Ever since his debut at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 1960, Claudio Abbado has collaborated with and inspired many of the great instrumentalists and singers of the day. Given his renowned intensity of focus during rehearsals, not to mention his well-known ability to convey his thoughts through gesture rather than the spoken word, we invited some of them to pose questions that they might not have had the opportunity to ask while they were preparing a performance. They range over a wide spectrum, from Abbado’s processes of learning a score to his breadth of artistic interests, his attitudes towards contemporary works and his plans for the future. The questions were put to Abbado when I visited his Bologna home for a rare audience. It is no surprise that his responses reveal a man with a limitless passion for music and one who searches deeply for the solutions to its interpretation.
For half a century Abbado has been at the forefront of concert and operatic life, first as music director at La Scala for almost two decades from 1968 to 1986, then at the Vienna State Opera (1986‑91). He was chief conductor at the Berlin Philharmonic from 1989 to 2002, having previously been in charge of the London Symphony Orchestra (1979‑87). Nowadays his energies are concentrated on the hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which he established in 2003, and on the Bologna-based Orchestra Mozart, founded the following year. If in recent times his workload has had to be reduced in the aftermath of an operation for stomach cancer, his appearances on the podium have lost none of their compelling authority or their capacity to generate awe at the powers of perception that they manifest.
I’ve always admired the way you learn music and would love to get some insight into how, specifically, you do it. Would you be willing to tell us about your study process?
I love to read books, I love literature, I like to read scores and music. Normally I like things so much that I start to read them once, and then again and again until the moment I know them by heart. I always think I don’t know enough. There is no limit to what you can know about a piece. Every time I relook at a piece I have conducted many times, I start again from the beginning. With a new piece I try to know more about the composer but normally I conduct music of composers that I know. I will study anything that helps to know more about a piece, not just the music but the cultural background, letters, paintings, architecture or life.
In what way do you think contemporary music is important for our musical life and culture?
It’s very simple. If you think back to the time of Beethoven, he was a contemporary composer. And many people didn’t understand him. So any time you have a great composer, you should try to understand, to listen. Today’s the same. I play music of Boulez, of Stockhausen, and I like it very much. I conduct a lot of Luigi Nono and Berio. Each country has wonderful composers.
Jose van Dam
We all know that you excel in many different areas of the repertoire, be it Italian, German or French, but I’d like to know which music you find difficult to empathise with and perhaps to understand?
No music is easy. But what I don’t like is limits. José doesn’t speak of Russian music. I conduct Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky and Prokofiev and Shostakovich. I don’t like limits, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t love French music, English music, Russian music, Austrian, or even Italian music. I like good music.
What significance has the Lied and Lieder-singing had on your artistic life and artistic interpretation?
I always love to play or conduct Lieder, and I think some of the best recordings that Thomas Quasthoff, Anne Sofie von Otter and I did together were of Lieder from Mozart onwards, up to Mahler and Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the complete cycles. For me, Mahler wrote operas in the form of symphonic pieces. In Lieder the meaning of the text is very important. In Italy we have wonderful theatres and a great tradition for opera but one of the greatest aspects of culture in Germany, Austria, England, France and middle Europe is the song with text. It is one of the greatest forms of expression.
When you start studying a piece you have performed earlier, do you listen to your recording or deliberately try to distance yourself from any previous concept?
No, I try to study again, and fortunately in a life you can always find something new. It would be boring always to do the same thing in the same way. But I try to find new, important things. Sometimes I listen to my old recordings and think, ‘Oh my God, what was I doing there?’. And sometimes I think, ‘That’s not bad. Something good.’
What advice or suggestions do you have for today’s musicians – composers, conductors and (especially) instrumentalists? What should we do to improve our art?
To listen more and to enjoy the music. To love music. There is a great passion for music everywhere, even in Italy where some years ago it was not so. 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. I remember after the war they were saying about Bartók and Stravinsky that it’s not music – it’s percussion, just noise. Today almost everybody would say that it’s classic music. The problem today is to know which ones are the good composers.
How do you control the dynamic between singers on the stage and the orchestra at your feet? Do you consciously have a method to instil trust without losing control?
Normally I try to find a good balance so that the musicians can listen to the singers. Of course, in opera or in concerts, the voice might be accompanied by the orchestra or sometimes the orchestra is even more important, so the singer must follow the orchestral line. Listening is one of the most important things.
Is it possible to describe your vision of the music in terms of other images?
I love painting. I go always to see new exhibitions. There’s a lot of music where I can see connections with paintings but normally, just as in literature I read a book for the book, so I read music for the music. I speak very little with the orchestra. We have a good communication with the eyes or the hands, and they understand. All the musicians in the Orchestra Mozart play chamber music. If you know how to play quartets and quintets, that’s the best way.
How are you able to paint pictures in the air with your beautiful hands?
I always felt like I was floating on clouds when I sang with you. I always imagined I was flying with Barbara.
What particular reasons are there for your love of Lohengrin? Why do you think it is often described as Wagner’s “Italian” opera? And why does one so seldom hear from singers what Wagner says he was looking for – “German” expression coupled with bel canto style?
With the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, we did a recording with Jonas Kaufmann of opera arias by Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Wagner. I think he’s a great singer and I like him very much.Lohengrin is a great opera and more lyric, say, than Tristan, but I don’t like to make classifications of opera. As to the question about seldom hearing what Wagner was looking for, the answer is that there are not too many good singers like Jonas Kaufmann.
What do you think about variation in pitch? Do you think it can be raised any higher?
We have problems with pitch when we are playing Baroque music. Sometimes the instruments have to play at 415kHz or 440kHz or 442kHz. If you go to Vienna, it is 447kHz. Of course, if it is higher it makes the sound more brilliant. It depends very much on the acoustics. In Vienna, for example, it is quite high, but the acoustics of the Musikverein are so warm that it is not bad. I remember in Berlin they used to play at 444kHz; with the Orchestra Mozart we play at 442kHz, although with Pergolesi we have to lower the pitch, especially if you have an oboe d’amore at 415kHz. When singers say the pitch is too high, I always say, “What about the basses? If the pitch is lower, they have to sing lower”. As to its being raised further, I think Vienna’s 447kHz is already quite high.
You have conducted many pianists like Martha Argerich and Hélène Grimaud – pianists I greatly respect and admire. How does conducting us change from generation to generation? Was conducting pianists back when you began your career different from conducting us now? Do you approach conducting the younger generation of pianists from a different perspective?
When I was studying piano together with Martha Argerich, she was 11 or 12 and we did concerts immediately, because I thought she was a great player. I think the first time we played in Berlin with Martha Argerich in Prokofiev and Ravel was my first recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. With soloists I always say what I think about the music and we always try to find the best approach. But I don’t understand the distinction between young and old. I remember when I was playing with Arthur Rubinstein or with Rudolf Serkin. Serkin was for me the youngest spirit; he was 88 and we recorded many Mozart concertos. I was always saying to the orchestra, ‘Look, the youngest here is Rudy.’