It's no secret that many people believe that Claudio Abbado, now back in reasonably good health after some health problems a few years ago, is one of the great conductors and possibly the greatest conductor currently before the public. I tend to agree with that assessment and treasure the one time I heard him conduct the Chicago Symphony as well as the growing number of CDs and especially DVDs that he has made with some of the world's great artists. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra is one that he fashioned from the members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (a group he also founded) plus world-famous soloists like clarinetist Sabine Meyer, flutist Jacques Zoon, cellist Natalia Gutman, members of the Alban Berg and Hagen Quartets, and principals of some of the world's great orchestras like Kolja Blacher, concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, and horn Bruno Schneider, formerly of the Suisse Romande. This group plays like a large chamber ensemble and I can't tell you how important that is to the two works presented here.
The Third Beethoven Concerto, with the redoubtable Alfred Brendel as soloist, is played in a classic manner with impeccable ensemble, with a glowing but not glaring spotlight on the orchestral sections and principals as they converse with the Brendel. Brendel's approach is rather introverted in slight contrast to the orchestra's more outward commentary. This comes across more like a chamber music performance than a big public statement. Clearly this is at least partly the doing of Abbado. Every nuance is indicated by him and one can see him gently shaping dynamics and phrasing in a manner one might expect in, say, a string quartet or piano trio. The camera focuses for long periods on his conducting which I find extremely rewarding. Others have complained about the camera's lingering attention paid to Abbado's technique but I find I learn something with each succeeding release in this series of Abbado-led performances from Lucerne as well as his DVDs featuring the Mahler Jugendorchester and the Berlin Philharmonic. In this performance Brendel plays as to the manner born. His ability to combine technical aplomb with polish, grace and poetry is well-known and we are not let down in this 2005 performance. It is interesting to note that he still sports grubby Elastoplast (BandAid) bandages over the ends of some of his fingers; it doesn't seem to interfere with his playing one whit.
What I've indicated about the chamber-music approach in the Beethoven goes doubly for the Bruckner. Let's face it, this is a work which can sound bombastic, even bloated in the wrong hands. Here every effect is delicately shaped and although the sound of the orchestral tuttis is full, especially when the large brass section is in full cry, there is still a shapeliness that keeps the music, particularly in the Scherzo, from shouting or galumphing. One is almost tempted to say that this is Bruckner as it might be conducted by Boulez, except that there is a good deal more heart in this performance than one would imagine from Boulez. What I'm getting at is that there is a Boulezian clarity and logic coupled with heart-felt but not maudlin sentiment. This is a magnificent Seventh.
Videography, in the slickly modern concert hall of the new Lucerne Culture and Convention Centre, is excellent. Sound is state of the art. Options include PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 There are no extras except for some trailers.
Definitely recommended as are Abbado's other DVDs with these forces.