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Lindsay Kemp
Gramophone, April 2009

Abbado recreates the Brandenburgs in his own detailed, humane image

Claudio Abbado’s Mozart recordings with Orchestra Mozart (Archiv, A/08) were among the most pleasant surprises of last year, an inspiring chance to hear a great conductor enjoying himself in repertoire with which he has not previously been much associated.

Now here he is, no less wonderfully, gambolling among the Brandenburg Concertos in this straightforward TV-style concert film, recorded in the classic 19th-century opera house at Reggio Emilia during an Italian tour in spring 2007.

The orchestra is at first glance a curious gathering, mixing “Baroque” players such as violinist Giuliano Carmignola and harpsichordist Ottavio Dantone with “modem” names such as trumpeter Reinhold Friedrich and “un-Baroque” recorder-player Michala Petri. Furthermore, a look round the instruments reveals mostly modem models, some hybrids (for instance Jacques Zoon’s wooden, multi-keyed flute) and a sprinkling of Baroque bows. Mind you, most younger players these days are well versed in Baroque style whatever they play on, and the tenor of these performances is firmly consistent with current ideas of what Baroque music ought to sound like.

So what, then, does Abbado bring to pieces that these days are rarely considered to require a conductor? Well, in the performance itself, not a lot; his batonless beating is minimal, at times barely perceptible, and in Concerto No 6 he is not even on stage. But these are Bach interpretations very much in his image, as detailed and humane as in any Mahler symphony, and infused with a musical sensitivity that is ever-present yet refuses to draw attention to itself. In music that is surely more for players than conductors, he allows fine soloists such as Cannignola, Zoon and the two yearningly exquisite viola soloists in No 6 to shine, yet has clearly worked hard to ensure that every note is in precisely the right place, every tempo convinces, and the texture is always deliciously transparent. What next from him, I wonder?

John Terauds
Toronto Star, March 2009

Like a first love, it’s been hard to compare anything to the first time I heard J.S. Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos together in a live performance. It was a modern-instrument version at the Kennedy Center’s large concert hall, led by Georg Solti, a conductor famous for big symphonic and operatic work.

But love can strike twice: a quarter-century later, on DVD, the musical magic repeated itself as famed maestro Claudio Abbado (best loved for his work at Milan’s La Scala opera house) led modern-instrument Brandenburgs (with harpsichord instead of piano) in a municipal theatre in Italy two years ago.

Bach’s concertos are so compelling because they show off nearly every instrument available to a composer in the early 18th century. Bach dressed up the score with all manner of gorgeous invention because it was, for all intents and purposes, written on spec so that he could impress a prospective patron.

Abbado and his merry gang (with the unlikely name of Orchestra Mozart) do a warmly brisk job. The music twinkles with colour and vibrates with life.

This is an hour and a half of musical delights.

The only quibbles here are the fast camera cuts, which become distracting within minutes. If you turn off the video, you’ll also miss the sweat trickling down the standing performers’ faces (another advantage of concert hall seats too far away for high-def detail).

There are no extras.

Paul L Althouse
American Record Guide, March 2009

All six concertos were recorded on April 21, 2007. The orchestra, formed in Bologna under Abbado’s leadership in 2004, is a fine young group. They play standing, which allows them lots of movement; and it is enjoyable watching these (mostly) Italian musicians choreograph their music (though perhaps they were too aware of the camera!).

These are not period performances. Horns and trumpets have valves (though the flute in the Fifth is wooden, and recorders are used in the Fourth), and the orchestra plays with the kind of expression that comes from the heart, not the textbook. Still, the fast movements are often very fast, with all boundaries seemingly subjugated to rhythm and articulation. And while it is undoubtedly exciting to hear the finale of the Third done lickety-split, it would also be nice to acknowledge the harmony and a bit of gracefulness in this wonderful music.

In more expressive movements—the slow movement of the Fifth is the best example— the performance would benefit if the players took a little more time to shape the music. It’s all very efficient, but not very moving.

Not everything is hasty. The Sixth does not sound pressed or rushed, allowing the violists to indulge in lots of give-and-take (and the harpsichordist uses a buff stop in the Adagio). Nor is the Fourth, which is done beautifully at conventional tempos; even the finale—the only movement marked Presto—has grace and shape. Also very satisfying is the Second, where Reinhold Friedrich’s little four-valved trumpet blends very well with the other soloists.

Abbado conducts all the pieces except the Sixth, using the sparest of gesture; he’s more like a beneficent traffic cop on a day with little traffic. The swift tempos, though, are obviously largely his responsibility, and I find it significant that the Sixth (without conductor) is the freest and most individual of the bunch. I can’t explain the Second and Fourth, other than to wonder if the famous recorder player Michala Petri (who, by the way, is Danish, not Italian) put her foot down and insisted on tempos that gave her some breathing and phrasing room. So, six concertos, three lovely, three too pushed in the direction of virtuosity and raw speed. The audience is almost invisible and inaudible until the applause and the tossing of flowers at the very end.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, February 2009

This is one of those discs which, thirty years or so ago, probably wouldn’t have raised any odd questions. Numerous established conductors of heavyweight orchestral repertoire have recorded J.S. Bach. While the Brandenburg concertos were more usually the terrain of the chamber orchestra, they can, even now, be bought with the likes of Karajan at the helm. So, what is the great Beethoven and Mahler interpreter Claudio Abbado doing directing Bach amongst a seriously high quality list of chamber music specialists? Not a huge amount judging by this new DVD, and this is all to his credit. Abbado started the Orchestra Mozart in 2004 with Mozart as a central figure in its repertoire, later adding other Viennese composers Haydn and Beethoven, as well as Schubert and even venturing into contemporary music. Abbado clearly recognises the quality of his players in this production, and while guiding them in a fairly low-key fashion knows that in this repertoire they could probably do almost as well without him.

