Claudio Abbado: a soloist’s view

Claudio Abbado: a soloist’s view


norman lebrecht

January 23, 2014

The pianist Ivo Pogorelich has been remembering Abbado, in a conversation with the Croatian journalist Branimir Pofuk. The pair recorded together Chopin’s f-minor concerto with the Chicago Symphony and Tchaikovsky b-flat minor with London Symphony Orchestra, both for DG.


abbado pogo

UPDATE: Mr Pogorelich has asked us to remove the previous translation and replace it with his own:


Working with Claudio Abbado was a dream come true for any soloist. With Abbado, a soloist was respected as an individual and urged to give his best as an artist at the same time. His extensive work in the field of opera has enabled him to offer a solid platform to a performer he was accompanying, both in the rehearsals as well as in concert. He saw music as a realm into which artists are invited through honesty and hard work, simplicity and inspiration. His attitude was filled with seriousness, but also with joy of performing and going with him on stage, one was experiencing a celebration of the heritage of the composer, whose works were performed. In his rapport with music he seemed selfless, responsible and always aiming at the essence, which, in his case, came through as lively and elegant. 


  • David H. says:

    Great respect to Claudio Abbado, I stand in silence in acknowledgement of his great achievements and the terrible loss his departure means for us, but lets not get carried away in our emotionally charged mourning with distorting complex realities. Helene Grimaud would tell the opposite story of above account.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      I agree in general. We can’t know the full story about Grimaud, Abbado the aborted Mozart concerto recordings.

      Yet the facts don’t point to Abbado being as self effacing as some exaggerated tributes suggest.

      That said, by many standards, I think of Abbado as one of the greatest conductors ever. Not only because his best performances were about as good as they get, but also because of his tremendous impact on younger generations, especially through the youth orchestras he led. I also have deep respect towards Abbado for the continuous evolution of his interpretive approach – in his late years he even embraced historically informed performance practice.

    • David and Petros: I’m quite sure Hélène would disagree with you. Yes, we had that story in Bologna, and it wasn’t pleasant. But what Pogorelich describes is the general bliss of performing with Claudio as a soloist and I would bet that Hélène agrees fullheartedly. And that she’s mourning as well.

  • Nigel says:

    ==lets not get carried away

    Exactly. The late pianist Rafael_Orozco could have told another story re: when Abbado forced him to play his own Mozart concerto cadenza during an LSO rehearsal and CA led the laughter at it. Orozco had to replace the cadenza for the performance.

    Actually it’s not that diferent from the Grimaud cadenzagate story.

  • sdReader says:

    David, Hélène Grimaud did her career a disservice by crossing Abbado.

    She is full of herself. It was a disgrace to block Abbado’s wishes and put her own ego ahead of his project — especially in Mozart, where she is weak.

    Beyond the artistic matter, where one could argue in her favor (as well as his), there were the plain facts of his age, health and stature.

    A really stupid and regrettable decision on her part. Immature and selfish.

    So who would care what she would say?

    (The story, about a DG Mozart concerto disc, was of course reported in full by Norman 18 months ago.)

    • David H. says:

      “Who would care what she would say?”

      What do you mean by that? What had his age, health and stature to do with this?

      Sorry, but that’s not how in reality a soloist collaborates with a conductor.

      And Grimaud wasn’t a teenager at that point but a ripe mature artist. She also didn’t block his wishes. He tried to patronize her.

      There is nothing “immature or selfish” in demonstrating artistic integrity.

  • sdReader says:

    … make that 27 months ago!

  • Branimir says:

    Just want to add, respectfully, that Ivo Pogorelich is the last man I know who would incline to “get carried away in … emotionally charged mourning”, or to get carried away generally in praising any of his musical colleagues.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    I seem to remember very, very dimly that when the Tchaikovsky 1 with Abbado and Pogorelich came out – and that was a long time ago, almost 30 years – there was a big disagreement between them over Pogorelich’s fairly extreme tempi. I even seem to recall that Abbado publicly distanced himself from the recording – but again, it’s been almost 30 years, so maybe I am not remembering that correctly. Maybe somebody else has a better memory than mine and can correct me if my memory is wrong.

  • sdReader says:

    You had a senior musician who had given her the privilege of a Mozart collaboration and who was working at the end of his life — all of these recent years were the end of his life, because of his acute frailty — with certain wishes and priorities in terms of repertory.

