Author: Peter Hagmann
ca. 7 minutes

Claudio Abbado | Picture: Cordula Groth

A murmur went through the music world when, on 8 October 1989, the election of Claudio Abbado as the successor to Herbert von Karajan as chief conductor of the Berliner was announced – a decision which hardly anyone had expected. Although Abbado had conducted the orchestra several times since 1966, he was more associated with the Italian-Austrian cultural scene.

His career began at la Scala in Milan, where between 1966-1986 Abbado rose to the position of music director. At the same time, however, there were early ties with Vienna, where he had studied under the legendary conducting teacher Hans Swarowsky. In 1965, he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic, with whom he subsequently intensively worked. Ultimately, he was appointed music director of the Vienna State Opera at the side of Claus Helmut Dreses in 1986. Together with his new duties in Berlin, Abbado, around 1990, possessed a sphere of influence which almost rivalled that of Karajan.

Successes and criticism

All in all, Abbado’s twelve years in Berlin were anything but easy. There was no lack of success, but not much less criticism. The conductor was charged, for example, with not working intensively enough with the orchestra, and of not setting clear guidelines in rehearsal. This accusation was based on a misunderstanding: Abbado was by nature less focused on preparing in rehearsals; he was a performer who needed the thrill of the performance itself to come into his own.

Anyone who had the opportunity to see the conductor in concert from the front – in the Berlin Philharmonie was that possible – could physically feel the effect of his charisma. Unlike Karajan, who usually kept his eyes closed during performances, Abbado’s eyes were always on the move, as if in personal contact with each orchestra member; the music which emerged became a moment of intense togetherness. However, during rehearsals, Abbado argued that making musicians aware of mistakes was not very helpful; they themselves could hear what was wrong. He simply allowed problematic sections to be repeated without comment.

Yet, as difficult as Abbado’s decade at the head of the Berliner Philharmoniker may have been, it produced grandiose moments. I heard the orchestra season after season: every summer at the International Music Festival Lucerne, now known as the Lucerne Festival, and during the winter in the Philharmonie. Audiences experienced orchestral culture at its finest. The symphonies of Johannes Brahms in the nineties, for example, were unforgettable.

Abbado concluded his first Lucerne concert with the Philharmoniker in the summer of 1990 with Brahms’ First Symphony in C minor – just as Karajan had done in 1988 at his last Lucerne appearance before his death. Abbado rejected the assumption that in choosing this piece he wanted to emphasize the aspect of continuity; the symphony had been programmed simply because it happened to be in rehearsal for a recording project of the Philharmoniker with Deutsche Grammophon.

In the footsteps of Karajan

Nevertheless, attentive listeners by no means missed the closeness between the interpretations of Abbado and Karajan. The younger seemed to be picking up from where the elder left off. Like Karajan, Abbado focused on the homogeneous Philharmoniker sound, but he endowed it with a greater tonal radiance – in the service of an emotional urgency that created a climate of gripping immediacy.

As a result, Abbado’s account of Brahms took on such a compelling personal shape that when Nikolaus Harnoncourt came to the Berliner Philharmoniker for a complete recording of the Brahms symphonies in 1996/1997 , he felt quite anxious facing the orchestra, as he himself reported. The symphonies of Gustav Mahler, which formed a more powerful focus at the Philharmoniker’s annual Lucerne performances, took on an equally distinctive light. 

Towards the end of his tenure in Berlin in 2002, the orchestra’s sound under Abbado began to become more transparent. This was due not least to the historically informed performance practice which Abbado was more than familiar with, as a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Hohe Messe” at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1999 demonstrated. Signs of theses changes were also evident in Abbado’s handling of the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven – especially in the concert recordings documented on video which he conducted immediately after recovering from a serious illness in 2001.

Dramaturgical programming

The work on consistent, dramaturgically conceived concert programming added significantly to the interpretive message of Abbado’s time in Berlin. The thematic concert cycles developed by Abbado between 1992/1993 and 2000/2001 were of particular significance. They mostly took their themes from the semi-staged operas Abbado performed in Berlin before taking them to the Easter Festival in Salzburg. 

In addition to the concerts, there were also readings, theatrical performances, exhibitions and film screenings spread throughout the season, all of which allowed him to approach a topic on a variety of levels. Abbado was not only a meticulous investigator of the scores he conducted, but also a vigorous intellectual whose interests were extraordinarily wide ranging – probably stemming from his roots in the educated Sicilian-Lombardy middle classes. 

