The last minute of Bruckner’s 5th Symphony: crowning one of the most exciting finales ever written in one of the world’s greatest symphonies. For 80 minutes, Bruckner carefully assembles every single building block, patiently building a cathedral-like edifice in which the full effect is not revealed until the listener arrives at the final peroration, which crown the listening experience of Bruckner’s 5th Symphony in the same overwhelming way a pilgrim walks through a cathedral to finally arrive at a domed fresco which crowns the glory of an Italian duomo. The full orchestra intones a chorale which comes at us with all the force of prophetic revelation, and at the end of the chorale, Abbado hushes the orchestra so that we can pellucidly hear… the flute line.
Moments like this were all too frequent in Abbado’s music-making. No doubt, there were music-lovers, there always are, who heard that flute line and viewed it as yet another testimony to Claudio Abbado’s probity and meticulousness. I heard it and thought to myself, yet again, that this is a conductor who had far too much power. When recreative musicians spend their entire careers getting their every whim satiated, they lose focus on the essentials and concentrate on whatever trivial detail of their recreation captures their fancy.
Detail was at the heart of Abbado’s musicianship. He seemed to perceive music as a collection of millions of pixelated details which together formed an overwhelming composite. He once said in an interview that he was temperamentally misplaced as a conductor, being more suited to be an academic researcher. It’s impossible to hear his performances and not hear what he meant. The meticulousness of his approach is clear in every one of his performances. During the 1980’s when he was Principal Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony, he apparently drove the orchestra crazy with his constant need to hone every last detail of the score. Later in his career, he was said to talk very little in rehearsal, but by this point, he didn’t need to. He only appeared with orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic or one of the half-dozen (!!!) orchestras he founded, which knew his desires and working methods extremely well.
I don’t mean to imply by any of this that Claudio Abbado was anything but a great conductor, there are far too many great achievements to ever deny him that status, but Abbado was a podium superstar in his early 30’s, and his star only grew with every decade. And as it did for so many musicians of his jet-set generation, his music making suffered enormously from the unprecedented wealth of opportunities he was afforded. And no conductor, perhaps in all of music history, was ever more catered to than Abbado, not even Bernstein or Karajan or Toscanini or Kleiber. He always prided himself on never having to seek an appointment because some organization would always imploring him to take over. But rather than demand growth from the organizations he lead, he seemed to have a passive-aggressive habit of ditching his organizations when he didn’t get what he wanted, knowing that another organization would always come calling. When things got too troublesome at La Scala, the Vienna Opera was immediately on the phone. When the London Symphony no longer suited him, he could easily have gone to America and lead the New York Philharmonic or the Chicago Symphony - instead he got the most coveted prize of all - the Berlin Philhamonic. After his slightly heated departure from the Berlin Philharmonic and the death of Carlos Kleiber (whose sister served as Abbado’s secretary), it seemed a universally shared opinion for the last decade that Claudio Abbado was the world’s greatest conductor. And as the world’s greatest conductor, he was able to (re)create the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, a dream-team of his favorite musicians from all the orchestras, conservatories, and chamber groups he’d worked with throughout his career. Like Carlos Kleiber, his contemporary and friend and a similar conductor in many ways, he aspired to nothing less than the ideal concert conditions, and killed an enormous part of his inborn talent by his refusal to compromise. Of course Abbado was never the world’s greatest conductor - he was only ever the safe choice for such a question - a conductor who reliably gave good performances that were guaranteed to not offend anyone. And as the conductor who pleased the most listeners, he was able to get things which other conductors with greater strength of conviction could only dream about.
