Claudio Abbado: The Last Concert

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COMPOSERS: Felix Mendelssohn; Hector Berlioz
LABELS: Berliner Philharmoniker
ALBUM TITLE: Claudio Abbado: The Last Concert
WORKS: Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
PERFORMER: Deborah York (soprano), Stella Doufexis (mezzo-soprano); Women of the Bavarian Radio Choir; Berlin Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado
CATALOGUE NO: Berliner Philharmoniker BPHR 160081

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‘Great conductors – I never liked all those grand words.’ ‘I felt that I played better for him than for anyone else because he trusted me. It was like playing chamber music.’ ‘His rehearsals could sound chaotic. But they made you listen to each other. I think it was deliberate.’ The bonus documentary on Claudio Abbado’s first year with the Berlin Philharmonic is full of such insights. Stepping as a dark horse into the turmoil and bitterness of Karajan’s last years with the orchestra, Abbado held the crucial card of having been appointed by the players, and was certainly not hindered by the almost simultaneous demolition of the Berlin Wall, that symbol of authoritarian rule. Film of this first year shows him in the full vigour of his fifties; there can be no doubt who was in charge when it came to the concerts themselves, but already the players are clearly enjoying themselves. ‘The important thing is to love music, and ignore the politics’: easy to say, but it needed a man of Abbado’s stature to bring it off.

The last concert he gave with the Berlin players in May 2013, his vigour desperately impaired by illness but his control still absolute, gave the orchestra a chance to show in Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music a lightness and delicacy learnt from Abbado, and in the Symphonie fantastique a relish both for its vulgar moments and for the spacious, transcendental calm of the ‘Scène aux champs’. Beautifully presented, with excellent notes, this is a recording to treasure.

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Roger Nichols