Top Ear is greatly saddened to hear the news of Maestro Claudio Abbado’s passing, aged 80. No official news of the cause of his death has been released yet; nevertheless there is no doubt that a great star has fallen, and he will be sorely missed not only by Top Ear but by those who have worked with him and most classical music lovers. We extend our deepest condolences to Abbado’s family.
His Mozart Requiem (a repertoire replacement for Mahler 8 in the 2012 Lucurne Festival) is a reading of uncommon naturalness and expressivity, and a fitting reminder of his honest artistry and his total devotion to music, despite his frailty in these recent years brought on by his stomach cancer diagnosed in 2000.
Jeremy Lee remembers the great conductor with some personal thoughts
The news that appeared on my Facebook feed fell on my heart like the hammer blows that felled the hero in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. It came too soon, too young. Claudio Abbado had died, aged 80.
I sat in front of my computer, stunned for half a minute. It was too shocking, and too sudden, to be true. The great star had just fallen, at the peak of his Indian Summer with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, with nary a trace of news regarding his bad health. No news of a bout of sickness or disease heralded his departure. And yet he went.
There is no doubt that he was one of the greatest conductors of the present and past century, and so much ink has been spilled on Abbado’s career that I feel it is futile to elaborate on it in any detail; instead I shall present some of my personal thoughts on this master.
I first came to Abbado not through one of his symphonic recordings but through his first recording on Deutsche Grammophon in 1967, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and accompanying Martha Argerich in the Ravel G Major Concerto and the Prokofiev 3rd. Argerich’s volatile, temperamental playing was singular in the Ravel, but Abbado and the Berliners gave much more than anyone could have asked for by providing what is in my opinion THE most lively accompaniment in this piece ever recorded–not even Cluytens could beat Abbado in terms of sheer panache and joie de vivre. But it was a long while until I obtained DG recent 41-CD box released in 2013 commemorating Abbado’s 80th birthday, which provided a more complete view of his multifaceted artistry.
That set made me gather a few conclusions about Abbado’s musicianship. It seemed that Abbado had two styles that can be partitioned into the pre-Berlin and post-Berlin periods. Before he took over the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989, he seemed to me little more than a merely reliable conductor who was self-effacing and let the music do all the talking. This particular style can be shown in many of his recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra (such as Ravel and Strauss) and the Vienna Philharmonic (Beethoven and Bruckner), and while they showcased Abbado’s ear for beautiful playing and textural richness, they rarely showed particularly imaginative interpretation. But after 1989, Abbado’s artistry seemed to have taken an about-face, and as if to prove his determination, he replaced two-thirds of the personnel in the Berlin Philharmonic. The results were plain to hear: Abbado seemed to have been infused with a new surge of adrenalin. Gone were the thick textures and merely beautiful sounds of the old Abbado; behold, we have lighter, more gossamer textures, resulting in much greater flexibility and fluidity, more delicate phrasing and shaping of musical lines, and in general a much more personal approach to the music. This approach underwent a further metamorphosis after his treatment of cancer in around 2001. His Beethoven is a case in point. With the Vienna Philharmonic, he produced a cycle that was merely proficient, offering little in ideas. With the Berlin Philharmonic in 2008, he seemed to have completely rethought Beethoven, infusing these old warhorses with cues taken from the period school (such as livelier tempos and sparser, more lucid textures) while preserving the Beethovenian sense of struggle and lusciousness of playing and sound that is sometimes found lacking in many period performances.
The one main exception to my “early is dreary, later is better” observation is his Mahler. I have always been impressed by his Mahler, be it his first cycle (mainly with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Vienna Philharmonic) or his later, live cycle (mainly with the Berlin Philharmonic), because both showed Abbado in touch with Mahler’s idiom notwithstanding his radical change in style. The earlier cycle was grand in conception, the later cycle was lighter, more dynamic and exciting (naysayers say “Mahler Lite alert!”), and to these ears, both are valid. Another noteworthy exception concerns his Mendelsson cycle which is to this day one of the classic sets of the works.
But early or late style Abbado, there was no discounting the fact that he put music first at all times. He rarely imposed radical ideas on whatever he conducted, and even if he did, it was for the benefit of the music and did not detract from it. This integrity of artistry generated great dividends. There was his scrupulous adherence to the composer’s intentions: few conductors have ever paced the ending of the Rondo-Burleske of Mahler 9 so effectively, culminating in a true Presto, and even fewer have allowed the grotesqueness of the Seventh’s scherzo to come to the fore in such a fascinating display of defiance against the received musical style. There was his masterly sense of balance and texture: listen to his Brahms cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic and tell me where else you have heard such a massive, succulent sound that also manages to be so finely graded and hued that every single detail emerges effortlessly with such high definition. And finally, a real master of control over the orchestra, evident in almost all his recordings, in particular his beautifully conducted Schubert cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. All of these characteristics stemmed from his love of the music. There is a particular scene during his rehearsal with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Mahler 2, in which he said little except “Listen to each other!”. And the end result is one of my favorite Mahler 2s, in which truly communicative playing is everywhere to be heard.
He also built many orchestras, chiefly the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Orchestra Mozart, and they flourished under Abbado’s guidance. His rapport with these orchestras is audible in most of their recordings, and that he passed away not a week after the Orchestra Mozart announced its dissolution is all the more poignant.
Abbado’s final recording shall be represented by his accompaniment of Argerich in two Mozart concertos, a recording that aptly closes his recorded career in full circle, one that started as an accompanist for Argerich, and ended as an accompanist for Argerich. But I do wish the Abbado legacy hadn’t just ended here. With his new-found style that turned out to be his final form, he could have rethought many works that he had done previously, and maybe even record brand-new pieces (why oh why didn’t he do Bruckner 8!). The upcoming Lucerne Festival also originally planned a series of Brahms performances with Abbado; alas, this plan shall never come to frutition. While recently he didn’t set down many new recordings on compact disc, thankfully he remade most of his Mahler with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra on DVD, and his performance of Das Lied (a work he had never recorded previously) with the Berlin Philharmonic starring Jonas Kaufmann is in the archives of the orchestra, and those performances really ought to be released on disc, as a memento to this great conductor’s art.
Yes, we have lost a great conductor. But his legacy continues, and his artistry shall be eternal.
ADDENDUM: As it turns out, Abbado’s final recording is not his accompaniment of Argerich in the Mozart concertos, but a Bruckner 9th with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. [25/7/2014]