Baroque music is one of those styles which precedes the rise of the conductor as a force with which to be reckoned. Once you switch on the motor in these pieces there are few places where even the slightest variation in tempo should occur. There are some little musical commas where transitions occur between the dances of the Trio movements and at repeats, but if the conductor has to do anything it is to make sure that the music doesn’t become slower and s l o w e r—something I can’t imagine the experienced musicians on this recording allowing in the first place. Look at the opening of the Concerto No.3. Abbado almost literally pulls a string, turning on the most delightful bathroom light and then basking in its glow while hardly moving a muscle. This is good conducting—not waving your arms around when there is no need. You can also clearly see the musicians communicating with each other on camera, and I can assure any doubters that the chamber music feel of these excellent performances is never compromised by having the great maestro as a figurehead.

All this said; this is a chimera of more than one kind. The set-up follows pretty much all of the currently accepted standards for baroque performance practice. There are a limited number of musicians. Those who can play standing up. The harpsichord has an important continuo role. The whole thing has a minimal-vibrato lightness of touch and feel of Bachian authenticity. This is something of a conjuring trick, since the bulk of the Orchestra Mozart and most of the soloists play on modern instruments. Violinist Giuliano Carmignola has what looks like an early-music kind of bow, but I think that’s about as far as it goes for the first three concertos in the programme. In any case, what we do have is a bunch of musicians who are sensitive to Bach’s idiom, and who are never less than entirely convincing. Flute soloist in the Concerto No.5 is the incomparable Jacques Zoon, who always plays a wooden flute anyway. Even though this is a later Böhm system instrument and not a ‘traverso’ he has no problem fitting in with the early-music sound like a wind chameleon. He even introduces some ‘key vibrato’ in some of the sustained notes, something all us flute players will no doubt go out and try for ourselves when the concert has finished.

The six concertos are, as you can see above, not performed sequentially by number, and this works very well as a programme. The less sparkly strings of the Concerto No.6 take the central position in the order rather than being tacked on at the end when we’re all a bit too tired to appreciate them. Here we also have the different, early-music colour of two violas da gamba to go along with the cello. The inner, innig conversations of the musicians are lively and engaging in the outer movements, moving and intimate in the Adagio ma non tanto. Abbado leaves the stage for this concerto, taking a break and leaving the seven musicians to create their own magical world in miniature.

The Concerto No.4 sees Michala Petri and Nikolaj Tarasov in the flute, or rather recorder duet. The opening Allegro is very nicely played, but with a marginally too pedestrian tempo. I missed the tension which can be heard in the other fast movements, but this movement has to accommodate some fearsome virtuosity for the violinist, so it’s better to have good measure than a feel of haste-panic. Phrasing is a bit two-dimensional from the soloists in the Andante, and I would have expected some more dynamic contrast even from recorders. Carmignola plays the Vivaldi-like solos out of his skin, and I do love that unison recorder sound in the final Presto, though toward the end the intonation ain’t always what it could be. This is maybe not the most exciting of the set, but is still very easy on the ears.

The final work is the Concerto No.2, with piccolo trumpet played in superb style by Reinhold Friedrich, oboist Lucas Macias Navarro and Michala Petri on recorder. The opening Allegro swings along with great panache—barock’n roll of the highest order. The final Allegro assai get another airing as an encore, played after the musicians have been pelted with flowers from the stage-side boxes. This time the tempo is a bit more daring, and Petri takes her part with a sopranino recorder. The audience has clearly loved every minute, and the standing ovation is fully justified…The recording of this music is very good indeed, with a very realistic soundstage in stereo. It was recorded live, but there is hardly any audience noise other than between movements. I didn’t spot any ‘tidying up’ or editing, and the whole thing does have a spontaneous, live feel with the occasional moments of danger kept intact. The filming is done well, with a good sense of the scale of the venue and plenty of variety in terms of angle and detail. Close-ups concentrate mostly on the musicians rather than conductor, which is the way it should be. This is an excellent live performance of the Brandenburg Concertos even without the pictures, but as a DVD it is a joyful experience.

Rick Jones
Classic FM, January 2009

Claudio Abbado at 74 years of age conducts Bach's Six Brandenburg Concertos with minimal physical movement to produce performances of style, refinement and elegance. Solo violin Giuliano Carmignola articulates with dazzling dexterity. The sweating horns of Concerto No.1 balance beautifully. The last movement of No.3 is very fast and misses some of the high detail. The presto of No.4 is a little slow for a jig and recorder player Michala Petri seems to want to move on. The chic ensemble ends with No.2, the finale of which, played quicker still, the stage now strewn with roses, is also the encore. Solo trumpet Reinhold Friedrich looks cool enough to play it a third time.

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10:47:35 PM, 6 October 2015
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