When Claudio Abbado turned 80 in June, the only sector of the music world to trumpet his birthday was the record industry: Decca and Deutsche Grammophon issued box-sets of uneven merit, repackaging long-available material. Given the Italian conductor’s media-shyness, he was probably pleased at the lack of fuss. Since giving up the principal conductorship of the Berlin Philharmonic 11 years ago, he has made himself quite scarce.
Abbado’s eagerly awaited return to London on October 1 with the Bologna-based Orchestra Mozart is a reminder that, despite his venerable age and a health scare in 2000 that nearly cut short his career, he still wants to make music. He also continues to make recordings, though none of his recent CDs has had anything like the impact of his output while leading La Scala, Milan (1968-86), the London Symphony Orchestra (1979-88), the Vienna State Opera (1986-91) and the Berlin Philharmonic (1989-2002).
There is one exception – the DVD of his Bruckner Fifth Symphony, recorded with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2010. While Bruckner has never played to Abbado’s strengths, this performance has many positives, not least the molto espressivo bloom to the string cantilenas. It also documents how, despite an increasingly fragile physique, he has maintained his outsize podium presence.
So what exactly are his strengths? Although Abbado made several fine Verdi recordings at La Scala, including a legendary Simon Boccanegra with Piero Cappuccilli, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Mirella Freni, he was never a typically instinctive Italian conductor: his intellectual qualities have always monitored the expression of feeling, giving the music he conducts coherence without depriving it of spontaneity. His technique, one of exceptional naturalness, enables him to draw the most out of the music’s peaks, creating an explosive quality. But it is a measured explosiveness, tasteful and brilliant rather than temperamental.
These qualities made him the outstanding Mahlerian of his generation. Go for his Mahler CDs with the Berlin Philharmonic – specifically the Third, Sixth and Ninth symphonies – rather than earlier versions with the Vienna Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony. A DVD of the Third Symphony with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (2007) is also worth investigating, though the Swiss audience’s passive reaction makes this a less memorable experience than their Proms performance.
Next to Mahler, the symphonist who elicits the most distinctive response from Abbado on CD is Schubert. A set of the nine symphonies is the most cherished legacy of his relationship with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, along with the same composer’s rarely performed opera Fierrabras, which Abbado conducted in a landmark Ruth Berghaus production at the 1988 Vienna Festival: this can be sampled in a YouTube clip (including excellent footage of Abbado in the pit) or on the complete studio recording, both starring the young Karita Mattila and Thomas Hampson.
Fierrabras shows how, in Abbado’s hands, a “broken” work can come unexpectedly to life. Another example is Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, the Schumann cantata he recorded live in Berlin. He was an equally memorable interpreter of Boris Godunov – as you can hear with the 1994 Salzburg Easter Festival cast – though his most treasurable Mussorgsky disc is the collection of operatic choruses and orchestral excerpts he taped with the London Symphony Orchestra. The Berlioz Te Deum, also recorded in London, is no less outstanding.
Little of Abbado’s mainstream repertoire has this knock-out appeal. Neither of his two Beethoven symphony cycles on CD (with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics) deserves much attention, though his filmed performances with the Berliners in Rome in 2001 capture a palpable sense of elation.
By contrast, Abbado’s advocacy of classical modernism is second to none. It was his early affinity with Berg – vividly conveyed on an album comprising the Three Pieces for Orchestra, Lulu Suite and Altenberg-Lieder – that led to his Salzburg debut in 1965. His Wozzeck, recorded in the late 1980s in Vienna with Franz Grundheber and Hildegard Behrens, is even more powerful, especially on DVD. And he was the only star conductor to champion Stockhausen: his recording of Gruppen is the fruit of long experience.
If I had to choose one Abbado recording over any other, it would be the pairing of Debussy’s Nocturnes and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë Suite No 2 that he recorded in his prime with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus. These performances project an unforgettable blend of lucidity and ecstasy, qualities representing Abbado at his best.
This is part of an occasional series on building a library of classical music.
For more ‘All the Best’ round-ups from Andrew Clark: