in: News & Features

January 20, 2014

Claudio Abbado 1933-2014

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Claudio Abbado died recently, at 80 years of age. I saw him in action only twice, but those two times were memorable. One occasion was close up at a stage rehearsal of Wozzeck at the Vienna Staatsoper in 1987, a new production (Grundheber, Behrens and others) in the city that had so reluctantly embraced that masterpiece of her native son. Abbado also took part in a radio panel a few days later. The other occasion was early 1985, during the Berg centennial, when there was a weeklong conference at the University of Chicago. The Thursday night event was climactic: the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall, in an all-Berg program (itself an unheard-of notion) conducted by Abbado, which has to be one of the best concerts I ever heard in my life: the Violin Concerto (with Zukerman), the Altenberg Lieder op. 4, the Seven Early Songs, and concluding with the Three Pieces for orchestra, op. 6. The Bergians present, experts and enthusiasts alike, were unanimous in their acclaim. Abbado conducted the entire program from memory, and I still wonder how that was even possible. Just one example: the Marsch from the Three Pieces, 175 measures long, has at least 71 changes of tempo (depending on how you count them in the score). Yet I’ve never heard any other conductor bring off this nightmarishly complex piece so convincingly as on that occasion.

claudio-abbadoI have a few Abbado recordings. I point to his version of Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony merely as a curiosity; Abbado preferred to ignore Schubert’s numerous changes in the autograph score of the second and third movements, and “restored” what had been Schubert’s initial ideas rather than their final versions. But to mention this is really a quibble. Abbado’s Wozzeck, from the 1987 production, stands as one of the best available, and the first that made it to videotape. We now see how much Abbado honored the Second Viennese School, and that legacy is permanent, and one for which all of us can be grateful.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

5 Comments

  1. Let’s not forget that Abbado was one of the few conductors to let Mussorgsky speak in his own language, with his own music and orchestration. He left two excellent commercial recordings of “St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain” as MM actually wrote it — I treasure a live tape of a Chicago SO broadcast from about 1987 that was even finer than the commercial recordings.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — January 24, 2014 at 2:10 pm

  2. Abbado deserves a better article (NYT’s obit is very comprehensive) and discussions here.

    Comment by Thorsten — January 27, 2014 at 4:12 pm

  3. >> Abbado deserves a better article … here

    Well, go ahead and offer one, then. (It’s not as though good pieces are turned down.)

    D. Weininger had, locally, a very nice and thoughtful writeup:

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/music/2014/01/25/abbado-cherished-mysteries-inside-music/ZlCwcpEI0dBdXHFclkHq6J/story.html

    Comment by David Moran — January 27, 2014 at 9:26 pm

  4. Many would think Mahler as Abbado’s greatest achievement. Maybe. Even today I am not satisfied with his M7. And the sequence of M6 movements says A LOT of about his musicality as a conductor.

    I want to mention his khovanshchina, which stands side by side with Godunov on the zenith of Russian operas. His recording is at the level where that great opera ought to be.

    However, I remember vividly just one week after hearing khovanshchina, I was so depressed to hear his Elektra, not in the way the music should have made me depressed, but it was because his way of reading music failed to produce the right sound for the emotional effects.

    I always have mixed feeling about him. I also remember one day I was delighted by his Hollander overture and the next day I was furious at his Beethoven 7 in European concert and his Lohengrin …

    Abbado manages to get special instrumental clarity, (I think partly) resulting from his accurate one-beat-ahead gesture. Just by this simple observation, I know his is truly a MODERN conductor from heart (unfortunate), never truly romantic. I happened to be listening his Tchaikovsky 4 a few days before his death. This kind-of-famous recording with VPO, which gained high acclaims in the ‘music lovers’ circle over the years. But it was just typically him. The special Abbado clarity
    at many places breaks the music line.

    Since Bruckner 9 was mentioned in some of the articles, I have to say his DG recording with VPO was utterly a disaster. But I have already reserved the budget for his late Bruckner 5, 9
    DVDs. Not that I have high expectation, I am curious enough to know his development in the late years. After all, he was still much much better than most of the living conductors (in fact I can’t name any one).

    Comment by Thorsten — January 29, 2014 at 2:33 pm

  5. See also, from today, a nice letter:

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2014/02/01/boston-area-arts-letters/mJj0yoeWuVSy60C3JSvINJ/story.html

    Comment by David Moran — February 3, 2014 at 2:13 am

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