Tuesday 24 August 2010
Abbado: the zenith (2)
Such calibrated yet still white-heat perfection defies us supposed wordsmiths, as I gathered from an awestruck review of the Lucerne Mahler Ninth in the Neue Zurcher Zeitung. Having now seen the livestream and one live performance, I'd better get my own thoughts together. The eight pages in my holiday notebook - taken during the livestream, I'd never do it in the hall - run wild with exclamations and quite a few illegible signs, but it might be worth jotting down a few slightly more finished notes here in a way that proper published reviewing doesn't allow.
Photographs of Abbado were taken during the two performances, reproduced by permission of the Lucerne Festival. Top image is by Priska Ketterer, the second by Peter Fischli and the third by Georg Anderhub (that's the wonderful Kolja Blacher leading the Lucerne Festival Orchestra).
First movement: total silence before it. Abbado comes on, blinks, smiles as he always does so collegially to his handpicked players, and begins. The veiled sound of second violins comes from their placing left behind the firsts, not apparent in filming (the crucial violas led by the superlative Wolfram Christ are to Abbado's right). Every time the 'ewig'-without-the-tonic nocturne returns, the heart leaps: it's to do with what are often the subtlest of Luftpausen. Violas plunging more clearly than I've ever heard before the first big climax, though it's not overdone. The struggles quicken, as they did in Abbado's volatile Berlin interpretation; the collapses aren't overstressed and the balances remain clear, the clamber out of the abyss goes ghostly with the celebrated Abbado pianissimo (the great Natalia Gutman still there among the painfully climbing cellos). Woodwind, Jacques Zoon's flute especially, lead us into chamber music - compassionate, transparent. The first string shock is the 'Leidenschaftlich' writhing (at 211), dark intense sound like I've never heard before, and sustained with a line going through it, even somehow building. The last descent inevitable even after the leaping collapse: the funeral march not overdone, evolving naturally back into the last proud processional with fraught brass clashes (overall the LFO ensemble is integrated beautifully, the brass sound never forced). Warm horn solo from Bruno Schneider, mit innigster Empfindung; final pizzicato-flageolet and piccolo note - the tonic at last - overheard rather than heard. Abbado still keeps something in reserve: I've heard performances of the movement so entire in themselves and so exhausting that I didn't have much energy left for the rest, and in those I felt the final Adagio couldn't, and didn't, live up to the opening Andante. Not so here.
Scherzo: playful-heavy at first rather than dark or sarcastic: Abbado moves in and out of sinister colours with undetectable sleight of hand. I still don't know how he resolved it from the scary penultimate chunterings and stabbings to a witty resolution. Again, seeing the second violins biting into their dance-stomp just after the start highlights the links with the first movement. And the Tempo III Landler treads air. Sabine Meyer leads dark cohorts of clarinets in a uniquely hollow low sound.
Rondo-Burleske: determined, disciplined, not wild until the final speedings. All the counterpoint is deadly clear and ruthlessly well executed. Reinhold Friedrich's trumpet comes truly as a voice from another planet - no slowing from Abbado, rightly, it's all in a tone like none I've ever heard before.
Adagio: yes, here words should fail. It either works totally for me, and I can't remember it doing that since Bernstein, or not really at all until the final whispers. This was the total experience: string playing I've waited all my life, I think, to hear in a concert hall - somehow contained, not passionately emotive at first though rising by degrees to that, weighted by cellos and basses in a way that you can't define to anyone who wasn't in that amazing Lucerne hall. The richer the harmonies and the counterpoints become, the more stops Abbado pulls out. And the line, the line through... In between, sensitive bassoon solos and a cor anglais to break the heart. Everything moves to the final climax, a glimpse of some almighty in the trumpet blaze before the cry of violins: again, never heard it like this before and never will again. Transcendental close, stretched to infinity, going in deeper like the best meditation. Of course I wasn't aware of the length of silence in performance, but I timed it at the end of the livestream: two minutes.
If you don't get all of the above, or think I've waffled unduly, it doesn't bother me. I've had my vision and I'll say it again - I'm happy to have lived in such times to hear such playing. But don't forget that if you can access Arte, it's broadcasting the concert on 19 September.