Claudio Abbado – a tribute

James Jolly Mon 16th January 2017

His insistence that he was on an equal level to his musicians resulted in radiant music-making that was totally free of ego, writes James Jolly in a tribute to the late, great Claudio Abbado

Claudio Abbado (© Evelyn Hofer / DG)

Claudio Abbado (© Evelyn Hofer / DG)

Some conductors use rehearsals to prepare their performance in minute detail, dotting every ‘i’, crossing every ‘t’, so that when the concert comes round, the musicians have few surprises and simply deliver what they’ve essentially been taught. Then there are the conductors whose rehearsals are totally uneventful and leave the players wondering quite what has taken place. Yet come the concert some strange alchemy takes place and the music-making that results is on a plane that is almost superhuman. Claudio Abbado was one such conductor, and in his glorious Indian summer, frail of body, he made music that approached the sublime. As Daniel Harding wrote in these pages in 2012: ‘One of the first times I saw him rehearsing – Mahler’s Fourth with the Berlin Phil – Claudio looked completely as if he had no interest in what was going on. And then the concert was completely astonishing. What he does in rehearsals is make sure that people in the orchestra know who they should be listening to.’ And in the same year another conductor, Douglas Boyd, former principal oboist in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, succinctly pointed out that ‘the rehearsal is just a process, and everything – all the energy – goes into the concert itself’.

Abbado’s final concert took place at the Lucerne Festival in August last year and contained – tellingly – two great symphonies that were officially ‘unfinished’ but which, in his hands, said everything that needed to be said. Schubert’s Eighth and Bruckner’s Ninth, both works which glimpse the empyrean, have rarely been played with such intensity and beauty. What a farewell to a life devoted to music.

Claudio Abbado, who died on January 20, 2014, aged 80, was without doubt one of the finest conductors of our time, a man whose career touched so many people and sparked off numerous journeys among fellow musicians as well as among his numerous admirers. In a professional life that ran from his debut in 1958 (Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges in Trieste) until last summer, Abbado appeared at the helm of many of the world’s great ensembles and opera houses.

His career falls into a number of distinct periods, each well documented on disc and video: music director of La Scala, Milan; principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra; music director of the Vienna State Opera; chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic; and a final chapter working with often hand-picked ensembles including the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Orchestra Mozart.

Abbado’s career, like that of many of his Italian conducting colleagues, was rooted in the opera house, notably in the city of his birth, Milan. Soon after the war, he attended rehearsals by those two conducting polar opposites, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Arturo Toscanini; temperamentally, he was much closer to the former. He studied conducting at the conservatoire in Milan, in Vienna with Hans Swarowsky and in Siena with Alceo Galliera and Carlo Zecchi. He won the Koussevitzky Competition in 1958 and the Mitropoulos Prize in 1963, as a result of which he worked with the New York Philharmonic for five months during Bernstein’s reign. Following a debut at La Scala in 1960, he became music director of the house in 1968, a position he held until 1986. During his tenure in Milan, he presided over some now-legendary Verdi productions, many of which were recorded by DG, the company which made the bulk of Abbado’s recordings in a 46-year relationship: Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth, both considered among the finest recordings of the operas ever made, as well as Aida, the Requiem and Don Carlos (in its French version).

During the 1960s, Abbado recorded nine LPs for Decca: Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and Bruckner’s First (all with the Vienna Philharmonic); and Mendelssohn’s Third and Fourth Symphonies, Janá∂ek’s Sinfonietta, Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses, Verdi opera excerpts with Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Prokofiev’s First and Third as well as his ballet suite Chout (all with the LSO: ‘These fine artists revel in the music’s engaging fantasy, wit and vigour,’ wrote Andrew Achenbach of a reissue in May 2002). During this period, EMI was also discussing a Schubert symphony cycle, plans for which never came to fruition.

