Claudio Abbado: the Complete RCA and Sony Album Collection review - imaginative and intellectual curiosity

Berliner Philharmoniker/London SO/Chicago SO/Vienna State Opera/Abbado
(Sony Classical)

Through much of his recording career, Claudio Abbado was most closely associated with Deutsche Grammophon. But he made a number of discs for RCA, too, and there was a significant period in the 1980s and 90s when he was contracted to Sony Classical, an association that not only took in a significant portion of his years as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, but also included a number of sessions with the London and Chicago Symphonies, as well as some of his enterprising thematic projects.

This comprehensive collection, which ranges historically from Bach (the Brandenburg Concertos with the La Scala Orchestra) to Wolfgang Rihm (his Hölderlin-Fragmente, part of a disc of music inspired by the poet), contains some wonderful, cherishable things, but not everything is exceptional. Some of the Tchaikovsky symphonies in the cycle with the Chicago orchestra seem dutiful rather than committed, and even the first five discs of the set – which are devoted to Mozart and include the C minor Mass, the Sinfonia Concertante K364 and seven of the symphonies up to No 36, all with the Berlin Philharmonic – sound stolid compared with the joyous, transparent recordings Abbado made in the last decade of his life with the Orchestra Mozart.

There is no Bruckner or Mahler here, but there is a Beethoven symphony, a one-off Ninth, with the Berlin orchestra and a stellar quartet of soloists – Eaglen, Meier, Heppner and Terfel – recorded in Salzburg in 1996 and conveying an electric sense of occasion. There are other unsung treasures, too: a disc of Schumann's works for piano and orchestra with Murray Perahia as soloist; an all-Richard Strauss New Year's Eve concert from Berlin in 1992, including the piano-and-orchestra Humoreske with Martha Argerich; a titanic performance of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto with Lazar Berman; and Brahms' Double and Berg's Chamber Concerto with Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and Peter Serkin.

Two discs of Mussorgsky's orchestral pieces and operatic fragments, most of them little known, are a reminder of what a tireless Mussorgsky champion Abbado was, and his studio version of Boris Godunov, with Anatol Kotcherga in the title role, is one of three complete operas here; the others are live recordings of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra (not to be confused with his great La Scala performance on DG) and Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims. The Schumann Scenes from Faust, with Terfel as Faust, is as good as any performance on disc, while two of the themed discs (one built around the Prometheus legend, including Scriabin's Poem of Fire, with Argerich again as soloist, and extracts from Luigi Nono's masterpiece Prometeo; and another with Mahler's Kindertotenlieder and more Nono, the rarely recorded cantata Il Canto Sospeso) seem to me to epitomise Abbado's greatness, the imagination and intellectual curiosity that combined with his supreme gifts as a musician.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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