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10.11.04

Soft Lines, Heaven-Bound: Abbado and the NSO

Other Review:

Daniel Ginsberg, NSO Sounds Just Right With Abbado, Ohlsson (Washington Post, November 5) [NB: The Post review does mistakenly refer to Roberto Abbado and "his father, Claudio."—CTD]
Where Maurizio Pollini is my God on ivory (see Ionarts reviews of his recent Washington recital), Claudio Abbado has the same Olympic position on the podium for me. When Zeus isn't available, though, make due with Herakles. Roberto Abbado, guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in three concerts of Mahler's first symphony, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 (with Garrick Ohlsson as the soloist), and a Fabio Vacchi (b. 1949) piece (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Nov. 4-6), probably wouldn't particularly appreciate such an intro. He has after all long proven that he stands on his own as a formidable conductor. Constant reference to his uncle, probably taken with the nonchalant grace of someone used to it, distracts more than it enlightens. That they somehow turn out to be father and son in many stories adds another layer of obscurity.

Roberto Abbado, who might just move in next door, if the Baltimore Symphony should be so lucky as to successfully court him, introduced Washingtonians to Fabio Vacchi's Dai calanchi di Sabbiuno. Not having read the title or the story of this composition, it sounded like midnight waves repeatedly washing ashore in a dark port over notes of resignation, repetition, bells tolling—all with an underlying melancholy taken for granted. It is a magnificent work, and it is of course delightful to hear music from composers who still have a pulse. Given the background of the work, though, I was wrong about just about every association. "At the trenches of Sabbiuno" is not about a destitute fishing village in southern Italy, it is about the infamous arrest and consequent murder of over 100 Italians by the SS in random vengeance after a German officer had been killed. Sabbiuno is in the mountainous north of Italy and rather than melancholy taken for granted, it is a Requiem. (The commander of the SS forces has recently been held accountable for his part in the mass murder of these Italians, in a highly publicized trial in Rome.)

As the Vacchi started softly, swelled and recoiled, the Beethoven concerto picked up this softest of touches, bringing it to further heights. Many music lovers hail the Fourth Piano Concerto as the finest piano concerto written. Be that as it may (my pick, Elliot Carter's second, hasn't gotten a chance in that debate, anyway), it is assuredly an unmitigated delight. We've heard Beethoven so many times that there is always a danger of it falling into a hackneyed mode of routine playing. Not with the NSO, led by the always delectable first chair Nurith Bar-Joseph and under the baton of Mr. Abbado. Textures were light enought and though some elements of the orchestra could have been a bit quicker onto their notes, there was no thumping around on the back of the beat.

Above it, fleet and light (in some contrast to his bear-like exterior), Garrick Ohlsson (a Busoni and Chopin Piano Competition winner from 1966 and 1970, respectively) did some wonderful work. Not that he played the work with kid gloves, either. Come the right moment, he could get every bit as heavily energetic as necessary. Three bars later, though, he'd be back tickling the finer notes out of Beethoven with utmost delicacy. His cadenza (I presume it was his own) was long and certainly "unique," but a bit wayward. The audience loved it so much that they gave spontaneous applause after the fierce ending of the first movement.

While Mr. Ohlsson continued with well-honed playing, Maestro Abbado accompanied in a lean, well-articulated style... crisp like fresh linen. A humming cello was a bit obvious in some parts, a snarling bassoon called undue attention to itself elsewhere, but it was a fine fit, overall. I do find, however, that Beethoven, like most Classical and early Romantic music, is not well suited to a "nouvelle cuisine" approach to music. You decidedly do not want to hear all the individual parts that make up the whole, because they don't always make sense on their own and usually don't enlighten much, either. Brahms, Haydn, Mozart & Co. more likely fall apart into incoherent strands. They are better served with the "curry style" of music making. All in one pot: one big flavor. Bach and Mahler, to name only two, are another story. Dissecting the former gives you the giddy joy of proving a mathematical equation, while with the latter it's like deconstructing a Joyce novel. The sort of stuff you like to do on any given rainy weekend in Geekland.

Available at Amazon - Still the best Mahler 1st around!
G. Mahler, Symphony No.1, Kubelik
Speaking of Mahler: after the expectedly well-received Beethoven, Mahler's first symphony was rolled out. I am still very much tempted to write simply: "Mahler 1. Ba-da-bang, Ba-da-boom: Fantastic... Try it live!" But flying through it with closed eyes as I was, the performance did merit a few more words than that.

First of all, it doesn't start with a bang, it starts just like Vacchi and Beethoven: timid, soft, tender. It then progresses, but neither as delicately as the Vacchi, nor as purposefully as the Beethoven. It's topsy-turvy with Mahler, and all to good fun. The NSO played rather well, making it easy to forgive a few rather audible weaknesses, especially in the difficult and exposed brass section. Mr. Abbado conducted decisively and got the orchestra to do his bidding with the "Titan." That the NSO is no natural Mahler orchestra can be heard by anyone who has been spoiled by live or even just recorded performances of bands that have an idiomatic and qualitative advantage. Nurith Bar-Joseph apart (she had also been the bright and shining light in Mahler's Second Symphony when Gilbert Kaplan performed it at the Kennedy Center a few months ago), I found devoted passion for the music lacking. Then, of course, I hold the stubborn conviction that the prerequisite to doing Mahler extraordinarily well involves having pranced around green Austrian pastures in Lederhosen.

The language in Mahler, especially in symphonies nos. 1, 3, and 7, is like a trip to my youth for me, and anyone I presume lacking in similar emotional connections is unjustly held suspect. The genial Roberto Abbado—while not likely to have done any Lederhosen-clad prancing anywhere—got to the core of it. Then, of course, he did spend six years in Munich as the head of the Munich Radio Orchestra. (There is talk of the Bavarian Radio planning to shut down that exciting orchestral body, often mixed up with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Read about it in the FAZ.) The spiritual and emotional roller coaster that is the first symphony ends with a clipped bang, indicative of the evening as such. Tickets had still been available at the door; encouraging to all those who like to make ad hoc plans. The reward would have been certain.

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