TCHAIKOVSKY:  The Tempest, Op. 18.  Slavonic March, Op. 31.  Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture after Shakespeare.  Ouverture solennelle "1812" Op.49 
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Claudio Abbado, cond.

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 453 496 (F) (DDD) TT:  68:43

These performances, recorded over several years and issued abroad in 1999, have been on ice in a couple of cases since Abbado succeeded Herbert von Karajan as music director of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Two of them, The Tempest Symphonic Fantasy and the Romeo Fantasy-Overture, were recorded in concert. All four, furthermore, duplicate Chicago Symphony studio recordings that Abbado made for Sony between 1984 and 1990, originally issued as fillers for his performances of the six numbered symphonies. When Sony excerpted the contents of SK 47179, the filler for No. 5—Voyevode—didn't make the cut. Despite James Mallinson as producer, and several engineers including Telarc's Jack Renner, the Chicago series struck me as businesslike interpretively, and dry-sounding overall.

These remakes in the Neue Philharmonie at Berlin are far from businesslike, although Marche slave and the "1812" Ouverture solenelle don't really suit Abbado's temperament—he has never been vulgar, whereas you need a streak of populism to make them work. Romeo suits him best, more so in Berlin than in Chicago. And he makes as much of The Tempest as any conductor can be expected to, given that Sibelius' curtailed treatment of the same Shakespearean storm makes Tchaikovsky's triple-length version appear as bloated as a washed-up body—especially those waves of sequences that Abbado italicizes in his impassioned DGG version. Timings on the other hand are virtually identical, although The Tempest and Marche slave take 1:08 and 1:01 longer, respectively, in the Berlin collection, and the DGG "1812" is nine seconds longer..

Most of the Neue Philharmonie sound is ersatz super-fi—virtually inaudible ppps and woofer-flopping fffs. One is never not conscious of the engineers, even while admiring expertise. But that's been pretty much par during the five-plus decades I've been buying DGG discs, going back to Victor de Sabata's prewar Berlin Phil 78s of Death and Transfiguration. Paradoxically, his Death—along with Feste romane of Respighi and Kodály's Dances of Galanta—were glowing 1939 exceptions to the rule. (Ward Marston has transferred these to a Koch Legacy CD, along with the Prelude to Aida and Wagner's Prelude und Liebestod from Tristan, also recorded in 1939.)

Returning to Abbado, if I cared more about Tchaikovsky I could cite alternatives, should you want someone else's versions. But all I can suggest is Reiner's "1812," with a big cut—albeit to the work's advantage—and a warning that the principal work on a "Living Stereo" CD transfer is his version of the "Pathetique" Symphony. In the finale, not to the work's advantage, Reiner sounds downright embarrassed by so much Angst mit Tr”nen—i.e. disqualifyingly uptight.

R.D.(Jan. 2001)