fri 23/02/2018

Uchida, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Abbado, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Uchida, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Abbado, Royal Festival Hall

Uchida, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Abbado, Royal Festival Hall

High-risk Bruckner Five pulled off by the Italian legend

Claudio Abbado: a living legend in rehearsalImages © Chris Christodoulou

We're living through a golden age of Bruckner conducting. A revolutionary age. Young sparks like Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Ilan Volkov are doing extraordinary things with the Austrian's music, experimenting with speeds and phrasing, reshaping him in a more extraterrestrial, more lithe and modern mould. All of which means that trying to get yourself noticed conducting Bruckner in the 2010s is a bit like trying to get yourself noticed as a footballer in 1970s Brazil. Good luck.

But before we got a chance to assess whether the living legend Claudio Abbado made the grade in his performance of Bruckner Five, we had Dame Mitsuko Uchida's dreamy swim through the Schumann Piano Concerto to investigate. The last time I heard Uchida play Schumann at the Royal Festival Hall, it looked more like she was kneading bread than playing a keyboard. She delivered last night's performance in such a spirited way that the infrequent return of the smudgy, dough-beating activity hardly mattered. Besides, we were being treated to so many passages of foamy soft tenderness that we had little to complain about. 

As I listened to an uncharacteristically brutish, loud and characterless opening movement, I thought, was Bruckner getting the better of Abbado?

Admittedly the lack of muscle to the left-hand grabs and the ponderous speeds, particularly in the final movement, weren't ideal. (I wouldn't want my Schumann to come served only this way.) But if you just succumbed to Uchida-land - such an attractively liminal world ultimately - one could go home very satisfied. The numerous beautiful duets she developed with the wind soloists of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (including the characterful clarinet of Stefan Schilling) was worth listening to alone. (Pictured below: Uchida and Abbado take the audience's applause)

Italians don't have much of a track record with Bruckner. Riccardo Chailly is the only one to have completed an entire cycle. Abbado's recorded a few but not to any great distinction. Still, one always expects from Abbado. After all, he is one of the world's greatest Mahlerians. But maybe this doesn't necessarily translate to Bruckner, I thought, as I listened to an uncharacteristically brutish, loud and characterless (doubled woodwinds blaring out at us mechanically throughout) opening Adagio-Allegro from Abbado. Was Bruckner getting the better of him? Or was Abbado perhaps deliberately leading us up an ugly garden path?

Only in the final bars did I think I know the answer. Looking back, it appeared that Abbado might have been intentionally pushing the granitic quality of the opening to its monolithic limits in order to make us thirst after and finally become awestruck by the transformation in the finale. At least that's how I rationalised the almighty metamorphosis of the orchestra over the the course of the next three movements. In the slow a thaw began, a colourful delicacy (the exquisite flute of Jacques Zoon, for example) peering out through the icy rocks. 

With the arrival of the Scherzo, the thaw turned to a full-blown rebirth. Had the evening ended there, I might have wondered why Abbado hadn't injected the first movement with the same life and swing. But then came the epic finale and fugue, and what sounded like an explanation. Here, as the musical themes split, ran, collapsed and collected like streams off a mountain side, the work starting to teem with life, Abbado's reading finally began to make perfect and wondrous sense.

A high-risk strategy that Abbado could and did totally pull off. With the majestic subtleties of voicing and balancing (which had been so absent in the opening movement) suddenly coming into play, the final polyphony became unforgettably glorious. He even had the audacity to bring out the fleeting return of a tiny two-bar theme on the flutes in the last fortissimo climax, hushing the rest of the orchestra for a few seconds to allow our ears to catch a glimpse of this glistening little scale. For that alone, Abbado deserved a standing ovation. And he got one.

Comments

You say Abbado's recorded a few (Bruckner symphonies) but not to any great distinction. I can only assume you've never listened to any of them then. A splendid no.4 on DG with the VPO which stands with the very best and an awe-inspiring no 7 with his Lucerne orchestra on a 2005 EuroArts dvd prove otherwise.

Have just been listening again to an old vinyl recording of Abbado's Bruckner One with the VPO and feel you might be partly right, Waldteufel. It's rather good - full of vigour and sweetness.  Don't know his 7 with the Lucerne. Will have to check it out.

Feel duty bound for honour's sake, too, to point out that Abbado and the Lucerners' Bruckner Fourth is also available on a CD - not widely distributed, I think, but it was the first time I really felt reconciled to what for me is the most problematic of the canon. Again, the horn playing - vital in the 'Romantic' - is not of this world.

Well I was blessed to have been in the audience on both nights. The second night I had a copy of your review and was able to get some insight on this gigantic work. The playing was fantastic and certainly deserved the prolonged standing ovation that Abbado and the Orchestra received. Nearby members of the audience had come from South Germany and from Zurich especially to be here for these two concerts. Several other people I spoke with also had attended both nights performances. Thank you Abbado and the LFO and thank you Mr Critic for your helpful review!

Great review, thank you. Abbado can be trusted to pull something deep and insightful out of great works like this Bruckner so I am not at all surprised to read this. It just goes to show how important symphonic structure is in a piece like this, and it takes a visionary Maestro like Abbado to realize it in performance! But I am not such a fan of Bruckner. It is the Schumann I would truly love to have heard. I think the last movement deserves more than the whirlwind rapture normally dealt, and it sounds like Uchida's 'Ponderous speeds' may have fitted to my tastes more than the norm.

No need to get the vinyls out to listen to great Bruckner by Abbado. Both his 5th and his 9th with the VPO are outstanding (Igor, there you will find an even better performance of the inspired dip in the brass to allow the inner wind voices to soar in the final peroration). I used to find it intriguing that he wanted to take on the part of the Bruckner canon that seems to fit least with his core repertoire. Thielemann and the MPO still rank as the best live performance I've heard, but Abbado's makes the more beautiful and athletic sound. The doubling of horns and strings in the first movement was a thing of wonder.

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