Following André Previn’s departure from the LSO in 1979, Abbado was appointed principal conductor (he’d been principal guest conductor from 1975). He stayed until 1987, bringing a new discipline to the orchestra, energising its repertoire and introducing some impressive thematic programming. His recorded cycle of the Mendelssohn symphonies for DG was very impressive, but a survey of the complete Mozart piano concertos with Rudolf Serkin probably came both too late in the pianist’s career and at a time when ‘big band’ Mozart was falling from favour. Abbado also recorded a number of operas with the LSO including a fine Barbiere di Siviglia and a superb Carmen – both with Teresa Berganza. While the orchestra played magnificently for Abbado, there was resentment among the players that they were being used to rehearse interpretations that Abbado would go and record elsewhere (mainly of Mahler, and in Chicago or Vienna). His last ever concert with the LSO took place in November 1988. During this period he also served as principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1982-85). He was passed over as its music director following Solti’s retirement in 1991 in favour of Barenboim, despite being the favoured choice of the press, the public and half the orchestra. He never returned to conduct the CSO.

The next phase in Abbado’s career was in the opera house, this time in Vienna, where he headed the State Opera between 1986 and 1991. Here he branched out into Russian repertoire – Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina (both in the original orchestration) – as well as rarities from well-known composers, including Schubert’s Fierrabras and Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims (a work he recorded with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, gaining him Gramophone’s 1986 Record of the Year; he later, rather superfluously, re-recorded the work with the Berlin Philharmonic for Sony Classical). He also presided over a superb Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande, recorded by DG, and which he brought to Covent Garden – triumphantly. Named general music director of the City of Vienna in 1987, Abbado introduced the ‘Wien Modern’ festival in which he championed the music of living composers.

In the opera house, Abbado’s Italian repertoire centred on Verdi and the comic Rossini. He conducted some bel canto works in the 1960s and rarely went near the verismo. He explored Russian opera of the 19th century and late in life took in Janá∂ek. In the symphonic repertoire he embraced the ‘core’, producing cycles of the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, and Schumann’s Second; he never ventured near Scandinavian repertoire (not many Italian conductors do). Contemporary music featured large on his programmes in Vienna and Berlin and his devotion to the music of the Second Viennese School was deep. Like his colleague (and one-time assistant at La Scala) Riccardo Chailly, Abbado started to explore the music of Bach on period instruments (with Orchestra Mozart), leaving a set of the Brandenburg Concertos. He was a trusted and loyal concerto partner, forming close relationships with pianists Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Murray Perahia, Alfred Brendel and Maria João Pires, violinists Shlomo Mintz, Viktoria Mullova and, latterly, Isabelle Faust, as well as wind players Emmanuel Pahud and Sabine Meyer.

Following Herbert von Karajan’s death in 1989 (and just as the New York Philharmonic was on the brink of offering Abbado its top job), Abbado was unanimously selected as his successor by the players of the Berlin Philharmonic. (Karajan had given Abbado his Salzburg Festival debut in 1965, when he invited him to conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony.) Abbado’s opening words at his first rehearsal as the orchestra’s new chief conductor were, ‘I am Claudio to everyone,’ thus ushering in a new kind of relationship. During his 13-season tenure in Berlin he continued to perform the core repertoire in which Karajan had so excelled, but he also introduced a lot of modern music. He brought a new generation of young players into the ensemble (many of whom he’d encountered in youth orchestras with whom he’d worked) and developed a leaner, more flexible sound. He recorded the Beethoven symphonies twice with the BPO: following a Berlin studio series, he persuaded DG to release a second cycle, recorded live in Rome. As Richard Osborne wrote of the live cycle (Gramophone, November 2008): ‘Where the Berlin set lacked emotional intensity and sonic immediacy, the Rome cycle provides both. As early as the slow movement of the First Symphony, it is evident that the warmer, more intimate Rome sound is helping concentrate our minds; the performance too is more strongly characterised, the finale markedly so. The First, Third, Fifth and Seventh symphonies are the principal beneficiaries here. An examination of the relative timings tells us little beyond the fact that the Rome performances may occasionally be a touch broader. In practice, this has little to do with tempo, everything to do with shape and commitment – with concentration of tone and intensity of phrasing.’

