Claudio Abbado, ‘a loss to jazz’

Claudio Abbado, ‘a loss to jazz’


norman lebrecht

January 25, 2014

The Swiss violinist Etienne Abelin, a member of Abbado’s ensemble in Lucerne and Bologna, has been pondering why it was that musicians dropped everything in order to play in his handpicked orchestras. Here’s his offbeat assessment:

Some years ago, in Bologna, my friend the Belgian Jazz saxophonist and composer Fabrizio Cassol listened to a concert of the Orchestra Mozart with Abbado and was blown away. He told me afterwards: “You know, what you guys are doing is Jazz!”
It took me a while to understand what he meant. Now I agree: I think Claudio, in his Indian summer, was essentially a jazz artist. It was Claudio “The Risktaker” Abbado. He had the courage to want nothing, to be completely open to how things developed in making music with the orchestra. And then gently guide this process and let the many musical flowers evolving become a garden. Of course only after having internalized the score for so long and so profoundly that its flows, textures and emotional narratives became second nature. Then, in playing, a suggestion of a direction or expression could come from him, but very often also from groups or individuals in the orchestra. As a string group principal in Bologna, I could initiate going into a direction, with a certain expression. Open as he was, he would listen, understand, carry it on and then you could just let yourself be carried for a while, guided in what was essentially your own mini-story in the first place. So exhilharating. And on and on, throughout the piece. A constant give and take.
Ever wondered why all these great soloists and chamber musicians came to Lucerne and Bologna time and again to play so-called orchestra? Because actually we gathered for guided collective improvisations. Everybody’s creative and expressive capacities were in full demand, all the time. Not far in spirit from Dixieland, or Ornette Coleman. The world of Jazz lost one of its masters last Monday. 


abbado lucerne


  • ruben greenberg says:

    An absolutely wondrous performance. I wish I knew the names of the wind players. They played their hearts out for Claudio Abbado. Thank you.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    What a VERY interesting comment!

    My all-time favorite recordings of the Mozart piano concertos 20 and 21 are those of Abbado and Friedrich Gulda, who of course was very heavy into jazz (as well as the Viennese classics). The reason I like these records so much is the feeling that these guys are just going with each others’ moment-to-moment musical impulses, going with the flow of the music, to a degree I’ve never heard in a Mozart concerto performance. It’s a give-and-take, a total sensitivity to the musical happenings of the moment. And Gulda even improvises a bit!

    It’s jazz, I think…..and I think Mozart would have dug it…..

    Thanks, Etienne, for sharing your thoughts. I envy you your opportunity to play with this master.

  • Fascinating comment, but of course it’s not Jazz, merely classical music as it should be performed. The great shame is that a vast number of “classical” artists have not been exposed to such levels of artistry in performance, thus their terms of reference, their “bar”, is set lower! They don’t know what it is that they must strive for. The result is highly accomplished, polished mediocrity. The business is plagued by it!

    • Good analysis of the business, including education I may say. So true. Considering all the problematic aspects of the term and brand “classical music” I do think it makes sense to look at it from the outside at times. I was amazed that my Jazz musician friend called what he saw and heard “Jazz”, it was quite a surprise. I guess there are different concepts of what constitutes the essence of Jazz.

  • Very interesting for a number of reasons, Etienne. And what Derek Gleeson says. See, too, the West-Eastern Divan in concert (rehearsal) with Barenboim.

  • To further illustrate the point, see this performance of Bartok with ECYO from 1980. Look around YouTube and other recording of this work, you won’t find anything to compare.

    BTW. I am playing percussion in this performance

  • Jay Speares says:

    I think this is an infantile and unhelpful “tribute.” As another poster wrote, Abbado’s process is what all good classical musicians do. Music is music. There are good and bad jazz musicians, just like there are good and bad classical musicians. I know plenty of boring jazz musicians who play it safe, write out their licks, and could stand to learn a thing or two from Abbado.

    To a closed-minded jazz musician who holds the crude stereotype that classical musicians are all “boring” or “conservative,” it’s easy to understand the childish, identitarian logic which would lead him to conclude that anything which falls outside of this cliche is actually JAZZ— what HE does.. What Abbado does is also similar to what other great musicians do, whether Haitink, or Argerich, or McCarthy, or Armstrong. Music is music.

    Abbado was a great musician, not a jazz musician. You want to inspire other classical musicians to achieve his improvisatory and risk-taking qualities — then drop the self-perpetuating, deeply conservative essentialism of which qualities constitute classical musicic-making versus those of jazz.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      I agree with pretty much everything you say here, Jay, except for the last bit. Not because I *disagree* with it, but because I don’t understand what it means.

      What does “the self-perpetuating, deeply conservative essentialism of which qualities constitute classical musicic-making” mean?

  • Thank you for this comment, Jay. I get your point but don’t quite agree: what Abbado did is, in my experience, not what all good classical musicians do. There are masterful musicians in our field who create an entirely different relationship between themselves, their view of the music and their fellow musicians. Sometimes a great conductor’s or chamber music group’s concept of a piece is so specific that the best performance happens when all parameters of the interpretation reflect that concept. That can be extraordinary – but is completely different to what Abbado did, at least in these last years, with this particular group of people. It’s very unlikely that performers like Natalia Gutman, Sabine Meyer, Jacques Zoon, Alois Posch, Wolfram Christ, Kolja Blacher, Reinhold Friedrich or Hagen-, Leipzig- and Alban Berg String Quartet members would have returned year after year to Lucerne and Bologna to play orchestra if it hadn’t been for this unique superbly guided collective improvisatory way of music making on an incredible level. When my friend – an extraordinary musician, by the way, classical music lover and best re-composer of classical music I know – said that this seemed like Jazz to him, he of course meant the very highest level of Jazz.

    Note that I didn’t mention anything about qualities that I believe constitute classical music-making as opposed to the described improvisatory way, and certainly not negatively connotated ones like those you mention. If there are vastly different approaches to interpretation in our field such as the conceptual and the improvisatory one that can both be excellent, then I don’t see a problem in creating an analogy like the one to Jazz. You may disagree here and I welcome a discussion: personally I find it refreshing to think of music and its terminology as something fluid, between the genres, without clear borders. Especially since the term “classical music” IS in fact often perceived as problematic. So I’m all for playing around with it: Indie classical, hybrid classical, alternative classical, casual classical, orchestra playing-as-jazz, whateverclassical. They all have their merits and are sometimes more, sometimes less helpful, I think.

    Afterthought: Lucerne Festival director Michael Haefliger added a thought to the Jazz-analogy last week in a tribute to Abbado on Swiss television we both attended. He said that this reminded him that he once asked Simon Rattle after a Lucerne Festival Orchestra concert what he thought of it. Rattle’s answer, apparently: “You know, Claudio does things I don’t dare to do….yet!”