THE WANDERER'S CHRONICLE
Claudio Abbado's return to Berlin
BERLIN, June 2004
For the first time ever since its foundation 122 years ago one of its former music directors returned to the orchestra. All the others died in office (with the exception of Karajan who died 3 months after his demission). Every one of them had formed his own orchestra, brought in something new, building up on the sound of his predecessor. Each time the orchestra had identified itself with the artist at its helm. At the moment when Sir Simon Rattle tries to form the orchestra to his desire, painstakingly undertaking to model the sound, sculpting it in an infinitesimal way, enlarging the repertoire even more, carrying out an exemplary youth education programme, working on the technique all of a sudden the explosion of music hic et nunc returns with a Claudio Abbado concentrating on the contrary all his energy on the fleeting instant of the concert, never repeated, as well as on the freedom and the joy of making music together.
And it is once again the idyll, interrupted two years ago, taken up again instantly with a love of playing together absolutely intact. “As if he had never left” replied those we asked. Even musicians who have in the mean time left the orchestra returned. Even those who, privately, never spared their criticism now expressed their joy. “Hab’ das niemals erlebt” (“Never experienced anything like it”) a shattered spectator was heard saying. All of them, musicians and the general public, affectionately call him Claudio. This return was proceded by a rush for tickets, by a mass of “Suche Karte” signs brandished by the unlucky ones, deprived of tickets, up to 200m. away from the Philharmonie already. All this goes to show how deep Claudio Abbado’s mark on Berlin was and how well he understood the town as well as its inhabitants. Note must also be taken of the number of young people in the audience, which nowadays and in particular in a concert with such a demanding programme, is quite a rarity.
As stated above the programme offered a little known work, Six Monologues from Jedermann by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, set to music by Frank Martin and sung by Thomas Quasthoff with a rare intensity and expressiveness. This music, which brings to ones ear (by way of Hofmannsthal) a terrible and harsh God, a sort of Pantokrator, resembles a grim dialogue between the strings, the brass and the percussion section. It requires a tremendous effort of concentration and an uncompromising faith all in the midst of tragic times (we are in 1943 even if the orchestral version is from 1949). Quasthoff’s voice is at the same time spectral and soft: we understand why this artist, probably the greatest singer today and who, despite his handicap has started to perform opera, refused the offer to sing Alberich. This terrible role, without lyricism,is not suited for a singer with a voice at the same time profound as well as soft and sensitive.
Once again Claudio Abbado brings to our knowledge an unknown work which makes an instant impression and surprises by its depth. The orchestra, as usual admirable, with a unfailing technique and a surprising commitment imposes on the audience, with the help of Thomas Quasthoff, the need to contemplate.
Mahler’s Sixth is a symphony realtively rarely conducted by Claudio Abbado. It is perhaps more extrovert than the others. It is a monument of 1h 20min. composed of three contrasting, violent movements and one slow, more lyrical one, where Mahler gives free rein to his love of nature. Usually this slow movement is played as the third one and a doubt exists as to Mahler’s real intentions. That is why Claudio Abbado, following in the steps of the first performance, chose to place it in second position. The same orchestra has already played it in this order with Sir John Barbirolli, as our friend and CAI-member, Achille Maccapani, kindly pointed out to us. But so too has Simon Rattle and the the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. For the listener it is undeniable that this choice creates a more balanced situation after a first movement where at the same time an extreme tension and a resounding compexity reign, where there are violent contrasts, the sound is split up in an infinite way, the music howls without pity and leaves the audience flabbergasted. The slow movement, of such a nostalgic but also passionate character (the sort of passion which makes tears spring to your eyes), then enables concentration after the initial amazement supplied by the first movement.
Let us quote, among other marvels, the beginning of the fourth movement, the explosion of the winds, the harps and the strings which allows the music to spread between all the instruments and creates a sound which runs through all the orchestra as if it were infectious. We must quote of course too the final fortissimo, so brutal, so violent, so hard and dry that it takes by surprise not only the audience but the conductor too, who lets out an unequivocal expression. Admittedly, the variety of instruments four harps, two celesta, cow bells (for the first time), a bell hidden behind the stage and also this impressive hammer all adds to the spectacular side of the evening. Many studies were carried out to build a hammer capable of producing the sound Mahler was looking for. He wanted short, mighty but dark blows, non-metallic, like an ax. The audience gazed enraputured at the orchestra and its incredible technical mastery, a technique without fault (Rattle effect?), a round, clear sound and all that allied to an evident enthusiasm and commitment visible on all the faces, concentrating on their desire to give their best. Some of the articles in the German press pointed out that the Berlin Philharmonic played as if it was their last concert, “as if their life depended on it” as one journalist wrote. The players themselves (when asked) could offer no explanation either and modestly replied that the atmosphere had been different. We had probably forgotten what this orchestra stands for and we were able to witness once more the harmony between the orchestra and the conductor, the incredible precision of all sections, with a soft spot for the oboe (Mayer!), the flute (Pahud!), the horns led by Stefan Dohr, down to the expressive and happy face of a Wilfried Strehle! Not forgetting the percussion, the harps, the solo violin or... or...
Mahler often arouses big interior emotions which lead to withdrawal, shock, tears. This evening we were grasped by violent feelings which ranged from private emotions to something quite different, something which has to do with primary feelings, fright, stupor, the transcendent feeling which sometimes overcomes you in front of a monument too big to take in in one go. Like an earth tremor.
Rendez-vous next year for a similar programme including Berg (Sieben Frühe Lieder) and Mahler’s 4th Symphony (with Renée Fleming). No need to order tickets it is sold out already.