When he came to Berlin in 1989, the Wall had just fallen, and he threw himself into the city’s eventful cultural life; a little later he talked with great animation about his encounters with writers, actors and film directors. Consequently, the series of thematic cycles gained a decidedly urban flair.

Towards new goals

Then, in 2000, came the onset of the devastating illness under whose influence Claudio Abbado became a different person. A silent gasp seemed to pass through the audience when, in the middle of February 2001, he came with the Berliner Philharmoniker to the Vienna Musikverein for the first time after recovering – as a shadow of his former self. The symphonies of Beethoven, however, revealed that Abbado had once again set new goals. 

Four weeks after the Vienna concerts, Claudio Abbado and Michael Haefliger, artistic director of the Lucerne Festival, announced the founding of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The project was a tremendous boost to the conductor; two years later, during a long conversation before his seventieth birthday, Abbado seemed reborn. With the Lucerne Orchestra made up of friends, Abbado created an environment in which he, as a musician and as a human being, could feel treasured, accepted, appreciated, and even loved. In this way, he came closer to the ideals pursued by every artist than under the traditional conditions in Milan, Vienna and Berlin.

Chamber music also had a connection with the aspect of friendship. “Playing chamber music is nothing other than cultivating friendship,” Abbado said at the time. To see orchestral music making as a magnification of chamber music comes immediately to mind and is easily understandable. But it is of primary importance for the reality of performance and musical interpretation – as the Lucerne Festival Orchestra’s concerts with Abbado demonstrated. As powerfully as Claudio Abbado’s concept of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra shone, the company was overshadowed by his fragile condition. Although the conductor first gained new vitality through his work with the orchestra, his unstable health repeatedly thwarted his plans.

“Primus inter pares”

The concept of orchestral music as a kind of “chamber music on a grand scale” also represented the heart of the self- image of Claudio the conductor. He saw himself, it was said, as a “primus inter pares”, who gave the orchestra its cue and then stood back – which means to say, as someone who leaves the field entirely open to the musicians themselves. Abbado, as uncompromising as he could be in defending his ideas and desires, was the opposite of a despotic conductor. Even in questions of interpretation, there was no single, definitive solution for him, as a member of the Berliner Philharmoniker vividly described. It may be that with such ideas, he provoked resistance and tension among the members of the orchestra and critics. But the fact is, that when dealing with such a collective, especially an orchestra as complex as one made up of such specialist musicians, Abbado’s model has attained a certain universality.

This all found its roots in Claudio Abbado’s family background. Certainly the most important was socialisation in the circle of a family in which chamber music was a natural part everyday life. However, early experiences working at the conservatory in Parma, where Abbado taught chamber music for three years and gained an insight into the interaction of musicians in a collective were also significant. The conductor spoke repeatedly of that time; it meant a lot to him. 

However, the anti-authoritarian spirit of 1968, which took a particular form in Italy, was also influential. For Abbado, leadership – and the collective of an orchestra can not function without leadership – meant to always act from reaction, to set and take up impulses, to create space and trust. Respect for the individual as part of the whole was combined with an extremely powerful spirit of community – and, on top of that, Abbado’s extraordinary enthusiasm. In the summer of 2013, the conductor explicitly described how, when working on a score, he fell unconditionally in love with the music and how this state of falling in love in rehearsal is gradually transferred to the orchestra.

Romanticist with a closeness to contemporary music

In another respect, Claudio Abbado was influenced by the late sixties and early seventies. We are talking about his obvious closeness to contemporary music. This aspect of Abbado’s work was also influential. For many, especially today’s younger conductors, the study of new music is an indispensable part of their work. Undoubtedly one of the most important acts in this area was the founding of the “Wien Modern” festival, held in 1988 for the first time. Abbado shrewdly recognised that there were considerable shortcomings in the field of new music in the then thoroughly backward-looking “World Capital of Music”. From then on, monographic concerts for composers who were still to be discovered in Vienna were presented. And in this case too, there were related interdisciplinary events which went beyond the musical arts.

There is no doubt that Claudio Abbado’s work is dominated by music of the Classical-Romantic period. Nevertheless, it is clear that with his extraordinary artistic profile, Abbado rendered significant service to new music, including its position on the musical scene. Almost more important, however, was Abbado’s influence on the job description of the conductor. The principles he held of playing in an orchestra and of leadership in the musical collective have gained an importance in our times which should not be underestimated. As a result of these two aspects of his artistic biography, Claudio Abbado became in fact a conductor for a new age.