    The right thing to do, and the only thing to do under the unusual circumstances, was to acquiesce in those wishes. She didn’t see that.

    Instead she got into a principled stand-off on which he could not begin to expend energy, and the result was that his precious work in those Bologna sessions with her was wasted.

    Without getting into the question of the value of Busoni’s cadenza(s) or a talk about the un-Mozartean Mozart she produced in the May 2011 Prinzregententheater concerts preceding her trip to Bologna, which I attended and which now fills *her* replacement disc, I must say she lost all my respect over the treatment of her great colleague (and friend).

    Hopefully you now understand my words “immature and selfish” to describe Hélène Grimaud.

    • David H. says:

      Well, I don’t know, you will have your reasons to have this perspective. But my perception of the realities (reported to me) are different.

      Initially there was no disagreement about the cadenza(s) and the production began. Only after Grimaud had made some gestures during the recording sessions, that could be interpreted as that she wanted to “side-conduct” the orchestra, was she asked by him – without being prepared – to also record the Mozart cadenza(s) after the concerto including “her” cadenzas was already recorded.

      I can’t find this a wise judgement, to force a soloist at that point to perform another cadenza than the one prepared. If it had to be the Mozart version for him, he should have told here many days before the production happened.

      She *did* acquiesce to his wishes and recorded “his” cadenzas. She didn’t like the result after being presented with the finished recording. She then wanted to publish the recording as originally planned with the Busoni cadenzas. Claudio Abbado wanted the Mozart cadenzas. The rest is history.

      I can’t see any wrong doing by Grimaud here. She could have given in to the older person, yes. But only at the cost of her artistic conviction and integrity. And that would have been a move that would not have been up to Abbado’s own high standards.

      • sdReader says:

        A move up to Abbado’s own high standards would have been to cooperate.

        Maria João Pires and Martha Argerich did, when they recorded Mozart’s D-Minor Concerto with Abbado and the Orchestra Mozart in Sept. 2011 and March 2013, both for DG.

        Their artistic conviction and integrity survived, just like Grimaud’s.

        • David H. says:

          “A move up to Abbado’s own high standards would have been to cooperate.”

          Yet he didn’t…

          • sdReader says:

            You are forgetting that she was in Bologna at *his* invitation.

          • David H. says:

            Maybe so, but probably it was DG’s initiative.

            Anyway, it was *her* recording (contract) for DG.

          • sdReader says:

            No. Abbado and the Orchestra Mozart had DG agreements too. Abbado of course chose the soloists he worked with. He invited Grimaud for the A-Major Concerto. She effectively “practiced” with the Bavarian forces a week or two before the Bologna sessions. Those concerts, on May 22 and 23, 2011, were recorded by BR (Bavarian Radio) in the normal course of its operations, and one of them may well have gone over the airwaves live. Later, after her blocking of Abbado’s work in Bologna, DG licensed the BR recording(s) to create the released disc.

            In other words, DG was instigator in neither the Munich recordings nor the Bologna plans. So we should leave the label out of the discussion.

          • David H. says:

            The label was about to make a recording with Grimaud primarily, and when the Bologna recordings were blocked due to the disagreement about the cadenzas, then they released another recording with Grimaud, not with Abbado, of the same work. So it is pretty obvious what DG wanted in the first place.

            “Later, after her blocking of Abbado’s work in Bologna…” You also have that backwards. She didn’t block anything of Abbado’s work. He did block hers. I think we are done with this.

          • sdReader says:

            David, it was not DG’s initiative. It was his. We know this because the man built the orchestra and over nine years (2004 to 2013) invited the artists he wanted to work with, including, recently for Mozart piano concertos, Grimaud, Pires and Argerich. Everything he chose to do in Bologna, practically, was issued by the label.

            Only Grimaud blocked a project, out of her arrogance. I am sure she is miserable about it now, and I believe she will ultimately have to authorize the issue of the A-Major Concerto the way Abbado wanted it.

