Memorial Concert for Claudio Abbado, Concert Hall of KKL Lucerne, April 6, 2014: Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony (lst movement); Berg Violin Concerto; Mahler Symphony No. 3 (last movement). Isabelle Faust (violin), Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor). (Accentus Music Blu-ray Disc ACC 10319). Total Time: 98:57
By Paul E. Robinson
DIGITAL REVIEW — When Claudio Abbado died on Jan. 20, 2014, at the age of 80, he was a beloved figure. In 2003, when ill health began to interfere with his ability to function effectively in a music director position, the Lucerne Festival created an orchestra just for him. For the next 10 years, Abbado conducted this orchestra several times each August at the festival. These concerts became the stuff of legend. Musicians from many of Europe’s greatest orchestras — among them the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw — dropped everything to come and play for Abbado. This wasn’t a job for them; it was an opportunity to make music with a conductor they loved. Fortunately, most of those Lucerne Festival Orchestra concerts were documented in video recordings and released commercially.
This memorial concert was given in Lucerne just a few months after Abbado’s death. The musicians gathered to honor their fallen maestro and Andris Nelsons was invited to conduct. The concert began with the orchestra playing the first movement from Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony without a conductor, beautifully and probably much as Abbado would have conducted it.
Next on the program was a reading of Brot und Wein (Bread and Wine), a philosophical elegy about life and death by Friedrich Hölderlin. The great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, one of Abbado’s closest friends, spoke simply and clearly so that each word could be understood and relished.
Abbado loved Alban Berg’s music and was one of its greatest interpreters. He had conducted the Violin Concerto several times with Isabelle Faust as soloist and they had recently recorded it. With Nelsons on the podium, Faust gave a heartfelt performance with the orchestra.
Without question, the performance of the last movement from the Mahler’s Third Symphony was the highlight of the concert. (The final moments are captured in the last part of the video, above.) In a word, it was devastating. In a lifetime of concert going, I have rarely experienced such a committed performance of any music. The music itself is profoundly moving, and coupled with the sadness of the occasion and the musicians’ need to express their loss, the performance became a spiritual catharsis.
The concertmaster on this occasion was Sebastian Breuninger, one of the first concertmasters of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He could hardly contain his emotion as he played and that set the tone for the rest of the musicians. By end of the movement, many players were in tears. And no wonder. The playing was uncommonly beautiful and expressive; each note in each phrase was given special attention by every musician.
By the time we had got to the powerful closing section, I was emotionally wrung out. When the three trumpets and trombone began to play their hushed chorale, I must confess that I lost it. For me, this is one of the most touching passages in all Mahler, and the way Nelsons and his players performed it may have brought a bittersweet smile to the faces of both Abbado and the composer. The climaxes were overwhelming, a release of pent-up emotion that was glorious. With principal trumpet and long-time Abbado loyalist Reinhold Friedrich leading the magnificent brass section, conductor and players somehow managed to combine maximum volume with beautiful tone. At the end of this exhilarating performance, there was utter silence, and it held for several minutes. When the applause began, it came as a release for audience and musicians alike. Abbado’s spirit was in the air and everyone present seemed touched by it.
Abbado had held important posts in London, Chicago, Vienna, and Berlin. Perhaps most importantly, he headed La Scala for 17 years. Along with Riccardo Muti, he was a supreme Verdi conductor. He also became an authoritative Mahler conductor. I never warmed to his Beethoven or Brahms, but everything he did had integrity and warmth.
Abbado was a shy man who gave few interviews and rarely revealed much about his personal life. Even in the 2003 documentary about his life — Claudio Abbado: Hearing the Silence by Paul Smaczny (EuroArts 2053278) — he appears open and friendly but says little that is either insightful or controversial. It was characteristic of the man that he chose to make his summer home on the island of Sardinia, far away from the major musical centers.
The crowning achievement of Abbado’s career was being named to succeed Herbert von Karajan as conductor for life of the Berlin Philharmonic, but in 1997, just six years into the relationship, he announced that he was stepping down. The reason was health-related. In 2000, Abbado was operated on for cancer and had much of his digestive system removed. After that, he was living on borrowed time, with greatly diminished energy and a severely restricted conducting schedule. For the last 14 years of his life, he guest conducted the Berlin Philharmonic once a year, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra for a few concerts in August, and several more with Orchestra Mozart, a smaller version of the Lucerne orchestra, based in Abbado’s home city of Bologna.
The Lucerne Festival Orchestra grew out of his work with the various youth orchestras he had created, especially the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. When some of the players got too old for the Mahler youth ensemble, Abbado founded the Mahler Chamber Orchestra so they could continue making music together. The chamber orchestra became the core of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Abbado supplemented this core group with prominent members of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and other orchestras. Unfortunately, not all members of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra were able to be present for the Memorial Concert. Among the notable absentees were clarinetist Sabine Meyer and cellist Natalia Gutman. Another was Hans-Joachim Westphal, the principal second violinist who had held the same position with the Berlin Philharmonic under both Karajan and Abbado. Westphal died just a few weeks ago at the age of 85.
Many of the musicians who played under Abbado emphasized that while he said very little in rehearsal, he had an almost uncanny ability to express what he wanted in gesture. The baton in his right hand was invariably accurate, but his left hand was even more eloquent. Of Abbado’s voluminous legacy of fine recorded performances (many on DVD), I would select the following as particularly outstanding:
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3/Ravel: Piano Concerto in G (1967), Martha Argerich (piano), Berlin Philharmonic (DG 02894474382)
Rossini: Il Barbiere di Sevilla, Berganza/Alva/Prey (soloists), La Scala Orchestra and Chorus (DG 44007340394)
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 20 & 25 (2014), Martha Argerich (piano), Orchestra Mozart (DG 289 47910336)
Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (2003), Lucerne Festival Orchestra (EuroArts DVD 2053268)
Prokofiev/Berg/Tchaikovsky (2010): Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (Accentus Music DVD ACC 20101)
Richard Strauss: Elektra (1989), Studer/Fassbaender/Marton (soloists), Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra (Arthaus Musik DVD)
Claudio Abbado: Hearing the Silence (2003), Sketches for a Portrait by Paul Smaczny (EuroArts DVD 2053278)
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster, and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.