Bloomberg, Aug. 14 2007
Shirley Apthorp
Beethoven: 9. Symphony, Lucerne, 10 August 2007
Best Beethoven Money Can Buy Is in Lucerne
Lucerne's high-carat summer festival kicked off last weekend with a roof-raising performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

This is the best Beethoven money can buy, with Claudio Abbado at the helm of his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra, four stellar soloists and the Bavarian Radio Choir.

The orchestra turns five this year, and goes to Carnegie Hall to open the New York season with a repeat of the Lucerne program. That should be reason enough to celebrate, yet triumphant exuberance was not the tone of the day.

History has done strange things to Beethoven's Ninth. Such a peculiar, modern, misshapen oddity when the composer wrote it, it has become a musical cliche, parodied a billion times a day by anything that rings or beeps.

Abbado's take on the symphony, honed by years of thought, experience and illness, has become both featherlight and profound. This is not about finding something new to say with the music. It's simply about saying the music, with grace.

That's not to say Abbado is not informed by the findings of today's music academics, by historical research into tempi, articulation and textures. He simply takes them on board and molds them into his own meticulously crafted reading.

Musical Switches

Everything that Abbado can say with Beethoven is already apparent in the opening bars of the first movement. The first subject is laid down with broad, confident vehemence. Then, in a fraction of a second, the twisting modulation into the next phrase is turned into a thing of such fragile delicacy and grace that for an instant time stands still. Such startling switches become par for the course as the evening progresses.

Abbado's Lucerne Festival Orchestra is a thing of wonder, an unlikely conglomeration of top-drawer soloists and excellent orchestral players gathered together with the collective aim of subjugating their own strong wills to that of the Maestro. This is an orchestra that sounds as if it has been playing together forever, where tone colors mix and mesh as one, where no player exhibits apathy or reluctance.

The first movement brought runs of razor clarity, the second blended the solid certainty of a peasant dance with balletic elegance and supple flow. For the third, Abbado reined in his forces for a subtly unfolding narrative, with endless lines spun in gold and shaped with love.

Joyous Whisper

The famous last movement opened like a precious confidence breathed in a half whisper; this is an orchestra that can play soft as a thought without the least loss of polish. Abbado takes the rhetorical aspect of Beethoven's music seriously, and tells each recitative-like statement with the persuasively modulated articulation of a master orator.

The Bavarian Radio Choir, trained by Peter Dijkstra, can pack myriad expressive nuances into each phrase and sing with such perfect diction that each word is crystal clear. With Melanie Diener, Anna Larsson, Jonas Kaufmann and Reinhard Hagen as his soloists, Abbado had an ideally balanced team.

Abbado also knows simply to let go when the moment comes. The concert ended with an unfettered cry of joy from the chorus, which was echoed moments later by a euphoric audience.

In all, an overwhelming start for a festival that runs through Sept. 16.

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