The reasons he was afforded all those opportunities can’t be denied. Among the jet-set generation, there can be no doubt that Abbado was one of the most compelling - and that combination of star power and real musicianship made the entire music world virtually unable to refuse him anything. Neither Zubin Mehta, nor Lorin Maazel, nor Riccardo Muti, Andre Previn, Charles Dutoit, or Seiji Ozawa have ever yet lived up to their enormous promise. World War II depleted Europe’s supply of promising musicians, so the remaining ones who showed promise were offered the moon at far too young an age. Week to week, sometimes day to day, they were rehearsing in a different city, never planting roots, never giving too much of themselves to any one place or performance, rarely ever around long enough to impose their own vision of making music on any one orchestra. They were musical playboys who reaped all the rewards of the podium’s many temptations without adequately fulfilling any of the responsibilities. Most of the more interesting traditional conductors of their generation spent nearly half their careers as B-listers; Charles Mackerras, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Neeme Jarvi, Michael Tilson Thomas, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Herbert Blomstedt, James Levine, Michael Gielen, Mariss Jansons, Carlos Kleiber, David Zinman, Yuri Temirkanov, Georges Pretre, Klaus Tennstedt, Kurt Masur, Wolfgang Sawallisch; even among those like Levine and Sawallisch who spent their whole careers at the top of the profession, every one of them spent plenty of time in the provinces - doing the unglamourous work of building orchestras and opera houses, taking lots of private time for score study, staying in the same city for weeks or months on end do see through the fruits of their labor. It says something, to me at least, that among the conductorial jetset who virtually began their careers at the top of the profession, the most accomplished of them have become Bernard Haitink, Colin Davis, Daniel Barenboim, and Claudio Abbado. Except for Barenboim, whom everybody seemed to view as another underachieving musical playboy until less than a decade ago, none of them has a showman’s bone in their body. In each case of Haitink, Davis, and Abbado, their natural self-effacement inhibited their performances, but it also shielded them from much of the shallowness which such an approach would guarantee in more extroverted conductors.
The Abbado recorded catalogue is endless, and most of it is ultimately forgettable - endless Beethoven and Mozart and Mahler and Tchaikovsky and Verdi with the world’s greatest orchestras and opera houses, or with any of the half-dozen (again... !!!) orchestras he founded. Very little of it is bad, in fact a lot of it is quite good. It’s always excellently played, with much more care than conductors usually put into issues of dynamics, balance, and phrasing. But ultimately, it’s generic as hell - safety-padded and utterly without risk, one great orchestra sounding much like the next with very little in the way of original ideas.
Abbado wasn’t just Italian, he was Milanese musical royalty. His father was the longtime head of the Milan Conservatory, a position inherited by Abbado’s older brother. This meant two things - the first was that he was born with contacts available for him in every major conservatory in Europe - which enabled him to found orchestra after orchestra of young musicians whom he could hand-pick. The second was that as a type of Milanese aristocrat, he was actually half-Austrian - not by blood, but by worldview, as Milan was for so long the property of the Austrian Empire, and his music making seemed defined by the twin poles of Italy and Austria.
Abbado gave old-school German performances of German repertoire when it was fashionable to do so, then switched to historically informed practice only in the late-90’s when it was no longer controversial. In the first half of his career, he seemed to conduct everything like it was Brahms, in the second half, he seemed to conduct everything like it was Rossini. Indeed, those two seemed to be the only composers with vast outputs whom he consistently conducted with amazing perception - the obsessive nature of their geniuses falling precisely in tune with Abbado’s own obsessiveness. Indeed, it’s regretful that he didn’t use his inordinate power in Lucerne to give us the Brahms and Rossini of our dreams. His Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Verdi, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky, all seemed like it was conducted through Rossini’s prism. More often than not, he was quite short-winded in these composers - with fast tempos and clipped phrases, exciting in its bubbly way, but often short-changing us vastly on the drama and depth. His Mendelssohn, Wagner, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg, and Berg usually seemed interpreted through Brahms’s mantle. Everything was warm and sung out, the violence understated, and the formal structure important above all other considerations.
During his years at La Scala, he was lauded for his Verdi performances as perhaps no Verdian was since Arturo Toscanini. In Abbado’s hands, what often seems to listeners vulgar and exhibitionistic became composerly and well-structured. But Verdi without the vulgarity is neutered Verdi, stripped of most of the fun. He was at his best in Verdi pieces which the opera public respects more than they love - like Simon Boccanegra and Don Carlo, in which Verdi’s artistic ambitions stretched to new heights and left his non-connoisseur audiences scratching their heads.
