The final years of Herbert von Karajan’s tenure as Principal Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic had descended into chaos; egos clashed and Karajan was moonlighting with indecent regularity in Vienna. Claudio Abbado gradually pieced goodwill back together when he was appointed as successor in 1989, his collegiate approach contrasting noticeably with Karajan’s despotic tendencies. Abbado’s valedictory appearance with the orchestra in May 2013 thus marked the end of an era, an occasion wistfully celebrated in this latest release from Berlin Philharmoniker Recordings.
Two works, which Abbado had recorded previously, were on the programme: Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, which turned out to be a characteristically shrewd piece of programming. Abbado’s earlier Midsummer Night’s Dream (also with BPO) might have included more numbers, but the chimerical gleam of those hanging-in-the-air opening woodwind chords gives notice that here is something very special. The fleeting, skipping Scherzo, with its sinuous harmonic sleights-of-hand, is as fantastical as the triadic, muscular brass writing of the Wedding March is rooted in the earth. Deborah York and Stella Doufexis, and the choir, balance well-enunciated weight against suggestive fancy.
Abbado’s perspective on Berlioz is far removed from Bernstein’s blood and guts cinematic view – but nor is this Boulez’s objectified view either. Abbado builds this performance through exacting detail; the ripple of angel wings on the harp during the Waltz is as exquisitely framed as the ghoulish cackle of bad-breath brittle strings in the closing movement. And as the opening string strains of the Berlioz begin, the realisation dawns that Abbado’s Mendelssohn/Berlioz pairing is all about entering into worlds of myth and fantasy.
You can download the audio only via the Berlin Philharmonic website, but the box is definitely worth the extra outlay. The booklet is packed with intriguing archive photos – including Abbado and his successor Simon Rattle in a warm embrace – while the concert itself can be watched on Blu-ray. Watching Abbado, who looks surprisingly well, lead the Berlioz in particular is a masterclass in paired back gesture that can express everything. When the bell tolls during the final movement, Abbado looks up in wonderment towards the Philharmonie Gods – the message being, “I’m enjoying this collective listening experience as much as anybody else” – a spirit reflected in orchestra member tributes that are sincere without ever descending into doe-eyed maestro worship.