JWR Articles: Live Event - Lucerne Festival Orchestra (Conductor: Claudio Abbado) - August 21, 2010
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Lucerne Festival Orchestra

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Angel SB-3708
Better left to the imagination

Imagine hearing a Mahler symphony and never getting a chill.

Imagine his last complete symphony failing to evoke a tear, anger or the personal acceptance that nothing—especially life—goes on forever.

Imagine standing before an orchestra full of dedicated, talented musicians and instead of conducting the music, merely beating time with perhaps a dozen gestures utilized to cajole, inspire and lead the searing art out of the thousands of painstakingly crafted notes on every page (in fairness, when Abbado did use his left hand for more than mirror-image beats or white-cuff cues, the difference was palpable—especially with the violins whose ensemble was otherwise distressing when left to their own devices).

Imagine conducting without the score, but not by memory (so many details were lost in the aforementioned “set” gestures that the music never could get on track, much less reveal its potent mysteries to the capacity crowd).

Imagine the opening “Andante comodo” being exhilarating in its climaxes but all dressed up with nowhere to go in between.

Imagine the harp being too loud and nothing done about it.

Imagine a growling bass trombone that was permitted to slip into parody instead of edgy emotion (and the stopped horns frequently unfocussed).

Happily, imagine the excellent contributions from the E-flat clarinet being the pride of the otherwise untamed woodwinds.

Imagine approaching Mahler with an over-abundance of lyricism and finesse when so much turmoil (overt at times, more of it largely written between the powerful lines) and drawing thundering applause from the devoted admirers who, nonetheless found time to check their Blackberries, cough at inopportune moments and, collectively, being unsure just when the nearly 90-minute work actually concluded.

Imagine the, apparently, singular disappointment of hoping for artistic revelation only to be left with the sad reality that performances such as these are good enough to be admired, cherished and extolled in 2010. JWR

Historical Perspective

Mahler Symphony No. 9
Angel SB-3708, 1968, 87 min.
Otto Klemperer, The New Philharmonia
Two stars

Over the course of a long career, Otto Klemperer was known to relax his tempi as the years passed by. Not here: one of the few highlights of this 1967 recording with The New Philharmonia is that the selected speeds work well. Sadly, the result of the Kingsway Hall studio sessions (following a pair of public performances) is almost entirely vertical: the barlines seemingly stand together, not permitting a phrase to dissolve their staidness much less revel in the wealth of harmonic and register changes—notably in the inner voices—that abound. One can hear Mahler struggling to get out of this musical straitjacket where the long, expressive lines are pushed into the ear rather poured into the heart. Imagine being ever-conscious of time in the closing “Adagio” (where the first violins can’t hold a candle to their counterparts in the glory years of the Philharmonia—the orchestra’s “real” name being reclaimed in 1977—in the 1980s).

Even reverting back to the baton after three decades of hands-on concerts can’t help the tentative ensemble of the “Andante comodo”. The jury will forever be out as to the subtext of the Ländlers (parody or anger) whose frequent lilting melodies and motifs were saddled with stagnant treatments that couldn’t buy a lift to save their effect. Thank goodness for the low brass who provided the finest characterization of the movement. Rondo Burleske was untidy in the essential differentiation of duples and triples; there was no sense of arrival only a feeling of merely getting there.

Clearly it falls to others to reveal magic and mystery of the composer’s most personal symphony. JWR

Between Performances

During the festival’s 38-day run, a wide variety of non-musical activities was sampled both in Lucerne and other parts of Switzerland. Because of the excellent local and inter-city transportation system, there’s plenty to see and do within a day’s reach and still be back in time for the next performance—Cultural Tourism at its best!

For those who didn't get their fill of visual art at Berne's Zentrum Paul Klee (Klee Meets Picasso—running until October 2010) then a survey of the collection at the Museum Sammlung Rosengart (Lucerne)—especially if the weather isn't cooperating for an outdoor adventure—is highly recommended. JWR

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Conductor - Claudio Abbado
Repertoire:
Symphony No. 9 in D Major - Gustav Mahler
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