Works of BEETHOVEN, SCHOENBERG, STRAVINSKY, PROKOFIEV & MUSSORGSKY – Maximilian Schell, narr./Youth Orchs. cond. by Claudio Abbado – Orfeo

BEETHOVEN: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43; SCHOENBERG: A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46; STRAVINSKY: Suite No. 2 from The Firebird; PROKOFIEV: Tybalt’s Death from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 67; MUSSORGSKY: A Night on Bald Mountain – Maximilian Schell, narr./ Vienna Youth Choir/European Community Orch./ Gustav Mahler Youth Orch. (Mussorgsky)/ Claudio Abbado – Orfeo C 892 141B, 53:41 [Distr. by Naxos] (11/11/14) ****:

From the Salzburg Festival archives come two distinct performances from the late Claudio Abbado (1933-2014), the major portion of the Orfeo disc being devoted to the 13 August 1979 appearance by Abbado with his European Community Youth Orchestra, an ensemble Abbado had helped to found in 1978. Commentators from the period of Abbado’s commitment to youthful orchestras often remark on the more relaxed, less homogeneously streamlined his conducting had become, remaining vital and alert while enjoying a degree of spontaneity his many commercial recorded performances lack.

After an earthy, vigorous reading of Beethoven’s ballet overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Abbado joins his actor friend and collaborator Maximilian Schell (1930-2014)  for an inflamed recitation-performance (in English and German) of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1947 “requiem for the murders in the ghetto,” his A Survivor from Warsaw. The hysteria of the piece, effected from the often “gliding” or “stretched” voice of the “unconscious” survivor and the brutally domineering Nazi sergeant – both characterized with controlled fury by Schell – climaxes almost peremptorily with the Shema Yisroel, which rises literally out of the herded Jews, beaten with “stampeding” force towards the gas chambers.

The Stravinsky Suite from The Firebird (1919) traverses familiar territory enhanced by crisp responses from Abbado’s wind, harp, and brass sections. Delicacy and vivid tonal colors mark this rendition, remarkably plastic and rounded, much in the Ansermet tradition. The Rondes des princesses projects a remarkable clarity and refined sensuality, with exemplary response between oboe, flute, and French horn. A potent chord sets off the blaring, often vulgar, bravura colors of the Infernal Dance of King Kachtchei, the agogics of which combine Saint-Saens, Rimsky-Korsakov, and the “primitive” Stravinsky. The effective slide into the pulsating Berceuse accomplished, the music assumes a reverential, veiled and erotic character.  The marvelous transparency of sound carries us to the Final, entirely shaped like a gorgeous sunrise urging itself to a grand apotheosis.

The August session concludes with a poignant moment from the Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet ballet, in fact the drama’s turning point. With the death of Tybalt Romeo avenges Mercutio but seals his fatal exile from Verona. The punctuated brass elements and shimmering violin runs attest to a ferociously drilled ensemble of youthful performers, intent on projecting the emotional havoc excruciatingly captured in the tympani, snare drum, agonized strings, and in the low wind death-throes. Vibrant cheers from the Salzburg audience ensue.

The Mussorgsky hair-raiser, his original score from A Night on Bare Mountain, comes from the concert of 29 July 1994, among the last of Abbado’s live appearances. Without the Rimsky-Korsakov cosmetics added to the score, the music assumes a severe, broken-line diabolism, much in the Liszt style. The “unpolished” character of the music provides a new gloss, a sense of the composer’s startling originality. The Witches’ Sabbath rivals Berlioz for eerie scoring and ferocious counterpoint. The real “find” lies in the woodwind writing, often in the guise of an angular, surpisingly melodic serenade that aligns itself to the balletic elements in the composer’s Boris Gudonov. Fine brass playing from the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra convinces us that this version deserves frequent exposure.

—Gary Lemco

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