Some of his Mahler is, of course, legendary. But it’s incredibly inconsistent. Abbado’s unshowmanlike temperament is completely at odds with the early work of Mahler’s Wunderhorn period - few recordings have ever been more unjustly lauded than his inaugural Lucerne performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, which is one of the most polite and well-mannered ever made. David Hurwitz rightly referred to Abbado’s Mahler performances as ‘Mahler-lite’. Abbado played Mahler as though it were Brahms with more brass - he consistently underplayed the musical violence which Mahler plainly exhorted orchestras to pursue in his scores. Along with Bernard Haitink and Pierre Boulez, Abbado’s Mahler shares the dubious distinction of exhibiting playing of being the first generation of Mahler conductors to elicit orchestral playing so masterly that it’s utterly passionless. But it’s difficult to think of a conductor who ever was more exemplary in the ‘Viennese’ Mahler, whose firmer structure and advanced harmonies made Abbado come to life in a manner that the more sprawling early music never did. In the ‘late’ Mahler symphonies which looked forward to developments by Schoenberg and Berg, few conductors were ever better. Abbado clearly didn’t understand the rural Central Europe from which Mahler hailed, but he certainly understood Vienna.
But nothing explains the problem of Abbado’s power over the industry better than his Beethoven cycles in Berlin. Abbado recorded three Beethoven Symphony cycles, two of which were recorded over the course of less than three years during his final years with the Berlin Philharmonic. The former was recorded without an audience, the latter live. The former cycle is perfectly respectable, but nothing special - a light, frothy Beethoven whose point of view consumers could buy far more cheaply if they bought David Zinman’s roughly contemporaneous cycle in Zurich. The second is far more exciting, and was released on CD as representing ‘The Maestro’s final interpretive wishes,’ basically invalidating the recordings he made only a year or two earlier and screwing over those music-lovers who invested nearly $100 in the original cycle.
Abbado was a perfectly respectable conductor of the classics, but in fifty years, nobody will treasure most of his performances. They hail from a period when far too many recordings were made, few of which were distinguishable from one another. They come from a period when classical music was at its stalest. There was an ivory ideal performance which all musicians aspired, and inevitably, it was the same performance. Abbado was prized above all other conductors because he got closer to that ideal than perhaps any other musician of his time. But the ideal performances of the now ending age are not ideal performances. He was not a perfect conductor, he was merely the perfect conductor for his time and place.
The Abbado We’ll Remember:
Rossini: L’Italiana in Algieri, Il Vieggo a Riems, La Cenerentola, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, - Abbado was born to conduct Rossini, and Rossini is his great contribution to music history. No longer can Rossini be condescended to as a musical lightweight, whose music is nothing more substantial than showboat vehicles for singers too light-voiced for ‘serious’ opera. Abbado never stinted an ounce on Rossini’s fun, but he added to Rossini a Beethoven-like musical heft that made his operas apiece with the 19th century. His Rossini performances are Abbado’s great gift to the world of music.
Brahms: Symphonies, Concertos, Misc. - There’s more than enough great Brahms to go around in the world - or at least there will be until today’s older generation dies out. But Abbado showed a level of devotion and perception which is rare even for his generation. It’s true that he had the Berlin Philharmonic, perhaps the greatest of all Brahms instruments, at his disposal for a while. But everything about Brahms - the stern austerity masking an inner warmth, the intricate forms, the reserved temperament, the singing line, was tempermentally matched with Abbado, who conducted this most difficult composer as though it was the most natural music in the world.
Mahler 7th The charge of 'Mahler lite' is often accurate, but a little unfair. In Mahler’s early symphonies, which require a Leonard Bernstein-like showman to pull them off properly, it is absolutely true. But in later works, he was often unmatchable. I prefer his Berlin Philharmonic performance of teh 7th, but this is a work that Abbado will always own with whatever orchestra he conducted. Until recently, most listeners were still confused by this piece. Abbado, with his secure grounding in Schoenberg and Berg and Brahms all the other important parts of Fin de Siecle Vienna, understood this most Viennese of Mahler Symphonies as perhaps no other conductor ever has. All those random-seeming juxtapositions finally make sense.
