Claudio Abbado dies aged 80 - Wed, 22 Jan 2014
Claudio Abbado, the Italian conductor, who has died aged 80, held four of the top musical posts in Europe: La Scala Milan, the London Symphony Orchestra, Vienna State Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic; at the latter his quiet and steely disposition was in marked contrast to the fiery outbursts of Herbert von Karajan, his predecessor.
He created some of the most compelling and exciting orchestral and operatic performances of the past 50 years, excelling in the repertoire of the early 20th century, notably that of Mahler, Brahms, Bruckner, Berg, Bartók and Schoenberg.
Abbado's conducting style was remarkably free, especially with his left hand. Rarely did he beat time; rather he sculpted and shaped the music, like a potter at his wheel, and much of what he sought from his musicians was communicated through his eyes ("The most important tool I have," he once said). If this made rehearsals frustrating, his concerts were electrifying. Abbado would neither get angry nor compromise. He would simply rehearse a passage again and again until he had the sound he desired. Sometimes his only instruction was: "Listen."
While he enjoyed early success in America, it was not his musical destination of choice because of union rules which meant that orchestral rehearsals ended when the time was up, rather than when the work was ready to be performed. "In Vienna and Berlin it was better because there are many more musicians playing chamber music," he once explained.
One of Abbado's early engagements with the LSO was at the Salzburg Festival in 1977, during the André Previn years. The contrast between the lightweight interpretations of Previn - which nonetheless brought fame and riches to the orchestra - and the sophisticated approach of the Italian, could not have been greater. Two years later Abbado was appointed the LSO's principal conductor. He brought intellectual depth to the podium, while at the same time being aloof, detached and uncommunicative - even monosyllabic. Off-stage he built a good rapport with his musicians, buying table-tennis equipment for the LSO (and beating anyone who challenged him) and playing football with the musicians, once turning out with them during the Edinburgh Festival in a match against the London Philharmonic.
Shy and elusive to a fault, Abbado was once asked after a dinner with the LSO if he would like to make any remarks. He stood up and uttered the words "Thank you all very much" before returning to his seat. According to Clive Gillinson, then a cellist with the orchestra, "It was the longest speech he ever made." Peter Diamond, who in 1977 reputedly spent a third of the entire Edinburgh Festival budget on a production of Carmen conducted by Abbado and starring Teresa Berganza and Plácido Domingo, once described him as "not difficult, but obstinate".
Abbado's commitment to excellence manifested itself in many forms. He set up the European Community Youth Orchestra in 1978 by seeking out the Continent's best young orchestral musicians; when he learnt that its backers wanted to exclude non-EU instrumentalists he instead created the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester in 1986. Later the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, most of whose members are principals in other orchestras, would be one of the most talked about ensembles in Europe.
Like many successful musical directors, Abbado was a political operator; what marked him out from other maestros was the extent to which he put his Left-wing politics and environmental beliefs into action. In 2008 he announced that he would only return to Milan if the city agreed to plant 90,000 trees (it did), while he also championed concerts in the city's schools and factories during his time at La Scala. Above all, Abbado was forever striving to achieve new and better sounds. He famously asked record companies to re-record repertoire that he had previously committed to disc, always seeking a different interpretation. "Nothing is ever perfect," he would say, "and there is always something new to discover." Claudio Abbado was born in Milan on June 26 1933, a descendant of Spanish Moors. His father, Michelangelo Abbado, was a violinist and academic who taught his son piano, while his pianist mother wrote children's books. His maternal grandfather, who introduced him to the silence of nature in the Alps, taught ancient languages in Palermo and was excommunicated by the Church for translating an Aramaic version of the Bible that spoke of Christ's brothers and sisters.
Young Claudio was taken to watch many of the great musicians of the day and recalled how he hated seeing Toscanini in rehearsal: "He was horrible to his orchestras, all that shouting." During the war his mother was imprisoned for harbouring a Jewish child; and when the 12-year-old Claudio scrawled "Viva Bartók" on a wall, the Gestapo came looking for "the partisan Bartók".
