About Claudio Abbado
For more than half a century Claudio Abbado has been at the forefront of concert and operatic life, first as music director at Milan La Scala for almost two decades from 1968 to 1986, in between with the London Symphony orchestra from 1979 till 1987, overlapping a period of guest conductorship in Chicago (1982 – 1985) and then at the Berlin Philharmonic from 1989 till 2002 when a serious outbreak of stomach cancer made an end to a his career there.
But even if the last decennium his workload had to be reduced in the aftermath of the operation for that stomach, 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.
Nor had Abbado lost his power of persuasion. After a gap of 16 years he agreed to return to La Scala in June 2010 to conduct Mahler’s mighty Resurrection symphony on condition that the city of Milan planted 90.000 trees. This was not a case of blackmail, as the conductor is swift to emphasize, but La Scala was so keen to have him back that the planting was duly agreed (although the city of Milan later renegated). The performances, unfortunately, did not go ahead, because, after a series of concerts in berlin, Abbado was instructed by his doctors to rest.
Abbado was hoping to exercise even further the same spirit and influence that nearly prevailed with the Milan authorities, by setting up in Italy a scheme for the young, similar to El Sistema in Venezuela. He has worked extensivekly with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra and has had a vital impact on the careers of its young conductors Gustavo Dudamel and Diego Mattheuz.
So despite the broken promise of a newly tree-lined city and province of Milan, Abbado could well leave a legacy of root-and-branch change in Italy’s social and cultural fabric, alongside his vast and varied catalogue of recordings.
It is characteristic of a man whose visions extend much farther than the podium, the concert hall or the opera house. Apropos of the Italian youth scheme, he maintains that “one is enriched by culture”. The same is true of the maestro himself.
He functioned as an inspirational kind of midwife for the European Youth Orchestra in 1978, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1981 and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in 1986.
But as he got better, his energies concentrated since 2003 on the hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra, manned by members of the Berlin Phil and the Mahler orchestra’s. And last but not least there is his Orchestra Mozart from Bologna since 2004.
A personal note
During the first years of my work as a critic, I thought it better not to learn to know musicians about who I had to report personally. That was easy as long I concentrated myself on recorded music: it could have influence on my objectivity, meeting nice or less nice musicians in person or they could get angry when they remembered ‘We had such a nice conversation’ and saw me criticizing them hard, negatively. But later in my career when I had more to report on backgrounds in music life and ‘live’ concerts too, I sometimes had to arrange interviews and whatever had happened before or what was going to happen afterwards, I never met bad feelings.
I had a few opportunities to talk with Abbado. The first one was an hour lasting occasion in September 1986 (the result landed in my book Spraakmakende Dirigenten, Gopher 2000); there came later ones. I always longed for this occasion and I’m looking back on it thankfully, just like on that other interview with Martha Argerich. Both belong to the greatest musicians of our age and both are notoriously elusive, nu big conversationalists.
I have known Claudio Abbado from nearby and from further away thanks to his many CD’s and DVD’s during forty years. I’m lucky because I’ve heard him conduct often – Vivaldi in Utrecht, Nozze di Figaro and Peter and the wolf in Vienna, Pelléas et Mélisande in London, Wozzeck in Salzburg, Mahler symphonies in Berlin and Amsterdam. For me, he’s the biggest living conductoral inspiration.
Attending his rehearsals you could see and hear every small nuance of what he’s striving for. Apart from Herbert von Karajan and in stark contrast with his fellow countryman Carlo Maria Giulini he has a very broad repertoire. Apart from Bach-, (there is a 1997 St. Matthew Passion with Schäfer, Von Otter, Keenlyside, Schidt. Mattei on Musicom 9835/7) Händel- and Haydn oratorio’s he conducts practically everything, and always at a very high level and happily enough he always has great ensembles at his disposal. It’s rather unique when somebody can do everything so fantastically. You expect great things from his vision of the ‘iron repertoire’ and Italian opera, but he has such a broad repertoire. “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 him, to listen. Today’s the same. I play music of Boulez, Henze, Xenakis, Rihm, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Kurtág, Takemitsu. Nearly all countries have wonderful composers”.
To those list we may add for instance Schönberg, Berg, Webern, Janácek, Dallpiccola, Hindemith and not to forget Wagner. “No music is easy. But what I don’t like are limits. Let’s not forget the Russian Music of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Prokofiev and Shostakovitch that I conduct”. All in all Abbado has made conducting not only a popular, but also a known profession.
Abbado doesn’t like talking about music – he’s too good at doing it: “I speak very little with the orchestra. We have a good communication with the eyes or the hands, and they understand. For instance all the players in the Orchestra Mozart play chamber music. If you know how to play quartets and quintets, that’s the best way.”
The classic conversation with him goes something like this: “Mendelssohn? Ah yes, Mendelssohn – beautiful music…” And
that’s it. He then goes off into a dream and remembers how lovely it is.
What makes a conductor a great conductor? A combination of skills: ideally speaking that combination exists of a great knowledge of music history, a photographic memory, knowing scores inside and outside, musical instinct, the gift to carry a group of musicians on, human insight, a clear baton technique, some charisma, never forcing but cooperating organically together with an orchestra to reach a common determined ultimate goal.
The gift of absolute hearing helps. With Abbado who has that gift, it means exact tuning of all orchestra members at the start. The result: a very clear, transparent sound. “We have problems with pitch when we are playing Baroque music. Sometimes the instruments have to play at 415Hz or 440Hz or even 442Hz. If you go to Vienna 447Hz. Of course, if it is higher it makes the sound more brilliant, like with the Chicago orchestra. 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 we used to play at 444Hz; with the Orchestra Mozart we play at 442Hz, although with Pergolesi we have to lower the pitch, especially if you have an oboe d’amore at 415Hz. I always say: ‘And what about the basses? If the pitch is lower, they have to sing lower’. I think Vienna’s 447Hz is already quite high”.
But the whole limp, vague impression he gives is such an act. When he starts to make music, he can create the most devastating tension. He can look so floppy and relaxed and yet bring something to the most astonishing, feverish level.
One of the first times I saw him rehearsing – Mahler’s Fourth with the Berlin Philharmonic – 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. It’s like the Vienna Philharmonic – in rehearsals, the orchestra collect information but their attention is elsewhere. For the performance, it comes back at you tenfold.
I’ve talked to people who played with Carlos Kleiber and apparently his conducting was so compelling that the musicians were like marionettes. Abbado is very different. He gets his own way, but I’ve only heard him raise his voice three or four times. It’s something that Herbert von Karajan was a master at, too – this thing of following and at the same time leading. He gives musicians the space to play – he can nudge
the tiniest things without it feeling like he’s strangling anyone. Claudio was never going to be the guy who said, ‘Now I’m grand and can do what I want, so I’m going to play the same five pieces over and over again.’ If you listen to the old recordings of Mozart with the London Symphony Orchestra from 1985 and then the same repertoire 30 years later with Orchestra Mozart, it’s completely different. He’s never pretended to be a period-instrument expert but he’s always wanted to learn from different ideas and adapt. It’s the same with his approach to new music – he can then always return to familiar pieces and look at them afresh.
“I always 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. When I listen to my old recordings I sometimes think: ‘Oh my God, what was I doing there?’ And sometimes I think ‘That’s not bad, something good’.
“I always think I don’t know enough. There is no limit to what you can know about a piece. Every time I look anew 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 the piece, not just the music, but the cultural background, letters, paintings, architecture or life”.
When Claudio Abbado founded the European Union and Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestras it was a clear 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 seems to have left an imprint on every orchestra in Europe.
Let’s hope he can carry on his inspiring music making for years to come.