THE WANDERER'S CHRONICLE
17 August 2003
Bach: Brandenburg Concerts 1 to 6
Members of the
To play music together, „zusammenmusizieren”, is, beyond the pleasure of sharing one another’s company or mutual affection, first and foremost a matter of being able to listen to one another. To play in an orchestra means above all to have this capacity to listen to others, an essential attribute if music is really to be played together and not just as a series of notes. This is also the principle established by Claudio Abbado on setting up the Lucerne Festival Orchestra: young musicians with whom he works regularly mix with undisputed masters of chamber music such as the Hagen Quartet or the Ensemble Sabine Meyer. Without the contribution of chamber music no musical programme is conceivable. As a result the Lucerne Festival included chamber music in the programmes of this memorable week. The newspaper articles now appearing, be they German, Italian, French or Spanish, are all enthusiastic. Thus we were able to hear wind quintets, sextets and octets played by the Hagen Quartet, the Ensemble Sabine Meyer, soloists such as Marie Pierre Langlamet (harp), Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Rainer Kußmaul, Kolja Blacher, Renaud Capucon (violin) or Georg Faust (cello). The programmes consisted of music by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Mozart, Bartok, Ravel, Beethoven, Jolivet, Debussy and others. Add to that a concert given by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by its designated music director Daniel Harding. One of the culminating points of this big musical meeting was the performance of all the Brandenburg concertos by members of the orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado.
Ever since the beginning of his career Claudio Abbado has remained faithful to Bach, a fact that has never become common knowledge. He has played the Brandenburg concertos several times (with La Scala in the Seventies and members of the Berlin Philharmonic in the Nineties) as well as the St. Matthew Passion (with La Scala, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic). An extraordinary official recording of the latter with the Berlin Philharmonic even exists but you will not find it at your local record shop (nor anywhere else for that matter). It was published in Italy in 2000 to mark the Bach year and sold 60.000 copies at the news agents (exactly: news agents!) at the the price of 10 Euro for 3 CDs...
On this occasion Claudio Abbado grouped around him the main soloists of the orchestra, led by Rainer Kußmaul, ex-leader of the Berlin Philharmonic. The latter continues to conduct the Berliner Barock Solisten, an ensemble he once founded and still works with, besides being professor of violin in Freiburg im Breisgau.
Bach interpretations have evolved in the past forty years due to the Baroque revolution, which put an end to all romantic views. Gustav Leonhardt, followed by Nicolaus Harnoncourt, pathed the way for all the specialists, real or fake, of Baroque music. This “back to the roots”, supported by intense musicological studies, has clearly divided the Baroque specialists from all the others. As a result some artists, put in a special category too soon, have suffered from this distinction. Some henceforth have proved they can also conduct other repertoire. Thus Harnoncourt as well as Marc Minkovski now regularly conduct Offenbach with great success. Others conduct romantic works with period instruments such as John Eliot Gardiner or Sir Roger Norrington. Others yet again conduct both the Baroque repertoire as well as the great works of the 19th and 20th century. That is the case of Sir Simon Rattle, for example.
Faithful to the principle set up at the time of the St. Matthew Passion, Claudio Abbado chose modern instruments (with the exception of the “violone” for the continuo in all the concerts and the viola da gamba in the 6th concerto), but the strings play without vibrato. To sum up: musicological contributions are taken into consideration, but modern instruments are nearly always used.
Another special feature: Claudio Abbado requested the musicians to play standing up, as was the habit in the 18th century. This is not out of vanity: nothing is quite the same if you are seated or standing up, neither the playing nor the movement. The choice of interpretation is not an ideological one: modern instruments are used (with all their advantages in a hall as big and as high as the Lucerne one), but musicological research into performing in the 18th century is respected. Claudio Abbado has always followed closely this research.
Without wanting to go into great detail the astonishing feat of the continuo must be mentioned. This consisted of the cellos (led by Georg Faust, Berlin Philharmonic), the “violone” of Alois Posch (double-bass, Vienna Philharmonic) and the sensational harpsichordist Michele Barchi, who gave a state of the art demonstration of his skills of improvisation in the 3rd concerto. All of them assured the rhythmic and interpretative foundation as a sort of red thread through the evening, in close contact with the conductor, who kept on glancing at Georg Faust with a twinkle in his eye.
Mention must also be made of Rainer Kußmaul, who is exposed continuously - and that in nearly all the concertos. When the sound of his violin melts with that of Emmanuel Pahud’s flute (concerto no. 3) this is not a dialogue any more but a monologue for two voices. This is definitely one of the highlights of the evening, even if Peter Hagmann (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) thinks that the balance is not perfect and that the flute and the violin both cover up Michele Barchi’s harpsichord.
The musicians are not numerous, from 8 (concerto no. 6) to 19 (concerto no. 1) and they alternate their position according to their role. The rhythm is quick and the concertos are not played in their natural order ( nos. 1 6) but 4, 3, 5 followed by 1, 6, 2. The latter gives the exuberant Reinhold Friedrich (trumpet) and Albrecht Mayer (principal oboist of the Berlin Philharmonic and nicknamed “the Callas of the oboe”) the opportunity to triumph in the last movement which they there upon repeat as an encore.
Some members of the audience asked themselves: is a conductor really necessary when you have such soloists? Without any doubt all are capable of playing on their own. Although the young strings (Capucon, Abelin, Lang, Breuninger, Arzberger, Swensen, Juda) are closely observed by Abbado. It is this mixture of technical perfection and experience paired with enthusiastic youth which is encouraged here. The result is a sound of incredible clarity which can be heard perfectly well in the last corner of the hall. The result also has traces of an infectious dynamism (witness the sheer joy of playing communicated by these youngsters). It is enough to see the smiles and hugs at the end of the concert as well as the enthusiasm and roars of the audience, rare in a concert of chamber music, to understand that that evening the audience and the musicians really and truely made music together.