COE/Roberto Abbado

Symphony in D
Concerto for Orchestra No.2
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Roberto Abbado

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 December, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

A pleasingly unhackneyed programme that set the familiar Beethoven symphony in the context of a contemporaneous one by a composer now out of fashion but once hugely admired, not least by Beethoven, and a rarely-heard piece by one of (Italian) Cherubini’s twentieth-century successors.

The Beethoven was somewhat disappointing, and trod the ‘authentic’ path all too easily with fast speeds – too fast in the finale (according to Beethoven’s written marking it should be less quick than the preceding scherzo: try Leonard Bernstein’s Vienna recording) – and with three double basses not able to bring enough heft. Quite why Roberto Abbado added a third horn and trumpet to the two of each requested by Beethoven was difficult to fathom: three (valve-less) trumpets made a strident noise and caused imbalance. Taking all the repeats is one thing; bringing variety is another … and this performance was more about getting the notes in the right place than with anything else (surprisingly, the strings came adrift for a few bars during the first movement development). In a rendition too tense to be joyous, the highlight was the scherzo, which tripped lightly and integrated the trio at a flowing tempo.

The first half was altogether more engaging. Florence-born Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) became an important musical figure in Paris as director of the Paris Conservatoire. His sole symphony was first heard in London in 1815. It’s a fine piece, maybe owing something to Schubert’s first two symphonies, if rather let down though by a nondescript finale. Otherwise, the graceful and expressive slow introduction promises much – lovingly realised here – and leads to a bustling and festive Allegro that packs an exuberant punch (small, cannon-shot, timpani brought rattling clarity, and in the Beethoven), here distended by Abbado observing the repeat of the long exposition. The rather pastoral Larghetto cantabile was agreeably turned with some lovely wind solos, but the Minuet needed more time to find its shape; the trio scurried by. By now, for all that the playing was devoted, it was all a bit relentless.

Violins were antiphonal (double basses on the left) for Cherubini and Beethoven, and one wondered if Abbado really needed the scores – they seemed more a hindrance as he flicked pages back and forth in a real flurry when taking repeats – but the strings were re-seated for a treble/left, bass/right disposition for the Petrassi, a neo-classical work from 1951 written for Paul Sacher. Petrassi (1904-2003, 98 when he died) wrote eight concertos for orchestra, a diverse and increasingly ‘modernistic’ corpus, not often heard and more likely to be known to record collectors than concert-goers.

The Second, short though it is (just over 15 minutes), and scored for a ‘classical’ orchestra, covers a lot of ground, gathering density and momentum as it goes. Clear-cut and linear, with a nod to Stravinsky, Petrassi’s concern for soloistic display is secondary to his symphonic design and ‘serious’ mood, one leavened occasionally by brighter sounds and ‘happier’ temperament; such sepulchral colours achieved by refined and imaginative scoring and revealing of the composer’s depth of thought. Somehow, the rather spiky (fast) closing music doesn’t quite convince as an ideal ‘rounding up’, but the performance was convinced and convincing, and it was good to hear this piece live.

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