Wednesday 12 October 2011

Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Abbado - Mozart and Bruckner, 11 October 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Mozart – Symphony no.35 in D major, KV 385, ‘Haffner’
Bruckner – Symphony no.5 in B-flat major

Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Claudio Abbado (conductor)

I had opted for the second of the two Lucerne Festival Orchestra concerts largely on account of the soloist announced for the first, having no desire to hear Hélène Grimaud mangle Schumann’s Piano Concerto. When Grimaud pulled out, ‘artistic differences’ with Claudio Abbado cited, her place was taken by Dame Mitsuko Uchida, but it was too late. Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony was common to both programmes; yet, on the basis of the Mozart I have heard most recently from Abbado, I was not entirely sure of my enthusiasm for a Haffner Symphony under his baton. How wrong I was, for this turned out to be one of the most dashing and surpassingly graceful performances of a Mozart symphony I have heard.

The orchestra was neither large nor small, but more or less what one would expect today for a symphony orchestra in Mozart. Its – and Abbado’s – famed transparency was much in evidence, yet weight was not absent: if the first movement fizzed like vintage champagne, it had the body of at least a young claret too. Chiaroscuro was breathtaking, likewise the fine yet never fussy articulation of the strings. Only occasionally was there a hint of ‘period’ astringency, hard drumsticks notwithstanding. Orchestral transparency permitted contrapuntal clarity as marked as that in Klemperer’s decidedly non-chamber approach. I do not think I have ever heard the slow movement taken so quickly: it sounded to my ears more akin to a relatively swift Allegretto rather than an Andante. Yet it worked. Even if Abbado’s tempo did not remotely equate to what I hear in my mind’s ear, I was won over by his unfailing command of line. Furtwängler would never have sounded remotely like this in Mozart, but I suspect that he would have admired the conductor’s Fernhören (long-distance hearing): I can hardly speak more highly than that. Beautiful dynamic shading, for instance pianissimo string echoes, beguiled the ear just as much as the Harmoniemusik so evocative of outdoor serenading (and reminiscent of Abbado’s splendid Berlin recordings of both the Posthorn and Haffner Serenades). It has been recounted ad nauseam how the Lucerne players are encouraged by Abbado to listen to one another as if they were making chamber music. There could be no doubt, both visually and aurally, that that was just what they were doing here; the presence of some of the world’s finest chamber musicians as part of the ensemble assured a responsiveness that truly is second to none, indeed arguably surpasses any other.

Though my inclination for the minuet and trio is very much towards three beats in a bar, Abbado, taking the movement one-to-a-bar, proved utterly convincing. There was an infectious swing to the music that never so much as threatened to turn into mere swagger. Violins provided elegant ornamentation too: a dangerous path in all but the finest hands, but these hands were fine indeed. The trio breathed the air of a magical Salzburg summer evening. Though it was taken at the same tempo as the minuet, phrasing and general spirit nevertheless ensured relative relaxation. If I were truly to cast around for criticism, I might hazard that the finale was on occasion a little on the driven side, yet Abbado imparted such grace and light that I really did not mind in the slightest. The whole movement flew through the aural sky like a Mannheim rocket. Interplay between first and second violins showed that it is not, as some dogmatists would claim absolutely crucial to separate them. (Abbado placed them together, with violas on his right.) This was then, a wonderful performance. I should expect to be convinced by, say, Sir Colin Davis in this music. That I was quite transported by a performance that stands further from my general inclination speaks of the distinction of musicianship on offer here.

If I was a little less bowled over by the Bruckner symphony, that is more a matter of ambivalence towards the work. Abbado proved for the most part a sure guide, though there were occasions when I wondered whether something a little more granitic might have helped. Still, that is not his way, and there was much to be gained from his approach too: for instance, the magical – I make no apology for repeating that word – softness of the opening to the first movement. Not so far from the limits of audibility, perhaps the music of Abbado’s great friend, Luigi Nono, had come to his mind. Coughing, alas, proved disruptive here. The ensuing measured tread managed nevertheless to presage Elgar (not, so far as I am aware, a composer with whom Abbado has ever been associated). Then the great Bruckner unisons resounded, as hieratic as Messiaen. And finally, the full strings: a resplendent yet still transparent sound. The lack of traditionally Teutonic weight made me think of Karajan’s late Bruckner from Vienna, though in many other respects, the conductors’ approaches are quite different. Chamber spirit remained, for instance in the dialogue between woodwind and lower strings. The woodwind’s way with the chorales was special too: innig, yet also somehow suggestive of the piety of mediæval pilgrimage. Rather oddly, though, there were a few instances when the brass blared in a fashion one might have expected more from Solti in Chicago than Abbado with the Lucerne Orchestra.

Woodwind again excelled in the slow movement, the opening oboe solo of Lucas Macías Navarro later matched by the equally fine musicianship of Jacques Zoon on flute and Matthias Racz on bassoon. Abbado conducted the work with an unforced nobility that came close to concealing, or perhaps to effacing, Bruckner’s block-like construction (more of a problem for me than for many other listeners, it would seem). The brass section was mellower now: indeed, its tonal quality made me keen to hear the orchestra in Wagner. I still suspect that interventionist editing might help this symphony – heretically, I am quite happy to hear Knappertsbusch conduct the butchered Schalk edition – but the Lucerne orchestral sound kept me captivated. Moreover, there remains, even for doubting Thomases such as myself, something undeniably compelling about the sheer scale and seriousness of this music, which sounded, in Abbado’s hands, grave, beautiful, full of sentiment without the slightest hint of sentimentality. I wondered, however, whether a slightly faster tempo – nothing, I hasten to add, akin to that adopted in Mozart – might have helped the slightly agnostic among us.

Schubertian grace vied with peasant clomping at the beginning of the scherzo, much of which emerged, thanks to superlative rhythmic control, more dance-like than is often the case. Not, however, you will probably be grateful to hear, when the brass threatened – or heralded, according to taste – the Apocalypse. String articulation proved as crucial to the success of this movement as it had to that of the Mozart symphony. Again, I wish that Bruckner did not go on quite so much, but that is doubtless my problem.

The revelation of themes from earlier movements in the Adagio introduction to the finale was handled beautifully, it being a special pleasure to revisit Navarro’s oboe solo from the slow movement. String unisons then conspired to instil the fear of God into this mere mortal in the audience: for this orchestra, Bruckner’s power and Abbado’s translucency are far from mutually exclusive. For me, the double fugue starts off a little obviously as The Moment When The Composer Writes A Fugue And Demonstrates Contrapuntal Writing: not even Abbado could convince me that it is necessary, as it is, where it is. Nevertheless, so much excited and gripped in the best sense: the music never artificially whipped up, but the product of impeccable musicianship from all concerned, and again the consequence of a command of line and harmonic rhythm that might have impressed Furtwängler. The hard-won final exultation proved worthy, for once, of the clichéd ‘cathedral in sound’.