Claudio Abbado: Hearing the Silence — Sketches for a Portrait

by | Aug 25, 2005 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Claudio Abbado: Hearing the Silence — Sketches for a Portrait (2004)

Bruno Ganz, speaker and narrator/Berlin Philharmonic/ Vienna
Philharmonic/Lucerne Festival Orchestra/ Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra/
Claudio Abbado cond.
Studio: EuroArts DVD (Distrib. Naxos)
Video: Enhanced for 16:9, Color and B&W
Audio: PCM Stereo, German and Italian (English subtitles)
Length: 67:00
Rating: ****

Winner of the Grand Premier Prix in Paris, 2004, this Paul Smaczny
documentary has an other-wordly aura about it, an intentional,
aesthetic distance in keeping with the elusive, personal and moral
character of its subject, conductor Claudio Abbado, who resigned from
his post as Conductor-for-Life with Berlin Philharmonic for health
reasons related to a cancer operation. Opening both musically and
poetically with Nono’s Prometeo and selected verses from the German
mystic-romantic Hoelderlin, the film is a mostly-contemporary (there is
historic, black-and-white footage and one 1971 interview) portrait of
the conductor, as told by musical colleagues from various orchestras,
and a detailed character-sketch from actor Bruno Ganz, who worked with
Abbado in 1991 in Beethoven’s Egmont incidental music, and who remains
a close and intimate friend.

The polar ends of the film have as their musical frame Dvorak’s New
World Symphony in rehearsal and performance; and perhaps the figurative
indication is that Abbado, Faust-like, never rests and is always
seeking new dimensions and extensions of his musical spaces. There are
precious few glimpses into the man away from musical contexts; only a
mention of his room in the woods, where like Mahler, Abbado can retire
after concert tours and refresh his spirit. We have two minutes of
Abbado in his garden in Sardinia,  verdant with greenery and
overlooking some immaculate piece of the Bay of Naples. We have a
moment where we intrude upon a post-concert kiss and mutual embrace
between Ganz and Abbado, and Claudio tells Ganz he has gained back four
pounds since his cancer operation, that music remains the ultimate

Some of the historical footage is worth recalling because it places
Abbado, along with a young Zubin Mehta, in the Vienna Philharmonic
Chorus, singing in the Mozart Requiem under Bruno Walter–it was the
only way they could witness Walter’s rehearsal methods. Abbado mentions
in passing Karajan, Krips, and Scherchen, all of whom he calls the
greats of the period. We see the dark-haired Abbado rehearsing a
section of the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, urging the players to
come together, to listen more attentively to each other. Abbado insists
on listening–horizontally as well as vertically–among the players;
this quality the musicans Daniel Harding, Wolfram Christ, and Albrecht
Mayer insist distinguishes Abbado’s approach from the more
authoritarian character of the Berlin Philharmonic’s prior leaders. To
see Abbado leading young musicians of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra
in the exalted sections from Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony–those yearning
passages we collectors know so well from Furtwaengler’s 1944
performance–is inspiring and aesthetically/morally uplifting at once.
The Eternal Child, so dear to Hoelderlin, is no less corporeal in
Abbado; and Abbado’s youthful enthusiasm for music along with his
personal repose, inspires his musicians across the board. The ultimate
democrat in music, Abbado achieves for his players a feeling that they
are free to shape the music for themselves, without however having
yielded his own authority in any way.

The purely musical excerpts, from Dvorak, Bruckner, Beethoven, Mahler,
Strauss, Brahms, Webern, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky, each support the
marvelous ensemble Abbado achieves with each of the orchestras. We see
Willi Boskovsky of the Vienna Philharmonic plying his trade for Abbado
as fervently as he had for Furtwaengler. Abbado claims that his
favorite audience is that which respects the silence before and after
the music; and the tension Abbado maintains even after the last bars
have faded from the Brahms Requiem and Debussy’s La Mer bear witness to
command awe for music from his auditors. Like Hoelderlin’s poetry, the
musical discussions and reminiscences embrace spirituality, nature,
peace, death, and resignation to the cosmic order of things. Whether
this all be imaginative speculation or high mysticism, Abbado believes
it  and his music-making proves that his vision speaks for many
others as well. Visually as well as aurally and intellectually
compelling, this video earns highest marks all around.

–Gary Lemco

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