20 January 2014
Claudio Abbado, 80, Masterful Italian Conductor, Has Died
Milan, Italy, June 26, 1933–Bologna, Italy, January 20, 2014
The greatest night of my operagoing life was September 13, 1985. I had badgered my way into the top tier of La Scala for a special, off-season performance of Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims, in the Luca Ronconi production from Pesaro that had introduced the work to modern audiences the year before. It was the worst seat in the house, but the cast was starry — Ricciarelli, Gasdia, Valentini-Terrani, Ramey, Raimondi et al. The opera, once thought irretrievably lost and now miraculously rediscovered, was dazzling. But for me, the most exciting element was the chance to watch Claudio Abbado presiding over an actual opera performance. On this happy occasion, he seemed less a conductor than a genial host, shaping the proceedings with such loving control that one was less aware of the polish and precision he brought forth than of the resulting high spirits.
Still, it was a performance of considerable — and expected — virtuosity, vocal and instrumental. Abbado was a conductor who consistently drew the best from his forces, seemingly incapable of leading a coarsely played performance. Critics sometimes complained that Abbado could be bland; certainly, he was never prone to the interpretive idiosyncrasies of conductors such as Bernstein; there was no distinctive Abbado "sound" like Carlos Kleiber's. But his supreme technical control and the seriousness of his approach resulted in performances that were almost always deeply musical. Above all, his ability to elicit a singing line — whether in Beethoven, Verdi, Debussy or Berg — secured him a place in the history of great Italian conductors.
Abbado, who died after a long battle with cancer on Monday, January 20, was born on June 26, 1933, in Milan, into an artistic, leftwing family. His father was a violinist and teacher, his mother a pianist and children's-book author. He was only eight when, after hearing a performance of Debussy's Nocturnes, he decided to become a conductor. He studied at the Milan Conservatory before going to the Vienna Music Academy, where he studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky. He won the Koussevitzky Competition in 1958, the same year he made his professional conducting debut. The Mitropoulos Prize in 1963 led to five months as assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic, which he led in an acclaimed 1964 concert of Mozart, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. His Salzburg debut, leading the Vienna Philharmonic in Mahler's Second, came at the invitation of Herbert von Karajan in 1965.
When I heard Abbado at La Scala, he was nearing the end of his nearly three decades there. He made his Scala debut in 1960. He became resident conductor in 1969, music director in 1971 and chief conductor from 1980 to 1986. From there he moved on to the Vienna State Opera, serving from 1986 to 1991 as music director — a job that entailed frequent concertizing and recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. He also served, from 1983 to 1986, as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra.
In 1990, he assumed the most prestigious post in classical music, succeeding Karajan as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. He stepped down in 2002, after his initial bout with stomach cancer, but continued to guest-conduct the great orchestra until recently. Collaborating with a group of young musicians, Abbado founded the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in 1997. The ensemble forms the core of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which he founded in 2003.
U.S. audiences had scant opportunity to hear Abbado conduct opera; he led six performances of Don Carlo at the Met in fall 1968, never to return to the house. But he appeared often at Carnegie Hall with visiting orchestras. In 1987, he led the Vienna Philharmonic and Maurizio Pollini in a complete transversal of Beethoven's symphonies and piano concertos, and between 1982 and 1985 he was the Chicago Symphony's principal guest conductor.
Still, here in the U.S. we knew Abbado best through his extraordinary recorded legacy. He made literally hundreds of audio and video recordings over his career, mostly for DG, including the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Schubert and Tchaikovsky, symphonies and concertos of Mozart, tone poems of Debussy and Ravel. As a young man, he developed a reputation as a proponent of twentieth-century music, and his recorded output includes Berg, Webern and Schönberg (including a shimmering Gurrelieder), along with Stravinsky, Bartók, Prokofiev, Janáček, Stockhausen, Ligeti and Luigi Nono, who wrote his Como una Ola de Fuerza y Luz for Abbado and Pollini.
Along the way, Abbado also made a number of complete opera recordings, nearly all of them exemplary — Wozzeck; Pelléas et Mélisande; Don Giovanni, Figaro and Die Zauberflöte; Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina; Schubert's Fierrabras (another instance of fruitful musical archeology), Lohengrin. His revelatory Carmen, featuring Teresa Berganza's supremely elegant Gypsy, combines Gallic poise with Mediterranean dynamism. His Rossini recordings — especially a live performance of Viaggio a Reims from Pesaro and his first Barbiere, with Berganza and Hermann Prey — set new standards for refinement and rhythmic vitality.
But Abbado may well be remembered best for his Verdi recordings — Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlos (the first major recording of the work in the original French), a marvelously genial Falstaff, Macbeth, a magisterial Simon Boccanegra and four different versions of the Requiem. His Verdi is spacious, beautifully proportioned and utterly idiomatic, achieving its effects less through an accumulation of big moments than through the conductor's ability to sustain the dramatic line from first bar to last.
One final Abbado memory — a 1996 Carnegie Hall Brahms program with the Berliners. I am not a listener who eagerly anticipates Brahms performances; given a virtuoso orchestra and conductor, there are any number of composers whose works I'd rather hear. But Abbado's extraordinarily lucid reading of the Third Symphony revealed the songfulness at the work's core. The symphony unfolded in great arcs of achingly beautiful melody: it was as if the conductor himself were giving voice to the music. I had never heard the work performed so eloquently — and I can never hope to hear it quite like that again.
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