Lucerne Festival Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall – Claudio Abbado conducts symphonies by Mozart & Bruckner

Symphony No.35 in D, K385 (Haffner)
Symphony No.5 in B flat

Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Claudio Abbado

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 11 October, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Claudio Abbado conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Photograph: Monika RittershausFor the second time of asking Claudio Abbado conducted his star-studded Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. Once again the Royal Festival Hall was packed and there was a queue for returns for this hot-ticket Shell Classic International presentation.

Instead of Schumann’s Piano Concerto from the previous evening, it was Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ Symphony to kick things off, an urbane account notable for unfailing elegance at speed and for internal clarity. Timpani were hit with hard sticks but could have been struck with more force and trumpets might have been a little more outspoken – yet this may have upset such collegiate music-making. Dynamics were sometime pared-away enough to be akin to echoes and ornaments were incisively etched if becoming exaggerated in the Minuet, to queasy effect. The finale could have been wittier and the extended Andante (both repeats observed) was a quickstep rather than anything more enquiring. This is an edgier and more-probing symphony than Abbado designed.

And similar doubts – this time concerning ‘agony and ecstasy’ – at moments questioned such a sophisticated rendering of Bruckner’s Fifth (presumably played in Leopold Nowak’s edition). The trumpets tended now to knock on the door marked ‘blaring’ without necessarily entering (but the Royal Festival Hall’s acoustic isn’t Bruckner’s glowing cathedral); otherwise balance and blend were impeccable – it was all there to hear, although sometimes you needed to know it is there to catch it (not least the quietest timpani figures in the scherzo). To set the tone of this meticulous and faithful traversal, there was an ear-stealing quality to those opening pizzicatos and mystical strings (if not enough to stifle some in the audience still adjusting their finery and bits and bobs). The majesty and meditation of the opening movement were well conveyed, its striving unforced, its contemplation never static. The scherzo maybe wasn’t bucolic enough and Abbado’s balancing tended to make the dance rhythms not stamping enough (yet, typically, they were audible; it’s just a question of the emphasis); the trio though was a thing of half-lit wonder.

As for the finale, with its opening reminiscences of the previous movements and cheeky clarinet interjections (here jocular), the depth and bite of string tone was wonderfully weighty (not surprising with twenty First Violins and ten double basses) yet luminous, the fugues fastidiously balanced. Each pixel of Bruckner’s counterpoint was remarkably sounded, almost computer-generated save for the palpable human involvement. The coda – with no need to beef-up the brass (as some conductors do) – was exhilarating and made inevitable to complete a long (80-minute) journey, Abbado typically clearing the tutti away briefly to reveal a line for four flutes that usually escapes the attention of other conductors, Skrowaczewski aside.

If, at times, the thread of the outer movements was slightly lost – Abbado maybe too trusting of the composer’s huge structures and his tendency to delay the unavoidable – it was the intensity of the quietest dynamics, the sparest textures and the bars of silence (as important as those filled with sound) that was quite something (even so, some audience-members did their best to disfigure them with coughs and sneezes). Thus it was the placed-second Adagio that was altogether extraordinary, perfectly paced. Macias Navarro (from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) offered an oboe solo beyond eloquence, the strings breathed deep meaning into its chorale, and Abbado charted the movement to an organically arrived-at climax at once monumental, cathartic and transporting. The Great Gates came into view and opened out in full glory!

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