NY Times,, October 5, 2007
Beethoven: 9. Symphony, Carnegie Hall, 3 October 2007
Orchestra Adjusts to Guest Baton
Carnegie Hall opened its 117th season on Wednesday night with a concert by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and the musician whose presence loomed over every aspect of the evening was not there: Claudio Abbado. Having survived stomach cancer in 2000, Mr. Abbado is again ill and had to withdraw. He was replaced for this Beethoven program by the dynamic American conductor David Robertson. (Pierre Boulez will substitute for Mr. Abbado tomorrow night, leading the orchestra in Mahler’s Third Symphony.)

At 74, Mr. Abbado may be the most widely respected living conductor. He is also a born teacher, which partly accounts for the existence of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, founded five years ago by and for Mr. Abbado at the Swiss festival. Most orchestras that achieve greatness do so by years of steady work under a patient conductor with a stable roster of players. The musicians of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra come together, essentially, for just two weeks each summer.

The majority are drawn from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, an outgrowth of the Mahler Youth Orchestra, which Mr. Abbado founded as a training ensemble. The rest are recruited from the finest orchestra, chamber and solo musicians working today. They participate for the privilege of working with one another under Mr. Abbado.

It’s hard to fathom the pressure Mr. Robertson must have faced on this high-visibility occasion. As a student in London during the late 1970s, he attended rehearsals and concerts that Mr. Abbado gave there. In awe of the maestro, he was too timid to go backstage and meet him.

From all reports, the disappointed Lucerne musicians were thoroughly respectful of the hugely gifted Mr. Robertson. Yet, especially during the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, there was a feeling of tentativeness, of a conductor and musicians still coming to terms with each other, despite some striking interpretive touches and extraordinary playing.

Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, with Murray Perahia as soloist, opened the program. This was a splendid performance, largely because Mr. Perahia’s conception was so insightful and bold, his playing so rhapsodic and alluring. There are mystical qualities to this work, moments when Beethoven transcends formal structures and takes the music into cosmic realms. Mr. Perahia had other things in mind.

Though he often played with silken elegance and tender lyricism, he seemed determined to reclaim this score as monumental and virile, full of invention and daring. In this account, it seemed a softer-spoken but cagey sibling to the “Emperor” Concerto. Call it the “Prince.”

Mr. Perahia’s passage work rippled with energy. Offbeat accents were startlingly incisive. There was pensiveness, but also intrigue and danger in his playing. Mr. Perahia set the dimensions for the performance, but Mr. Robertson and the orchestra were with him at every moment.

The orchestra is astounding. The strings have such natural richness that with just an effortless extra nudge the players can lend additional weight to a descending line or sudden accent. The musicians think of themselves as playing in a huge chamber ensemble, which came through in palpably alert interplay among individuals, who often leaned forward and crooked their heads to listen to one another.

Several orchestra members have described what a deeply emotional experience it is to play in this ensemble under Mr. Abbado. Here they had to adjust to Mr. Robertson’s more analytic approach. In the first movement of the Ninth Symphony, details I had never heard emerged. A formidable conductor of contemporary music, Mr. Robertson was especially attentive to bursts of pungency and chromatic wanderings in Beethoven’s harmonic language. There was austere beauty as well as power, including a ferocious, timpani-driven climax. Still, I was more fascinated than moved by the performance of this fitful Allegro.

Mr. Robertson took a somewhat restrained tempo in the scherzo to bring out, it seemed, the strangeness of the bustling, intricate counterpoint. But the playing lacked focus, or conviction, or something. The unsentimental, flowing account of the Adagio won me over: the plaintive warmth of the string playing was beyond belief. In the epic finale Mr. Robertson tried to convey the movement’s overall structure, rather than just let it unfold as a set of wildly episodic variations. Amid the brilliant playing, there were riveting moments: the first statement of the “Ode to Joy” tune by the cellos was played sotto voce, as if drifting in from afar.

The distinguished vocal soloists were excellent: the soprano Melanie Diener, the contralto Anna Larsson, the tenor Jonas Kaufmann and the bass Reinhard Hagen. The terrific Westminster Symphonic Choir had been well prepped by its conductor, Joe Miller. Still, the performance seemed a work in progress.

It is unfair to compare Mr. Robertson’s achievement with the fantasy of what might have been. He is a first-rate musician who saved the day.

Now, while music lovers everywhere hope for Mr. Abbado’s return to health, the Lucerne Festival will have to consider whether there are reasons for the orchestra to continue without him.

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