At the age of seven he heard Antonio Guarnieri conducting Debussy's three Nocturnes at La Scala "and I decided there and then to be a musician, to be a conductor," he once told the journalist Tom Service. "I wanted to realise again this magic thing."
He attended the Conservatory in Milan and later studied conducting under Hans Swarowsky in Vienna. While in the city Abbado and his fellow student Zubin Mehta joined the chorus of the Musikverein so that they could watch conductors such as Bruno Walter, Josef Krips and Herbert von Karajan in rehearsal. However, the chorus master noticed that they would miss his sessions and they were kicked out. Despite his disdain of competitions ("Horrible, terrible"), in 1958 Abbado won the Koussevitsky prize at Tanglewood in America and five years later took the Dmitri Mitropoulous award, which led to engagements assisting Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic. Before long he returned to Europe, where he spent three years in Parma teaching chamber music.
Von Karajan heard him conduct in Berlin in 1964 and invited him to work on Mahler's Second Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg. Abbado later recalled that "sitting in the front was an older violinist and the first thing he said to me was, 'You know I played with Mahler.'"
He made his British debut with the Hallé Orchestra in 1965, and made his first appearance with the LSO the following year, also appearing with them at the Proms in 1968 in a programme of Mahler, Ravel and Mussorgsky .
Also in 1968 he was appointed music director of La Scala, Milan, where he broadened the repertoire and opened the theatre out of season to give free showings of films of recent opera productions for local people. He eventually stepped down in 1986 to join the Vienna State Opera, where he was notable for championing works by Rossini.
Meanwhile in 1979 he had become principal conductor at the LSO, with which he enjoyed a great success with his Mahler, Vienna and the 20th Century festival in 1986. But Abbado was always looking ahead. In 1983, when he was asked to record the Beethoven symphonies, he chose to do so with the Vienna Philharmonic instead of the Londoners. He also recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, of which he was principal guest conductor from 1982 to 1986. "Although we were sweating our guts out playing those vast Mahler symphonies for Abbado, he would go and record them with other orchestras, which made us feel like second, maybe even third choice," one trumpeter complained to The Sunday Times.
After von Karajan's death in 1989, the Berlin Philharmonic turned unexpectedly to Abbado. He brought the orchestra on its first visit to the Proms in 1991 and widened the repertoire, notably into the Second Viennese School. However, stomach cancer surgery in 2000 transformed the sleek, well-groomed pin-up into a barely recognisable gaunt and thin old man, and in 2002 he handed over the Berlin baton to Simon Rattle. Abbado concerts became relatively rare events and had an added air of expectation and even finality.
His recovery to musical form led to him setting up the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003, an ad hoc ensemble of Europe's leading musicians. Appropriately their first performance was the Resurrection Symphony of Mahler, a composer who Abbado was to return to often, notably bringing the orchestra to the Proms in 2007 with the Third Symphony.
Few dared to challenge him - even in the orchestral football matches a simple look was said to have dissuaded the referee from showing a red card. Thus when, in 2011, the pianist Hélène Grimaud insisted on using a cadenza by Busoni for their joint recording of Mozart's Piano Concerto No 23 while he preferred the composer's own, there was to be no compromise. The fall-out, which involved the loss of their recording partnership and the cancellation of several concerts, spilled into the international press. Abbado kept houses in London and Sardinia, working at the latter without a piano, his desk surrounded by Egon Schiele prints. On his land he planted 9,000 trees which cascaded down a steep slope to the Mediterranean, where his yacht awaited moored in the clear blue sea.
He received numerous honours and awards, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge. In August 2013 the President of Italy appointed him Senator for Life, Italy's highest cultural award.
From 1956 to 1968 Abbado was married to Giovanna Cavazzoni; their son Daniele is an opera director who collaborated with his father on Die Zauberflöte at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006. He also had a son with the violinist Viktoria Mullova.
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