Mahler 8th It’s an impossible work to conduct, and Abbado’s version has a weak first half, which requires a Barnum and Bailey (Bernstein)-like showman. But very few if any conductors have made the second half sing the way Abbado did. It requires an iron fist to control the structure, and a velvet glove to caress the delicacy. Perhaps those two phrase could stand in as a good description of Abbado’s entire ethos.
Mahler 9th - Everybody has their favorite conductor of Mahler 9, and if any conductor can be said to own it, it’s clearly Bruno Walter, and great as Bruno Walter was in this piece, Abbado is one of the few conductors who can conjure up the same frenzied abyss that Walter did 75 years ago, and do so with much, much better playing and sound. In light of that, I feel comfortable saying that no conductor ever conducted this work better. This isn’t his greatest performance of the four we have extant, but it shows just how cosmic Abbado could be in works he understood well. And few conductors, if any, understood Mahler 9 better.
Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina It was Claudio Abbado, not a Russian conductor, who demonstrated once and for all that Khovanshchina, however incomplete or mixed up in editions, is fully powerful enough to stand alongside Boris Godunov (his recording of Boris, while hardly definitive, is still essential, and in many ways 'gave' Mussorgsky's original orchestration to the West). Somehow, I can’t find the complete youtube video which I found yesterday, but anyone who’s heard the live CD release of this performance could never forget it. At one performance during this 1989 run, Leonard Bernstein was so moved that after it was done, he emerged on the stage to embrace his former pupil in front of the audience.
Verdi: Simon Boccanegra and Don Carlos I would imagine that the culture of Verdi - singers taking endless high notes, audiences demanding constant encores, the singers’ cult of personality, the unearned emotional extravagence - enraged Abbado and his artistic seriousness. He never recorded the ‘Big Three’ (Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata), and his recordings of Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera, and Falstaff are all strangely frugal in the drama department - as though he wanted to downplay its perceived vulgarity and had no idea what to replace it with. Like his Mozart, his Verdi seems to be viewed through Rossini’s lens. One might almost call his approach to Verdi ‘revisionist.’ But the far greater seriousness of Don Carlos and Simon Boccanegra were ideal for him. The musical innovation, the emphasis on realistic drama rather than singer callisthenics and emotional extravagance, the lofty dramatizations of existential issues, were far more in Abbado’s Viennese wheelhouse. It can’t be denied, Abbado let us see a high seriousness to Verdi which was mostly overlooked for an entire century.
Schumann: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust - Abbado was always galvanized by rare repertoire. And even today, there is so much little-known Schumann that one can’t help but regret how little of it he recorded. Schumann, musical father to Brahms, never wrote a more Brahmsian piece, and Abbado’s Berliners tear into it with relish.
Alban Berg - All of Abbado’s Berg is worth the listen. Even if Abbado’s music-making is not quite violent enough for the Second Viennese School, he gets Berg’s sleazy lyricism. Under Abbado, Berg sounds downright approachable, and even if later conductors like Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen (and Barenboim) do better by the Second Viennese School, Abbado paved the way towards a greater understanding.
Gyorgy Kurtag For reasons I won’t elucidate here, Gyorgy Kurtag is a sleeping giant in the world of modern music, even if he’s still alive. Abbado appointed Kurtag, still not well known, as composer-in-residence at the Berlin Philharmonic in spite of the fact that Kurtag had not written an orchestral work since he was a student. It was a brilliant gamble which only a first-class musician would have the foresight to make.
Hindemith: Kammermusik There was clearly something about Abbado which was tired of the obbligations which his prestige accorded him. He was, so often, at his best in completely out-of-the-way repertoire which few other conductors would think to tackle. Had he been just another C-list conductor taking avant-garde projects whenever they came to him, he might have been more interesting. Lots of standard repertoire seemed to put him to sleep, but neglected repertoire like this always woke him up.