers from hollow sound). Brahms Piano Concertos with Alfred Brendel are lighter in tone than the more implacable Maurizio Pollini options. As to Bruckner, I love the mellifluously handled Vienna Fourth, more genuinely Viennese sounding than Christian Thielemann’s recent Sony CD with the same orchestra (compare the two recordings of the finale), while the First – always an Abbado speciality – comes off brilliantly whichever recording you choose to audition.
Abbado’s Mahler is both prophetic of darker things to come and respectful of each work as an independent structure. What you hear is what is written. The Chicago Symphony First was personally significant in that it was the first recording of anything that I ever heard on CD. A friend had just acquired a player and invited me round to hear this deeply satisfying performance via the new ‘audio carrier’. I just couldn’t believe how the stillness of the opening was unburdened of hiss, quiet thumps, vinyl surface noise and the rest, just pure music that emerged out of the ether. But then Abbado was always a dab hand at extreme dynamics: both here and in his superb LSO account of Ravel’s complete Daphnis et Chloé ballet, ‘in the distance’ means just that.
Abbado’s handling of the Sixth Symphony’s finale, the opening as recorded in Chicago, suggests argumentative Hobbits, or ‘halflings’, prattling away until an elder claps his hands and sends them off with marching orders. The players are noticeably individual whereas for his Berlin re-make the big talking point will be the joist-shaking hammer blows, louder and more shocking than any others on disc save perhaps on Michael Gielen’s last recording (SWR). Given the scope of the set I risk losing readers if I venture much further in terms of detail. There are distinguished opera recordings too, not least, Abbado’s LSO Carmen (with Teresa Berganza and Placido Domingo) which seems to typify the Nietzschean ideal of a work that is emblematic of a much needed “Mediterraneanization of music”, a “return to nature, health, cheerfulness, youth, virtue!” Nietzsche loved the work and later in life pitted it against what he perceived as the steamy excesses of his one-time friend Wagner. Abbado’s dancing performance is refreshingly transparent and superbly sung. The best Verdi performances are Don Carlos (with Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli), the Siegfried-size French version that is, and Simon Boccanegra (with Jose Carreras and Mirella Freni). One of Abbado’s abiding passions was the music of Mussorgsky and another highlight is Khovanschina with Marjana Lipovsek and Vladimir Atlantov.
When Abbado stepped into Karajan’s shoes he cut down on calories, threw open the windows, and once nourished by fresh air, brought his own more outgoing range of repertoire (including favoured moderns) to the table, music that Karajan wouldn’t have touched with a barge poll. That and Abbado’s invariably lissome manner are what you get for your money. For me it’s a worthwhile deal.