The Quiet Maestro, Claudio Abbado –1933-2014

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

Do you believe in ESP?

Just this morning (Jan. 20), I was watching one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts from a new DVD set that I will be reporting on later – and on one of the Young Performers programs, there was the young Claudio Abbado, only 30, then one of Bernstein’s assistants with the New York Philharmonic.  Already, the poker face, the graceful, sophisticated baton technique, and his innate musicality were all in place as he led some young musicians and members from the orchestra in Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and Strings.

I stopped the DVD to type some notes about the performance, then casually checked my e-mail – and got the stunning report that Abbado had just passed away this very morning at 80.

(Interestingly, I had a similar experience in 1990, having heard Bernstein’s recording of the Sibelius Seventh for no particular reason, after which my then-wife burst into the room with the news that Bernstein had died.  Yes, I believe there may be something to ESP.)

Abbado was regarded with reverence in Europe, a bit less so here perhaps because his refined, often understated European sensibility seemed more at home there than in the more hyper, driven climate of America.  Still, in his last decade, Abbado’s interpretations seemed to deepen and ripen, possibly affected by his brush with cancer and accompanying confrontations with mortality.  His recent Mahler Ninth with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra was rated by one overcome British critic as the best classical music video ever – I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it is certainly an eloquent, beautifully-paced performance full of personal detail and crowned with one of the quietest pianississimos ever recorded.

Indeed, Mahler was one of Abbado’s most extensive recorded legacies; only Verdi, Beethoven and Mozart have more entries in ArchivMusic’s catalogue of Abbado recordings.  He recorded all of the completed Mahler symphonies with the major orchestras in Vienna, Berlin, Chicago and London, and most of a second cycle in Berlin – and his third attempt, a video cycle with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, lacks only an Eighth and the Adagio from the Tenth. Among other recordings too numerous to mention, I also treasure Abbado’s great CD of new music, “Wien Modern I” – where he delivers  scorching performances of his colleague Pierre Boulez’s four extant Notations and ethereally drifting accounts of Ligeti’s Atmospheres and Lontano – and an explosive analog CD containing Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, and the Scythian and Lieutenant Kije Suites. He was an internationalist, far transcending his Italian base, unafraid to wade into the more exotic streams of contemporary music when he felt like it.

I only recall seeing Abbado three times out here (he didn’t come to the West Coast very often) – once with the London Symphony, another time with the Vienna Philharmonic, and finally with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (the best of the three appearances, if memory serves).  He was not the most demonstrative of conductors from the audience’s vantage point; that wasn’t his style.  Yet he made those orchestras shine.