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Claudio Abbado | Picture: Cordula Groth

Claudio Abbado’s musical career was long closely linked with the Berliner Philharmoniker – and not only when the orchestra selected him in 1989 as its principal conductor and Herbert von Karajan’s successor. The 33-year old gave his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker already in December 1966, shortly after Seiji Ozawa.

 Karajan had brought in those years some promising young conductors to Berlin, and the press reaction was that Abbado was the “greatest talent” of them all. The orchestra of course did not want to pass up on this young talent, and he was invited again in the following year. 

The concert programme with Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra op. 6, Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony reflects the focus that was to characterise Abbado’s artistic work in the future: Viennese classicism, the German romantic era and the classical modern style. A fruitful collaboration developed between conductor and orchestra. Originally born in Milan, he served as guest conductor 33 times in the following years before being offered the position of principal conductor.

Departure for new frontiers

When Claudio Abbado took up his new duties, the Berlin Wall had just come down. Berlin and the two German states found themselves in political upheaval. It was a turning point – for both Germany and the Berliner Philharmoniker. “I’m Claudio for everyone. No titles!” With these words – as simple as they were revolutionary – he presented himself as the new boss, without any airs. 

A change of generations took place in the orchestra: many long-serving musicians retired, and younger ones took their positions. Claudio Abbado strived for a more transparent orchestral sound than his predecessor. The principal conductor placed his very own emphasis with his concert programmes. 

Typical of the Abbado era were major concert cycles focussing on a specific theme, for instance Prometheus, Faust or Shakespeare, and the engagement with the work of Gustav Mahler. 

Not to mention the concertant opera performances: of, for instance, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunow, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, Wagner’s Tristan and Parsifal and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Many a previously unknown musical treasure was also uncovered, for instance, Gioacchino Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims and Franz Schubert’s Fierrabras. 

Claudio Abbado resigned his office as principal conductor in 2002, giving his last concert in his function as head of the Berlin Philharmonic in the Vienna Musikverein in May 2002. At the final applause he was showered with more than 4,000 flowers.

Respected and loved

Despite this departure the conductor remained artistically associated with the orchestra until his death in January 2014. Once a year, in May, he returned to Berlin to make music with the Philharmonic musicians. His concerts, with the programming typical of him, had attained cult status and were a highlight of the season. In 2008, shortly before Abbado’s 75th birthday, his Berlin performance developed into a particularly special cultural event: because of a fire in the roof timbres of the Philharmonie the concert had to be rescheduled at the Waldbühne.

In 2013, the year he celebrated his 80th birthday, the Philharmoniker performed two central works of the romantic era under his direction: the incidental music for Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hector Berlioz’sSymphonie fantastique, a work, by the way, that he had never before interpreted with the Berliner Philharmoniker.  “The unheard-of thing about late Abbado is his art of bringing together nature and spirit, elegance and analytical clarity, beauty and cruelty,” stated the review published in theTagesspiegel.

2002: Farewell in Vienna | Picture: Cordula Groth