            Besides, your comments above give Deutsche Grammophon brains that many Slipped Disc readers long ago realized “it” doesn’t have. Any combination in your scenario would have worked because — remember — the label is promoting all three pianists, the late conductor, and the disbanded Orchestra Mozart.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      So I stumbled across that DG disc with the Mozart concertos in the library and I listened to 23 earlier. I greatly enjoyed that performance – lively, virtuoso playing, but also plenty of nuance and expressive detail, beautiful eloquent phrasing especially in the slow movement although I guess the tempo variations there may be a little too much for some people’s taste – it’s all very musically and organically done though. Stellar playing by the orchestra, too, and frankly of a higher quality than what one normally hears from the Orchestra Mozart. Great rapport between them and the soloist – I don’t really think a conductor is needed for this repertoire if the orchestra and soloist are of that quality and they listen to each other carefully, which they obviously do here. A favorite moment for me was the passage leading into the pizzicato episode near the end of the slow movement, where piano left hand and bassoon alternate in playing broken up chords, and the sound she gets out of the piano there matches that of the bassoon very closely – I have never heard anybody do that before, and I don’t really know how she manages to do that, it may have to do with attack speed.

      In any case, a very rewarding performance – so what is the problem here? What’s wrong with it? What’s so “weak” and “un-Mozartean”?

      • sdReader says:

        Michael, if you enjoy those two Munich concerto readings, fine. Her behavior I think is another matter.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          Yes, yes, I get that those are two separate discussions. Although, just for the record, I tend to agree with those who say that if what was reported really was what happened, it was more Abbado’s fault than Grimaud’s. The soloist should have priority and the conductor should support her or him. And it doesn’t matter who is the older one. Especially not in this case since Abbado always emphasized that he didn’t want to be someone on a pedestal. He just wanted to be “Claudio”. Or so he said, all the time. But you know, uncle Claudio had a negative side, too. In Berlin, I often heard that he did sneaky stuff like that. If he didn’t like something, he wouldn’t tell people. They would usually find out through other channels. So the story as reported seems quite credible.

          But then again, I don’t think that story is all that important and yes, it has nothing to do with the music. But you were very specific, or hinting at being specific, in saying that what she did there was “weak” and “un-Mozartean”.

          So since I am obviously not a Mozartean either (I am actually German), I don’t understand what is so weak about her interpretation, so I would like to learn from a real Mozartean – you. Please educate me.

          And, BTW, how are things in Mozartea these days?

          • sdReader says:

            It’s snowing in Mozartea this morning, and your favorite French pianist now needs to OK the release of the A-Major concerto in the form Claudio Abbado wished!

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            Who are you to decide that? Are you the King of Mozartea?

            My favorite French pianist, BTW, is Samson Francois. I think. I don’t waste much time on “ranking” musicians and deciding who is the “best” and all that. I have only heard two recordings by Grimaud anyway.

            But you still haven’t explained your earlier statements about the “weak” and “un-Mozartean” quality of her Mozart playing. I would hope that someone who has such explicit opinions presented with such expert conviction can also back them up with expert arguments.

          • sdReader says:

            Michael, as I wrote above, you are free to respond positively to her Mozart. For me, the voice of this composer is missing from Grimaud’s work. If I parse it down to statements like yours about the bassoon-piano exchange, the “arguments” would not end and you would believe I am turned off by specific things she does. Unlike you, I have never heard a recording by Grimaud but listened to her in performance between 2003 and 2011 in the music of several composers. I now view her as a self-centered little fill-in-the-blank with a facility for Bartók. But this non-regal, non-expert still wants to hear that A-Major concerto with her, Claudio’s way.

  • sdReader says:

    … that was in reply to David’s comment of January 24, 2014 at 10:04 am.

  • Don Johnson says:

    ….don´t name Grimaud and Abbado in one breath…….

  • Michael – in the 1980s the original LP sleeve and the booklet of the first CD issue of the Pogorelich/Abbado Tchaikovsky First Concerto recording both included comments by Pogorelich expressing his enthusiasm about working with Abbado on the recording. There was never any disagreement between them and Pogorelich did not distance himself from the recording.

