People often accuse Abbado and Rattle of lowering the quality of the Berlin Philharmonic, wistfully looking back to the Karajan days. While it's true that the Berliners no longer have the homogenized string sound, that thick wall of sound, I've never understood why Abbado has been slammed for enabling greater freedom of playing. He hired new young virtuosos such as the renowned flautist Emmanuel Pahud, making for an entirely new dimension of playing. Under Karajan's iron grip, the Berliners didn't have much chance to display their own individuality. But with Abbado at the helm, the Berliners have a greater degree of freedom. Abbado's orchestra is very flexible, with a new ability to play with super-virtuoso lightness of tone.
This disc here, featuring highlights from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, shows Abbado and his orchestra at the height of their powers. Prokofiev's music asks for an interpreter who is very involved, yet a sensitive one, lest the romance and beauty be lost. Abbado fits the criteria perfectly, as his gifts enable him to be consistently interesting, yet never to the point where any of the beauty leaves. In such heroic numbers as "The Montague's and Capulet's" and "Tybalt's Death", Abbado is able to unleash high energy excitement while keeping a very clean, crisp tone. He's able to see the strife and the destined tragedy the young lovers will face while always keeping a romantic backdrop. The result is intentionally ambiguous, as we're constantly on a tight rope between strife and love. I certainly couldn't ask for anything more. Listening to the sheer beauty of tone in such numbers as "Juliet the Young Girl", "Romeo and Juliet", and "Juliet's Death" is bound to leave you fighting the tears--I've had to use my handkerchief more than once.
If you say that Abbado has struggled with faceless conducting in the past, there's probably some validity to your claim. Just how successful his track record is may be up for discussion, but one thing is for certain: he's achieved wonders here. Prepare for a rich musical journey that documents the desperate love that led to devastation.