What elevated Abbado to the ranks of the greats? It was first and foremost a total lack of ego – which is not to say that he didn’t get what he wanted, or that he didn’t expect things simply to happen. When he conducted a Mahler symphony (No 9, for example) it was an experience of an intense and individual nature – but it wasn’t about him. Not for Abbado the slightly studied saintliness of a Giulini; no, his focus was entirely on the music and not how he personally was perceived. He could be simultaneously utterly personal and emotional in his music-making and almost disengaged as a man (taking a bow was something he did with great reluctance). It is this quality which no doubt secured him Gramophone’s Record of the Year Award in 2006 for Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, one of those astounding recordings made after his departure from the Berlin Philharmonic (an orchestra to which he would occasionally return in triumph, the Old King back, albeit briefly, on his throne). Many of Abbado’s concerts in his Berlin period were recorded for video, giving a rich glimpse of the extraordinary chemistry that existed between players and their clearly adored maestro. During his Berlin reign, as well as recording for DG and CBS/Sony Classical, he made a number of discs for EMI, including Mozart wind concertos, Hindemith’s Kammermusik and a very fine live Verdi Requiem.

When Abbado committed what to many was the unthinkable and didn’t renew his contract with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1998, leaving in 2002, he simply went on to deepen the relationships he’d developed with the musicians he’d worked with in ensembles such as the European Union Youth Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (which would form the core of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, the ensemble he revitalised in 2003) and latterly the Orchestra Mozart (which he helped to found in 2004).

Abbado always enjoyed working with young people: he was the founding music director of the EUYO in 1978 and worked regularly with the COE (many of whose players emerged from the EUYO) from 1981. It was with the COE that he made some magnificent recordings: the complete Schubert symphonies (another Gramophone Award winner), the aforementioned Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims (Record of the Year), a second Barbiere di Siviglia and a sparkling collection of overtures, various piano concertos with Pires and most of Haydn’s London symphonies. As Daniel Harding observed: ‘When Claudio founded the European Union and Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestras it was a win-win situation – he is incredibly patient with young people but at the same time he gets to make music with the best young musicians eating out of his hand. It’s astonishing how many of today’s musicians have come through his youth orchestras. In a way, his vision has left an imprint on every orchestra in Europe.’

As for many conductors in the last chapter of their career, working with young people proved energising – and particularly so in Abbado’s case. He’d had surgery for stomach cancer and these collaborations gave him a new reason to live. He needed to make music with people whose lack of cynicism, palpable enthusiasm and incomprehension of routine acted as a tonic. The very last orchestra he founded was the Bologna-based Orchestra Mozart, a versatile ensemble which played on instruments appropriate to the period, and whose repertoire under Abbado ranged from Bach and Pergolesi – via Mozart symphonies and violin concertos – to Beethoven and Berg (the violin concertos of both with Isabelle Faust, for Harmonia Mundi, secured him another Gramophone Award in 2012).

But it was in Lucerne, starting in 2003, at the helm of an orchestra that he’d put together virtually player by player (including musicians from the LSO, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as entire string quartets and major soloists in their own right, including cellist Natalia Gutman), that his music-making achieved a new level of intensity and transcendent beauty. In 2004 (Gramophone, December), David Gutman wrote of a 2003 Debussy/Mahler coupling: ‘[They] play as if performing chamber music for friends. You feel they genuinely want to make music with and for their vulnerable-looking maestro, a man whose reliance on the willing co-operation of co-workers can give his music-making a faceless quality when the playing is anything less than radiant. Fortunately it’s sensationally good here.’ Abbado and this hand-picked gathering of music’s crème de la crème would come together under the auspices of the Lucerne Festival; they’d rehearse and give concerts that scaled new heights, and every performance has been captured for audio or on video.

Abbado was one of the conducting greats of the past 50 years, a musician of broad (and ever-questing) musical sympathies. Although he lives on in the numerous recordings he made, it is perhaps his influence on several generations of younger players that will be his greatest legacy. His quiet intensity, his ability to galvanise players to achieve music-making they simply didn’t believe they were capable of, and his lifelong desire to learn and develop, are a lesson to everyone pursuing this singular career.

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