Top positive review
108 people found this helpful
on 20 May 2013
First a list of what you get:
Mozart symphonies 29, 33, 35, 38 - 41 all with the Orchestra Mozart , recorded from live performances between 2005 -2009
Haydn symphonies 93, 96, 98, 100, 101, 102, 103 & Sinfonia concertante recorded with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe between 1990-1996
Beethoven symphonies 1-8, Berlin Philharmonic, 2008, 9, BPO 2000.
Schubert symphonies 1-6, 8 & 9, Rosamunde, COE 1988
Mendelssohn symphonies 1-5, overtures, Midsummer nights dream, Hebrides, calm sea & prosperous voyage, fair Melusina, trumpet overture, Ruy Blas, overture for wind instruments, scherzo from octet, London Symphony Orchestra, 1984-86.
Brahms symphonies 1-4, Haydn variations, Academic festival overture, tragic overture, alto rhapsody, (Marjan Lipovsek), song of destiny,(Ernst Senff choir) song of the fates, (rundfunkchor), 1987- 1990, serenade 1 Mahler Chamber Orchestra 2006, serenade 2 BPO 1967.
Bruckner symphonies 1, Lucerne Festival Orchestra 2013, 4, 5, 7, 9 BPO 1990-1996.
Mahler symphonies 1 & 3-9 BPO 1989-2005, symphony 2 Lucerne Festival Orchestra 2003.
From the above you will note a couple of things: 1) you don't get complete sets of symphonies for Bruckner, or even all the London symphonies of Haydn. But that the sets of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schubert are more than complete with much additional fine music. 2) That although the oldest performance in the box is from 1967, most are from 1990 to the present day.
Not surprisingly therefore the recordings are excellent.
Given the players it is equally unsurprising that the orchestral playing is superb. So what of the performances?
First Mozart: it is a long time since I heard Abbado conduct Mozart and I feared these were going to be heavy super glossed performances in the old style. How wrong! DG have included his most recent performances, not the old dated ones. They are light, elegant, wonderfully played, superbly balanced, with glorious light and shade, the themes are exchanged across the orchestra as if in a witty seamless conversation. Tempi are lively without seeming rushed or perfunctory: the important repeats are observed. The performance of the Prague, in particular, is just ravishingly beautiful. Writing about nos. 39 & 40 Nicholas Kenyon says, "This is Mozart perfectly in tune with our times."
So what of Abbado's Haydn? Let me confess at the outset that I never thought Colin Davis infectious performances of the London symphonies would be surpassed until Minkowski's set came along which I reviewed for Amazon in October 2010 and which I have enjoyed increasingly since. These Abbado performances do not fizz like them. But they are musical, well phrased and superbly played by the European Chamber Orchestra which was peerless when these recordings were made. They do lack the slapstick humour that is there in spades in the Minkowski and it is frustrating that Abbado never completed the set - but there are sublime beauties here in performances which are never less than enjoyable: eg the finale of number 100 which contrasts wonderfully the crude military percussion with the sophistication of the strings and winds. The delightful Sinfonia Concertante (called symphony 105 in some places in the booklet) included here but not in the Minkowski set is superbly played.
Abbado's set of the Beethoven symphonies recorded in Rome in 2001 (apart from the 9th which came from Berlin in the previous year) has long been recognized as a fine achievement. Abbado was still recovering from stomach cancer when he conducted these works. Whether it is a result of that or simply being at home in Rome the performances of 1-8 are much better than the ones recorded the previous year in Berlin. They are fleet of foot - with the impeccable phrasing that is a finger-print of everything Abbado does. The slow movement of the Eroica is deeply felt and achingly played with wonderful rich contributions from the cellos and double basses. Am I being too fanciful by suggesting that here the whole orchestra seems to be entering into the appalling suffering endured by the conductor in his recent battle with cancer. The other outstanding movement is in complete contrast with this: the 1st of the 8th. Of this Andrew Clements wrote, "it's the wit and delicacy of the even-numbered symphonies that provide the most ravishing moments of all - Abbado's featherlight handling of the opening movement of the Eighth, for instance, is a perfect example of the way in which his conducting is all about upbeats, about moving the music forward under its own volition rather than dragging it by the nose."
