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Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, July 2011

PROKOFIEV, S.: Scythian Suite / BERG, A.: Lulu-Suite / TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Symphony No. 6 (S. Bolivar Youth Orchestra, Abbado) (NTSC) ACC-20101
PROKOFIEV, S.: Scythian Suite / BERG, A.: Lulu-Suite / TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Symphony No. 6 (S. Bolivar Youth Orchestra, Abbado) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) ACC-10204

As Abbado approaches his 80s, he’s been (not surprisingly) revisiting many works—especially the Mahler symphonies—that have been the cornerstones of his discography. But there’s nothing valedictory in these returns. Indeed, in terms of focus, conviction, and insight, his recent performances have revealed a renewed interpretive fire—a fire matched, on this new video concert, by the superb playing of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. At this late date, there’s probably no need to celebrate the young players’ well-drilled accuracy (even with doubled horns and trumpets, the brass unanimity in the first-movement development of the Tchaikovsky is terrifying), their rhythmic energy, or their exceptional balances (listen to how well the harps and celesta come across in the third movement of the Prokofiev). Nor need I emphasize their obvious involvement (say, the bold treatment of the clashing syncopations and biting strings in the second movement of the Prokofiev or the snarl of the low brass at the end of the first movement of the Berg). But given their well-deserved reputation for pizazz (see, for example, their justly acclaimed Fiesta! recording, reviewed by Philip Scott in Fanfare 32:2, where it was also Want-Listed by both Scott and Raymond Tuttle), it may be worth emphasizing that this is no callow whiz-kid ensemble. In fact, what’s just as striking as their vitality is the nuance of the playing, both by the first-deskers and by the full ensemble: the evocative colors in the third movement of the Prokofiev, for instance, or the sensitivity to the harmonic ebb and flow of the big lines in the Berg.

Most gripping of all, in fact, are the quietest moments (including the charged silences) of the Tchaikovsky—the descent into nothingness at the end of the exposition of the first movement (where, as is common, Abbado substitutes bass clarinet for bassoon), the hush at the end of the second. Indeed, while one would expect a young ensemble to reach its peak in the third movement of the Tchaikovsky, it’s the eloquent reading of the finale (launched nearly attacca, before the reverb of the third movement has fully died away) that makes the strongest impact. This movement emerges as a single arc of emotion, and the ending is so heartbreaking that Abbado manages to keep the audience in total silence for more than half a minute after it has concluded.

…the video quality is excellent, and the surround sound…has tremendous immediacy and timbral accuracy. All in all, strongly recommended.

Robert Cummings
MusicWeb International, February 2011

To those who may be unaware, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra is among the finest youth orchestras in the world. They have recorded extensively over the years, particularly for Deutsche Grammophon and Dorian. Founded in 1975, they offer a regular slate of concerts and concert tours and are led (since 1999) by the dynamic young conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who also holds the post of music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and who can be seen in the audience at the start of this concert.

Claudio Abbado has guest-conducted the orchestra many times and here leads them quite impressively in all works. The Prokofiev Scythian Suite is given a brisk reading: in Abbado’s Chicago Symphony recording from 1978 for DG, his tempos were much more mainstream, the whole clocking in at 20:38, compared with this performance’s 17:42. That’s a nearly three-minute difference, but the music still comes across well in this live effort, not least because of the youthful zest and talent of the Simón Bolívar players. Nothing sounds rushed here, only spirited and lively. Abbado’s CSO reading was powerful and detailed, and other performances, like the Dorati/Mercury from around 1960 and the Mata/Dorian from 1991 were also fine efforts. But this Scythian Suite, because it’s both an audio and video production, lets you see the vast orchestra—Prokofiev calls for 150 or more performers in the score—which includes nine players on percussion, two each on harp and celesta, and all kinds of reinforcements in the brass and string sections. It’s quite a sonic spectacular and a sight to behold, giving this already solid performance an added advantage over most others.

In the Berg Lulu Suite Abbado is once again very brisk: his 1970 DG recording with the London Symphony Orchestra clocked in at 33:49, compared with this one’s 29:05! The stopwatch doesn’t necessarily tell a great deal, but one can observe that Abbado has generally become faster over the years in works he regularly conducts. Yet, his interpretations seem to have gained greater spirit, maybe even greater depth. This Lulu Suite is simply splendid, and again much of the credit must go to the Simón Bolívar players. Anna Prohaska, in her relatively small role here, turns in fine work too: her high notes are especially impressive and her shriek near the end is chilling and powerful. Her Mozart aria is fine too, if a little stiff.

The Tchaikovsky Sixth runs against Abbado’s tendency toward faster tempos: here he delivers the work with fairly mainstream pacing and, at 45:34, takes almost two minutes longer than his 1986 Chicago Symphony recording on DG. The first movement introduction is taken slowly, and the rest is paced quite judiciously. Some of the woodwinds play a little stiffly in delivering the exposition of the dark main theme, but the strings perform the famous sad theme with great feeling and melting beauty. The development section comes across with both fierceness and desperation. On the whole the first movement, then, is fully convincing, if not of transcendental quality.

The middle movements are played with spirit and accuracy, and the finale comes across with great feeling in its sense of resignation and loss. In the end, one must assess this as a fine account, but lacking that last bit of virtuosity and commitment heard on versions by Gergiev, Maazel, Ormandy and Bernstein—though one must disqualify his absurdly bloated 1986 version on DG. The sound on all works is good but a bit cushioned. The camera-work is excellent throughout., December 2010

The Lucerne Festival in March of this year, where Claudio Abbado led the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, featured some well-paced if not especially profound music-making in works by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Berg—plus Anna Prohaska’s attractive performance of Pamina’s aria from The Magic Flute. Like many concerts, this one was a mixture of disparate styles, the idea presumably being to have a bit of something for everyone. Certainly the young musicians play well, Prohaska’s voice is lovely, and the performances are fine.

Robert Benson, December 2010

Abbado has long been associated with youth orchestras and has founded several including he Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Obviously he has enormous rapport with the Venezuelan orchestra, and they obviously have the greatest respect for him. For this concert, the SBYO apparently had about 100 players, significantly fewer than usual for their concerts, but still a huge orchestra.This demanding program opens with a sizzling account of Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, followed by a half-hour suite from Berg’s Lulu featuring young soprano Anna Prohaska as the doomed heroine. Those in the audience not familiar with the music must have been startled indeed by Ms. Prohaska’s blood-curdling scream as Lulu is killed, but they had the opportunity to hear her in more gentle music in the Mozart aria. The concert ends with a powerful and magnificently played account of the Tchaikovsky. It is fascinating to watch the young musicians play so enthusiastically. Video and audio are excellent.

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