Claudio Abbado presents music of the Classical period with proper respect for the style of the time. Typical of the adjustments required to achieve this are the use of fewer than the Berlin Philharmonic’s full body of strings, timpani played with hard-headed sticks and modern narrow-bore trumpets that are not allowed to overpower the horns. Abbado goes further than others because he realises that you don’t have trumpets in the eighteenth-century orchestra without timpani. The Marches bookending the ‘Posthorn’ Serenade have timpani although in the past they might have been omitted in the days when musicians arrived and departed while playing them. This is a grand performance of the seven-movement Serenade, full of insight and with forward, the well-detailed opening movement takes on a symphonic nature. Abbado allows himself a little licence for the flautino parts in the second Minuet where the repeats are decorated. In the second Trio the eponymous posthorn solo is played exceptionally well by Konradin Groth – a gorgeous sound though rounded compared to the traditional instrument – perhaps a flugelhorn was used. There is a fluffed oboe entry in the Finale, thirty seconds in. Also included is the Symphony in D which is comprised of the first, fifth and seventh movements of K320. Abbado’s reading of these is a live performance given two years later and very similar.
There is also the six-movement Divertimento K251, full of melodies which stay in the mind. A memorable version is by Alois Melichar and some of the sweetness of the playing of the much-featured leading oboe in that recording is now reflected by Hansjörg Schellenberger. Abbado takes a large-scale view of the work.
In the Symphonies, Abbado is again correct recording timpani. There are many Mozart Symphonies including trumpets where the timpani parts have not survived and there have been reconstructions of them by Karl Haas, Christopher Hogwood and others. The discovery of the previously-lost timpani part for Symphony 28 should now draw musicians’ attention to the problem and the irritating habit of playing these works without drums may be a thing of the past. Abbado’s version is excellent; strongly driven it raises the stature of the music, a feature aided by observing both repeats in the three sonata-form movements. The other ‘trumpet’ Symphony usually played without drums is No.23, really an ‘Overture in the Italian Style’. The timpani part used here is fairly modest (I have a copy of a more elaborate version) but it works very well.
The dramatic Symphony 25 is quite another matter and Abbado’s powerful approach is ideal. Grace-notes can sometimes be a problem but Abbado is clear about the use of the appoggiatura. Once again every repeat is made – a boon for the tiny Andante. A little licence is given to the oboe in order to elaborate the second part of the Trio and overall we have another fine reading but this is the Berlin Philharmonic so I shouldn’t have heard a false entry 1’20” into the Finale (or is it a bad edit?).
The matter of appoggiaturas is even more important in Symphony 29’s first movement. Klemperer got them right and Abbado has the same understanding and judges the Allegro moderato tempo to perfection. The smoothly flowing Andante is sensitively and delicately played and after the angry but interesting Minuet there is great virtuosity in the Finale – few orchestras can achieve those upward string rushes so accurately – it is an interesting thought that played, as here, in full there would have been a problem fitting the work on to one side of an LP.
Now we have the matter of the bigger orchestra – the ‘Paris’ Symphony with its additional clarinets is given a suitably direct rendering; there is elegance in the slow movement with much beauty in the high-lying horns everywhere. Mozart’s first Andante is added as a supplement, it is rarely played but it has character and should be given the occasional airing; I seem to recall that Josef Krips did so. The other clarinet-laden Symphony is the ‘Haffner’ where the addition of those instruments together with flutes to the original conception, which included a March and an additional Minuet, did not really achieve much except sometimes to enrich the middle harmonies. Unfortunately, in the revision, the first-movement repeats were lost, although conductors occasionally restore that of the exposition. My main concern here is Abbado’s disappointing treatment of the Minuet. Not only does he leave out the last two notes but they are also missing before the Trio begins (Mackerras also commits these two sins) and acciaccaturas are imposed on the Trio – you wouldn’t find Beecham doing things like that! This is a shame, for Abbado gives a most exciting performance of the Finale.
The most substantial Symphony here is the ‘Linz’. Again, all repeats are made. The first movement has admirable breadth matched in length by the Andante which is not allowed to linger but the Minuet does not quite work. Unusually, Abbado chooses to make both repeats of the Minuet following the Trio but the tempo is hasty, rhythm not quite stable and there is a slowing before the Trio which does not recover tempo. The fiery Finale makes a gratifying conclusion but this is not one of the conductor’s most-convincing interpretations.
The K364 Sinfonia concertante is performed in a style that respects the symphonic element, the crisp, clear opening moves gracefully forward and the tempo gives space for the soloists to weave their carefully crafted parts in a flowing manner. The recording allows violin and viola to emerge naturally from the texture, nor are there any relaxations or over-affectionate shaping. The opening of the Andante says it all because Abbado avoids the heavily romantic phrasing often imposed here. Swiftness informs the Finale but the interweaving between soloists and orchestra remains subtle.
The C-minor Mass is a great success. Much grandeur here, with distinguished vocal soloists who never stray into operatic style. Mozart did not entirely complete the ‘Credo’ nor did he compose an 'Agnus Dei’ and some reconstruction of the ‘Sanctus’ was required. The completion by Helmut Eder (1916-2005) is used – unlike the discussions concerning Mozart’s unfinished Requiem most completions of K427 seem to be accepted. One of the most recent, by Robert Levin, though more invasive, has won acclaim. The more conservative approach of H. C. Robbins Landon is particularly well thought of and Eder takes a similar middle path. Abbado is not assertive and allows the singers space to phrase their parts comfortably. The brief ‘Jesu Christe’ which is the introduction to the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ is a fine example of the power of the choral sopranos and it is followed by the sections of the chorus being given individual moments before triumphantly ending the ‘Gloria’ section.
There is something special about Abbado’s reading of the Masonic Funeral music. Many conductors have performed this wonderful composition but sometimes too rapidly for comfort. Abbado takes an appropriately spacious view, similar in tempo to Kubelík’s superb version with the Philharmonia. At the centre is the timeless Gregorian plainchant melody; the Berlin winds deliver it most sensitively, although under Kubelík the long legato line is more beautiful still. Abbado’s superb interpretation concludes with the perfect placing of the wondrous moment where this deeply tragic threnody ends with a radiant major chord. Ultimately there is hope after all.