The performances of Schubert and Mendelssohn are the oldest in the box dating back to the mid 1980s. The Schubert cds were instantly acclaimed partly for the fact that Abbado used the autograph scores for the first time instead of later edited versions. Accordingly they were awarded the Gramophone award when they first came out. Since then there have been more performances of the early symphonies notably by Harnoncourt. There is an interesting comparison of these at [...]. The reviewer's conclusion is "In conclusion, though one may criticize this or that detail, I can recommend this DG set highly. Even if you have Harnoncourt's, Böhm's, Marriner's, Wand's or one of Colin Davis's versions, or are collecting Jonathan Nott's ongoing cycle, Abbado's will still provide you with hours of truly wonderful music-making and a fresh perspective on these masterpieces." Leslie Wright, MusicWeb International October 2010. For me the main glory of the set is the wonderful playing of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Just listen to the beautiful 2nd movement of Schubert's 5th. Even Beecham at his best was not better than this. And the finale is full of strength and grace effortlessly combined. As for the Mendelssohn these performances have long been acknowledged the best complete set on disc and though nearly 30 years old they remain so. The inclusion of the overtures is not just a generous bonus: there are two I'd not heard before, the fair Melusina and the trumpet overture. They, too, are superbly played by the LSO at its best, and are not just curiosities.
Many of you will already have sets of Brahms symphonies; I treasure sets by Toscanini (the festival Hall performances), Klemperer, Gunter Wand and Harnoncourt. The performances of the 1st by Boult and the 4th by Carlos Kleiber are each magnificent. Stokowski's performance of the 4th on BBC legend is amazingly imaginative and moving. I still remember with affection the old vinyl lp I had of Pierre Monteux conducting the Haydn variations. So I was not expecting to be much stirred by the collection of Brahms in this box. But can Brahms have ever been better played with more ravishing orchestral sound than here? The slow movement of the 1st symphony brought tears to my eyes. The best live performance I ever heard was about 35 years ago conducted in the RFH by Erich Leinsdorf. He brought out with no inhibitions whatsoever the orgasmic climax in the final movement. In a way I have not heard rivalled since until I listened to this performance by Abbado. So I looked up what others had written about Abbado's Brahms. "If you're looking for a single set of digitally recorded Brahms orchestral works, this set cannot be bettered," James Leonard, [...]. And Martin Kettle, in the Guardian in 2010 wrote, "Abbado "gets" lots of music. But he gets Brahms's unique combination of formal traditionalism and lyrical experiment more than anyone I have ever heard." The set of Brahms is still available on Amazon for £34 for the 4 cds that is without the 2 serenades!!
So we come to Bruckner. Abbado's Bruckner performances used to be dismissed as shallow or with back handed comments like "a great Mahlerian conducting Bruckner". The performance of the 1st symphony here is from Lucerne in August 2012. As far as I can tell this is its first release. It is certainly not shallow. It is also in the rather rare Vienna edition. The other performances come from the 1990s when Abbado was conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. The 9th is very noble with a beautiful naturalness to the trio in the 2nd movement., so that when the scherzo returns it sounds aptly demonic. The main criticism of Abbado's Bruckner is that he tends to emphasise the lyricism of the music rather than its craggy architecture. In these performances the VPO play like angels: how Bruckner would have enjoyed that.
Abbado is one of the great Mahler conductors of our age. He conducted the finest live performance of any Mahler symphony (3rd) that I have ever heard at the proms in 2007. Most of these performances are already famous: I grew up with Szell's 6th (with Bernstein as an exaggerated alternative). Therefore I liked Boulez's straightforward account. Abbado's performance plums depths none other has reached. The performances of 5, 7 and 4 are also very fine; but included along with the already magnificent Berlin performances is a disc of the Resurrection symphony that is simply stunning. James Leonard says of it, "you have listen to this disc........ Mahler's massive, monumental, and monomaniacal Resurrection Symphony -- in the cleanest, clearest, recordings ever made. Claudio Abbado had made magnificent recordings of the Resurrection before, but his performance here is more than magnificent: it is truly and profoundly transcendent.... One of the greatest recordings ever made in the history of sound recording."
I have not yet heard everything in this box - it runs to 41 cds - 2 of them over 80 minutes, about 15 of them over 70 minutes. What I have already heard, on a long day's listening, has already more than repaid the money expended. The complete Mahler (without the superb Lucerne Resurrection) sells for £50. This box is available for a fraction under £53. The box is quite well presented. There are no notes on the music - but the booklet gives full information about recording/performance dates and track timings etc. with a nice biographical appreciation of Abbado. The words of the choral items are not included.
Buy it before the price goes up to a sensible level.