Abbado and Argerich play Debussy and Ravel for President Giorgio Napolitano

Debussy, Ravel: Orchestra Mozart and Mahler Chamber Orchestra with the Estonian Philharmonic Choir, Claudio Abbado (conductor), Martha Argerich (piano), Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, 21.4.2011. (JB)

Debussy, Three Nocturnes

Ravel, Piano Concerto in G Major and Pavane pour un Infante Défunte

Debussy, La Mer

An Abbado concert in Rome is always an Event. Even with top ticket prices at €150 (though the maestro had insisted that a fair number of student price tickets also be available), the day on which the box office opens, all the tickets are sold. This particular concert was a historical event. It is a privilege to report on it.

Claudio Abbado had dedicated the concert to Italy’s President, Giorgio Napolitano. The two men have much in common. Both were active members of Italy’s Communist Party (and so far as I know, still are); both have an attractive reticence born of a genuine modesty and both have an enviable instinct for knowing when and how the speak and when to stay silent. In a politician, that last quality is as rare as it is desirable. In a musician, it is a quality not to be sneezed at. Both men operate in fields where divismo is rampant yet both have a total absence of this quality. Giorgio Napolitano began his distinguished career in the resistance during fascism; he now finds himself as ringmaster in the circus of Italian politics. Neapolitan by birth as well as name, this philosopher / poet commands immense respect and admiration from his people, with the possible exception of the Prime Minister. It is toward that gentleman that we have sometimes heard the unexpected crack of the Napolitano whip. You won’t be surprised to know that when he entered the concert hall last night, it was to a standing ovation.

In the early eighties I used to watch Abbado rehearsing the European Community Youth Orchestra (now called the European Union Youth Orchestra). It defied analysis as to how he drew the magnificent sounds from those young players. Always a man of few words, he had even fewer gestures. But therein is the beauty of economy of word and gesture: the less you use, the more effective it is. Of course, the players were in awe of his amazing, understated musicianship. That is what caused them to hang onto every small gesture and word. And this is what Abbado would build on. He would lead them – not through any explanation or indication, but through their actual playing – to understand that they had music within them that they hadn’t yet expressed. They would end a rehearsal or concert surprised by their own accomplishments. And no conductor can have a better rapport with his players than that.

These days Claudio Abbado largely restricts himself to conducting orchestras which he founded. In this concert the Orchestra Mozart joined forces with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the ladies of the Estonian Philarmonic Chamber Choir making a brief appearance in the finale of Debussy’s Three Nocturnes. There is a predominantly youthful presence in both orchestras and the engaged and engaging love affair with the music which I just mentioned was delightfully in evidence.

Martha Argerich and Claudio Abbado

The most outstanding performance of an unforgettable evening was Martha Argerich’s appearance in the Ravel G major piano concerto. Abbado and Argerich are longstanding friends and they treated this performance like chamber music, interplaying and responding with indescribable alertness, to the subtleties of each other’s nuances. Will there ever be such a fine performance of this masterpiece again? It would take someone who knows the great Martha well to be able to respond to her always freshly inspired sounds of the moment. Claudio fits that bill beautifully. (Sorry to resort to first names but it was that sort of occasion. We in the audience felt privy to some unique music interchanges.)

In this concerto, Ravel almost continually drops inverted commas round his musical inventions: at one moment, pure cabaret, in another, subtly stated atmospheric timbres, sometimes sheer burlesque. The trick is to know where the various inverted commas start and finish. Fear not: the Abbado / Argerich duo never miss a trick. In those moments when Claudio invites Martha to be a member of the orchestra, the pure graciousness with which she accepts is breathtaking. Did I detect a nod and a wink in some of this? Ravel never had such dedicated attention to his entirely original orchestration.

Immediately after the interval came Ravel’s Pavane pur une Infante Défunte. Perhaps it was because our ears were still full of the stop-the-show performance of the concerto that this then sounded a little thin. Of course, Ravel intends the piece to sound thin as though a veil was dropped over the music. The veil was firmly there. Perhaps too firmly. The balance between orchestral detail and all-over effect is a tricky one in the Pavane and to my ears it sounded as though Abbado had gone slightly too much towards the general effect, sometimes at the expense of detail.

The concert began and ended with Debussy, the Three Nocturnes at the beginning and La Mer at the end. Although Debussy is not such an obviously great orchestrator as Ravel, he is great none the less. And arguably more original. Each work has three movements, all of them impressionistic pictures in music. For the best performance, it is key that the pictures remain impressions and avoid becoming too concrete. It should not begin to sound like Rimsky Korsakov. But the art of musical suggestion is in safe hands with Abbado. His players were as responsive as always and once again they conveyed the sheer pleasure of the beautifully graded sounds which they delivered. The wind and brass players were invited by the conductor to take their own well-earned bow. That was when the tumultous applause actually increased.

All in all, a joyous, historic occasion.

Jack Buckley