Hearing the Silence: Sketches for a Portrait by Paul Smaczny

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COMPOSERS: Hearing the Silence
WORKS: Sketches for a Portrait by Paul Smaczny
PERFORMER: Gruno Ganz, Daniel Harding, Albrecht Mayer, Wolfram Christ, Kolja Balcher; Berlin PO, Vienna PO, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Gustav Mahler YO



This is a poetic film about an elusive man, one shy of words but always supremely elegant and watchful in action. Threaded together by carefully modulated images of nature, the inchoate sounds of Nono’s Prometeo and lofty but truthful generalisations from Abbado’s favourite poet Hölderlin and that great actor Bruno Ganz, the generous excerpts of the conductor at work remain the most eloquent testimony. Fellow-conductor Daniel Harding momentarily brings the surrounding worship into sharper focus when he talks about the contrast between the firm beat of the right hand and the ‘beautiful freedom’ of the left, which does all the moulding.


There isn’t much personal or past history, only a brief flashback to a serious, tense young Abbado in Vienna in 1968. It’s light years away from the phenomenal recent collaboration with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra, where the motto of ‘listen to each other’ may seem obvious but where the level of the music-making, by his own admission, wrought miracles for the frail Abbado after his near-fatal illness. The phenomenon of the film’s title is the communal silence of an audience after a special performance when, as Abbado puts it, the whole acoustic changes. The accompanying clip of the conductor coming to the end of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem and ‘hearing the silence’ without even having to hold his arms aloft is one of the several spellbinding moments to which Smaczny’s ‘sketches’ modestly bear witness. David Nice