“Pollini & Abbado: The Complete Deutsche Grammophon Recordings” – 8 CDs

by | Jun 12, 2016 | Classical Reissue Reviews

An important bag, if a mixed one, but the pros outweigh the cons.

“Pollini & Abbado: The Complete Deutsche Grammophon Recordings” = BEETHOVEN: Complete Piano Concertos; Fantasy for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80; BRAHMS: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (1995); Piano Concerto No. 2 (1976); SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto, Op. 54; SCHOENBERG: Piano Concerto, Op. 42; BARTOK: Piano Concertos No. 1 & 2; LUIGI NONO: Como una ola de fuerza y lux – DGG 0289 482 1358 0 (8 CDs), 6+ hours [Distr. by Universal] ***1/2:

This set, offered around $30, will be a mandatory acquisition for many. Pollini has always been one of my favorite pianists, despite the “hard as nails” criticism often leveled at him. But this is surely not true—his poetic inclinations just happen to be happily wed to a technique second to none in the piano world, and his astounding recordings have easily held up. Well, almost. Hearing this set has offered a second take on many recordings I thought I knew well, and some first sampled on LP are a little different on silver disc.
Let’s illumine a couple of things—the Berlin Philharmonic under Abbado, while often reflecting the conductor at somewhat of a peak, is not the most “together” ensemble in the world, with many orchestras easily out performing them in terms of unity and tonal qualities. Secondly, the Berlin Philharmonie is also not the best place in the world for recording, lacking the ultimate nuances required for clarity and sonic depth. These two items factor immensely in my response to these readings.

To start with, the Beethoven Concertos are rightly regarded as one of the best sets available. There is an issue—the stupidly included ten-second applause at the end of each concerto wrecks the mood and experience, and there was absolutely no reason to include it. Concerto No. 4 is particularly glamorous in this set, but none of the readings can be dismissed. I do not set it above three of my favorites, the incandescent Ashkenazy/ Solti with Chicago on Decca, Fleisher/ Szell with Cleveland on Sony, and Bronfman/ Zinman on BMG, but it competes with all of them. The Choral Fantasy is fine, though a later issue with Evgeny Kissen is even better from a New Year’s concert on DGG.

The three Brahms Concertos pose an issue. The First, from 1997 with the BPO and recorded at the far superior Musikverein, is an outstanding recording by any set of standards you wish to suppose—big, muscular, and radiantly sublime. The 1995 Second, with the BPO back in Berlin, is mediocre at best—uninspired, a little sloppy, with both partners not feeling particularly persuasive. But the earlier 1977 Vienna Philharmonic reading, this time in Vienna, remains one of the great recordings of the work. I can see why DGG included them both, for completeness sake, but disc five in Berlin won’t get played much.

The Schumann Concerto suffers from the same BPO jetlag, and is not one of Pollini’s best recordings—the congested sound doesn’t help much either. Schoenberg with the same forces and venue fares better, as Pollini has always been one of the greatest modern interpreters of the Second Viennese School, but my money stays on the more modern Uchida/ Boulez reading on Philips. Bartok is generally very good, some of the best that emerged from the disappointing Abbado Chicago days—those terrible Tchaikovsky recordings come to mind—but Geza Anda remains supreme in my mind despite the rather tinny sound.

Nonetheless, I do wish this pair had completed the trilogy. The Nono, Like a wave of force and light, is a non-entity. Despite the composer’s long association with both performers, and writing this work specifically for them, it does not deserve resurrection, incomprehensible and a bad relic of a questionable avant-garde past.

So some jewels and quartz both appear in this set, but for the price it is rather hard to resist considering the jewels.

—Steven Ritter

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