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I just finished watching another DVD, featuring the
late Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival
Orchestra. This time, they were performing music of
Ludwig van Beethoven and Anton Bruckner. These live
recordings were of concerts filmed during August 2005
at the Concert Hall of the Cultural Convention Centre,
Lucerne. The disc was released by the EuroArts label.

I was looking forward to watching this DVD in particular,
because my previous experiences with this orchestra
were limited to their performances of works by
Gustav Mahler, the “Third Piano Concerto” by Sergei
Prokofiev, as well as Claude Debussy’s “La Mer,” and
his “Le Martyre de saint Sébastien.”

First up was Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 in
C Minor,” written in 1800. Alfred Brendel was the soloist.
I’ve previously commented on the transparency of the
performances by this orchestra, and their rendition of
this work was a case in point. Although clearly a
“classical” piece, Maestro Abbado used a “large”
string contingent, including six double basses and
10 violas, but he did not sacrifice any clarity or
ensemble. In fact, this delicate performance was
reminiscent of that from a chamber orchestra.
If anything, it was marked by a sense of restraint
from both the soloist and the conductor, who
directed a sensitive accompaniment. In contrast
with some performances I’ve heard, this one didn’t
strike me as particularly “dramatic,” but rather “safe,”
and firmly rooted in 18th Century performance
practices. Obviously, Brendel has played this work for
decades, and he never appears to provide a
performance of any work without careful consideration.
A little more Sturm und Drang might have been nice,
as this concerto could be regarded as a stylistic
transition for Beethoven. Nevertheless, I respect the
approach taken here by Brendel and Maestro Abbado,
and I can’t really find fault with anything. As usual,
Brendel brandished Band-Aids on both thumbs and
the first two fingers of each hand.

The main work of the concert was the “Symphony No. 7”
by Bruckner, which was completed in 1883. Despite the
use of a very large string contingent, this performance
was also marked by a similar orchestral transparency
and clarity. I must be wrong, but I could swear that
I counted 16 celli! Maestro Abbado doubled the
woodwinds which I also observed in 1998, while
watching him conduct Bruckner’s “Fifth Symphony”
with the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.

Although there were no doublings in the brass section,
this orchestra was still huge, and it delivered a clear
performance with an attention to dynamics which
I’ve rarely heard with this composer. Here, the score
was shorn of over indulgence and taken at its word,
which generally worked wonders. I still have to admit
missing some of the “monumentality” I’ve come to
expect when listening to Bruckner’s symphonies.
For example, in the Adagio during the “big tune” for
the strings in E Major, I felt that it lacked the weight
which I like. For me, this was “Bruckner Lite.”

Still, this was a well-shaped performance, and my
quibbles over the sonic landscape must fall at the feet
of the late Maestro Abbado, because I know that this
superstar ensemble is responsive and skilled enough
to achieve any sound that any conductor could desire.
At a running time of approximately 61 minutes, it was
also a fairly fleet performance, with a brisker than
usual third movement.

As with their performance of Mahler’s “First Symphony”
on DVD, I must once again draw attention to the
camera work, vis-à-vis the horn sections or in this case,
the “Wagner tuba” section. Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 7”
was the first symphony to use this special quartet of tubas
which Richard Wagner first used in his “Ring” cycle,
and they deserved to be featured. This quartet is only
used during the second and fourth movements, but
cinematographer Nyika Jancsó only featured them
as a quartet during the finale. Only two players at a
time were shown during the remainder of this footage,
and I believe that they deserved more attention as a
quartet, not a duet! This focus is particularly
important during a piece like this one, especially
considering that these instruments aren’t regularly
used in a normal symphony or orchestra.

Therefore, the camera work didn’t represent the
“big picture.” Of course, it’s still a fine DVD, although
not quite as impressive as the ones I’ve watched
of works by Mahler, Debussy and Prokofiev. In light
of the tragic passing of Maestro Abbado (1933-2014),
I’m seeking other works that may have been recorded
and/or filmed by this stellar group, under his baton.