New York Insider

Abbado and the gift of Mahler

Albert ImperatoMon 3rd February 2014

A belated thank you to Claudio Abbado

It was with the sound of sleigh bells that I discovered the artistry of Claudio Abbado. Strange but true, and something I have thought a lot about since the recent death of the great Italian maestro.

For so long, the names of Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Mahler were so intertwined in my mind that I had believed that it was the legendary American maestro who had led me to the discovery of the composer who would become perhaps my favorite. But it was actually Claudio Abbado who I must credit for introducing me to Mahler’s music, which I can now properly acknowledge as a debt that cannot be repaid.

Back to those sleigh bells!

I was a junior at Stanford University and had just come back to its California campus following a year of study in Vienna. It was there in Vienna – quite by accident – that I discovered my passion for classical music. Somehow, though, in my nine months living there, I hadn’t heard a note of Mahler. His music wasn’t played so frequently then – this was 1982. During my time in Vienna I started collecting classical recordings, an obsession that continues to this day. It was in my first days back to California for my junior year at Stanford that I purchased a cassette at the Tower Records in Mountain View that would have a huge impact on my life. That recording was Claudio Abbado conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony No 4. It begins, famously, with those sleigh bells.

This is the strangest music, I thought to myself as I first listened. Sleigh bells! Really? Then came that strange out-of-tune violin in the second movement, and then that rapturous Adagio with the blazing sunburst in the middle of it. And then there was singing – in this case, Frederica von Stade in the final movement telling us with the sweetest innocence about the joys of heavenly life. I listened several times and just couldn’t get what this music was all about. 

Frustrated by the experience, I went back to the bins at Tower and discovered a new recording of Mahler’s First Symphony, this time with Abbado conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I recognized it by what I presumed to be the up-close view of the peacock feathers that was the signature cover art for these Abbado/Mahler releases. I was going to try again. With Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, and even some Bruckner Symphonies under my belt, I was determined to figure out what this Mahler guy was up to.

Lightning struck this time, appropriately since that cymbal crash that opens the finale of Mahler’s First is no less than a lightning bolt seemingly hurled by the Gods! Then it all fell into place for me: the nature sounds of the first movement, the bouncing country dance of the second movement, the Frère Jacques quotes in the funeral movement. Everything was crystal clear to me and I fell head over heels for Mahler. Suddenly, those sleigh bells made sense, and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony entered my mind and soul forever. These symphonies really were, to paraphrase the composer, about everything.

It took me a while to find more of Abbado’s Mahler recordings because the Second and Third Symphonies came in boxed sets that were housed in a different section of the Tower store. I was beyond hooked now. My dorm room was stuffed on a weekly basis as my friends joined me for Mahler listening parties. I still have such parties! I was a Mahler addict.

Yes, it was Bernstein’s live Mahler performances that pushed me even further over the top in my adoration for Mahler. It was, in fact, a Bernstein performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony with the New York Philharmonic that made me drop journalism and take on music promotion as a career. But I must now give credit to whom it is due and thank Claudio Abbado for being the first to give me the gift of Mahler.

Many years later I finally heard Abbado conduct Mahler live. It was at the Tanglewood Festival in western Massachusetts, where I heard him lead (if my memory serves me, and it sometimes doesn’t) the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in the composer’s phantasmagoric Seventh Symphony. Abbado’s famously inspiring way with young musicians was everywhere apparent in an incandescent performance that remains one of the two or three most exciting in my 30 years of concert-going. Sparks seemed to be flying off the stage. Riveting – and absolutely unforgettable! (Incidentally, Abbado’s recording of the work with the Chicago Symphony remains one of the best performances in his Mahler discography).

A few years later, I heard Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic play the composer’s Third Symphony at Carnegie Hall. I took my partner Brian to the concert. He had never heard the piece that I had played so often for him on CD in a live performance. Five minutes into the finale he leaned to me and said quietly, 'I have never heard music speak the truth in this way.' That comment made me realize that I had indeed chosen my life partner well, as it was one an absolutely perfect description both of the performance and of the nature of this symphony itself.

There are numerous possible approaches to Mahler’s music, and other conductors may have brought out more of the music’s anxious energy, but Abbado was a natural Mahlerian, creating a seamless flow of lyricism and making an organic whole out of all of Mahler’s disparate parts.

I won’t want to ever live without some of Abbado’s Verdi recordings, or his splendidly atmospheric rendition of Debussy’s Nocturnes with the Boston Symphony, or his Ravel and Mendelssohn recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra, or his Schubert Symphonies cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. And the list goes on and on! But if it had only been his Mahler recordings that I had heard, my life would have been enriched immeasurably. For that I am truly grateful.

Rest in peace Caro Maestro

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