Claudio Abbado, one of our era’s most admired conductors and the holder at various times of some of the most prestigious posts in classical music, has died.
His performances of the great symphonic repertoire – from Beethoven to Mahler – are among the benchmarks of the catalogue but he was a firm champion of more recent music too. Film of his conducting (see below) reveals his astonishing capacity to draw playing of great intensity from an economical but intensely focused style. His collaborations with some of the most renowned instrumentalists and singers of his generation, such as pianists Maria João Pires and Maurizio Pollini – but crucially younger artists too, such as violinst Isabelle Faust and tenor Jonas Kaufmann, to name just two with whom he has won Gramophone Awards – was to prove equally inspirational to both them and to audiences.
Gramophone honoured Abbado with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. At the time the conductor Daniel Harding said, ‘Claudio was the reason I wanted to be a conductor. For me, he’s the biggest living inspiration; if I could have anyone’s natural gift, I would have his.’
Born in Milan, where he studied at the Conservatory, Abbado served as music director at La Scala for almost two decades from 1969-86, and followed this with five years at the Vienna State Opera (1986‑91). From 1990-2002 he was chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a post which followed eight years in charge of the London Symphony Orchestra (1979-86). He made his last public appearance in September in Lucerne conducting the Festival which he'd revitalised ten years ago, filling its ranks with players often better known as soloists, gathered around a core formed by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and with whom he gave some of his most extraordinary performances in his glorious Indian Summer. His shattering performance of Schubert's Unifinished Symphony can still be heard on the BBC iPlayer.
His dedication to the younger generation of musicians became an increasingly central element of his life: he founded the European Community Youth Orchestra in 1978, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1981, and in 1986 the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, from which he formed the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. In 2004 he became the artistic director of the Orchestra Mozart, in which soloists and leaders of prominent orchestras play alongside younger musicians, and the following year began working with the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. When asked, in Gramophone in 2010, what his advice for younger musicians was, he replied: ‘To listen more and to enjoy the music. To love music. There is a great passion for music everywhere…The musician should be open to play from Baroque music to the modern avant-garde. There shouldn’t be any limits. Always try to find good music.’
Claudio Abbado was inducted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame in 2012. Douglas Boyd paid tribute to the great conductor, ‘I think that what makes Claudio a great artist is his humanity, his extraordinary ability to change the sounds of the orchestra just with a gesture, and an incredible focus on the concert. In other words, the rehearsal is just a process and everything – all the energy – goes into the concert itself…At their best, his performances can be life-changing.’
The film below is a special feature from the Blu-ray release of his Beethoven Symphony Cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic, issued by EuroArts Music in cooperation with RAI Trade and RAI – Radiovisione Italiana. (Copyright 2001 EuroArts Music International GmbH.) For more information about the DVD, visit Euroarts - or buy from Amazon.
And to learn more about Abbado, including links to a series of articles from the Gramophone Archive, visit his page in the Gramophone Hall of Fame.