Peter J. Rabinowitz
, July 2009
It’s a surprise to see Abbado’s name on a new recording of the Brandenburgs. For better or worse, we’ve passed the time when big-name big-band conductors like Klemperer, Karajan, Reiner, and Munch took on this repertoire; why would a maestro who’s only dabbled in the Baroque up to now suddenly decide to buck the trend and return to these concertos (which he last recorded more than 40 years ago) in his mid-seventies? I don’t know the answer—but in any case, those expecting a particularly Abbado-esque perspective on this music may be disappointed. Abbado founded the Orchestra Mozart in 2004, melding together, in the words of Werner Pfister’s notes for this release, “a group of eminent chamber musicians and young instrumentalists.” And during this concert (filmed in the visually resplendent Teatro Municipale Romolo Valli in Reggio Emilia), he does stand in front of the group for most of the program, giving a few general indications here and there. But for the most part, he doesn’t intervene (in fact, he’s not even on stage during the Sixth). Rather, the instrumentalists run the show as he looks on with benign (and well-justified) pride.
In terms of performance practice, these could be termed middle-of-the-road readings: most of the instruments are modern, but we get recorders, viola da gambas, and violone as well; where possible, the performers stand while playing; the forces are not minimal, but they’re modest (even at its grandest, in the Second, the group includes only a dozen strings); vibrato is kept under control. In terms of interpretation, though, these vital performances are hardly middle-of-the-road: tempos are consistently quick (nearly every movement is quicker than the equivalent on Pinnock’s fabled Archiv set), rhythms are consistently bouncy (note how well the players sway—both physically and musically—in the dances that round out No. 1), phrases are consistently resilient. The virtuosity is impressive as well: the musicians zip through the finale of the Second (placed last on the program) in just over two and a half minutes, without a trace of frenzy or pressure; then, as an encore, they skip through it again (this time with Michala Petri playing a sopranino recorder), knocking a few seconds off their previous timing.
I can’t say that I learned anything dramatically new here—and I can’t say that my more old-fashioned side (hey, I was brought up on Scherchen) didn’t occasionally long for more relaxation in some of the slower music and for a bit less relentlessness in the Presto of No. 4. But on the whole, the paradoxically breathless buoyancy of the set was so infectious and life affirming that it’s impossible to complain. At the end of the concert, the musicians (dressed with a refreshing lack of uniformity) were pelted with bouquets from the audience, and they played their encore on a blossom-covered stage, with flowers peeking out from their pockets, tied to their pegboxes, even stuck in their sound-holes. It’s an image that sums up the spirit of the concert as a whole.
In general, I don’t find that video adds that much to concert recordings—but in this case, the exuberant give-and-take of the performers adds significantly to the delight of the event. This is especially true on the superlative Blu-ray disc, markedly clearer and more immediate than the DVD, which is fine on its own but distinctly vague, especially in the more distant shots, when seen in A-B comparison to the newer medium. The Blu-ray has more focused surround sound as well. Warmly welcomed.