    If there was any disagreement between Pogorelich and a conductor over tempi, it was probably with Karajan. DG originally wanted a Pogorelich/Karajan collaboration, but Pogorelich turned down the project. If DG’s intention had been for Pogorelich to record Tchaik 1 with him then I’m glad it didn’t happen, as Karajan’s four previous recordings of the concerto (with Richter, Weissenberg, Berman & Kissin) are not among his most distinguished recordings. By contrast, the Pogorelich/Abbado version is one of most compelling interpretations you are ever likely to hear – thanks in large part to Abbado’s contribution, as no doubt Pogorelich would acknowledge.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Yes, Raymond – I think you are right! Now that you mentioned it, I remember there was a statement from Pogorelich in the booklet. That in itself is a little unusual though. But it seems that I confused that with the Karajan story. I just checked Osborne’s biography, and according to him, what happened was that Karajan and Pogorelich were rehearsing the piece in Vienna but they simply couldn’t agree on tempi and other musical parameters so Karajan canceled Pogorelich’s appearance and conducted the 6th symphony instead. The official announcement was that Pogorelich had hurt his arm. He appeared to the concert with his arm in a big sling…and “even Karajan was amused”.

      Still, even though it turned out I was right when I said that I didn’t trust my memory – I still think I remember something happened there with Abbado and Pogorelich, too – and maybe *that* is why the latter included that statement in the booklet. Hmmmm…

      I rather like the recording with Berman and Karajan though. I also heard him live with Kissin (that was actually the last time Karajan conducted in Berlin), but I have never listened to the recording.

    • sdReader says:

      No Karajan concerto reading was “among his most distinguished” efforts because he wasn’t a collaborator. The VSO disc is worth hearing though.

      • David H. says:

        You are very wrong about Karajan here. He was a fantastic collaborator, many singers and soloists to this day praise him for that.

        • sdReader says:

          If so, David, what concerto recording under HvK would you rank as “among his most distinguished” work? I would cite the Richter/VSO and the Eschenbach Beethoven, but far down the list, and I think his failure in this area speaks volumes. Collaboration means a passive role at times, not just coaching, which is where he draws the singer and soloist praise you mention. Abbado, the subject here, was, in contrast, a brilliant and truly partnering collaborator.

          • David H. says:

            Gieseking-Karajan – Beethoven KK5 maybe?

            Let’s not argue taste, but the soloists and singers (e.g. Fassbaender) were thrilled about his way to “always be with the singer”. It’s not passive btw, it’s very active, yet accompaniment. He was good at that, maybe Abbado even more so, but labeling HvK as not collaborating is simply distorting reality. Of course all the aging maestri became more picky about their collaborations with soloists. Shall we discuss Celi? Compared to Celi, HvK was quite collaborative… 😉

          • sdReader says:

            Yes, the Gieseking would be high also. And I do like the Beethoven Triple with Oistrakh, Slava and Richter.

            But you must admit it is odd how few concerto recordings with HvK anyone still talks about. I put that down to his domineering way.

            Celi isn’t worth discussing.

          • David H. says:

            The Beethoven triple recording is compromised for me, simply because how arrogant HvK treated Richter when they had performed it live in the Philharmonie around the time of the recordings. (I’m not sure the concert was before or after the recordings)

            When the applause started and all four went out backstage, Richter recalled telling Karajan, still high on just having performed this master piece by the German composer, “heute bin ich ein Deutscher” (today I’m a German). To which Karajan only sarcastically replied. “Dann bin ich Chinese.” (Then I’m Chinese)…

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            Why “sarcastically”? It’s a nice thought isn’t it – maybe he meant it doesn’t matter whether you are German, Austrian Russian, Chinese when you perform Beethoven, as long as you inhabit the music?

            So you base your assessments of musical performances on spurious anecdotes like this?

          • David H. says:

            Richter understood it differently.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            “Richter understood it differently.”

            So you are saying Richter didn’t have a sense of humor?

            There is a little problem with your story though – Richter apparently never performed the piece live with Karajan. Oopsie!

            I love anecdotes, too, but you have to be more careful with them – most of them aren’t really true anyway. I just had a similar experience with a story that I thought I remembered about Abbado and Pogorelich having a falling out over their Tchaikovsky recording – but I treated it carefully from the start because it was 30 years ago that I *thought* I heard about it.

            And I would never take them as basis for making musical judgments. I gather that was your general position in your discussion about Abbado and Grimaud with sdReader in this thread, too.

            That said, I have never actually heard this particular recording so I will check it out. Wasn’t it featured as one of the 20 worst recordings in history in one of Norman’s books?

            The later Karajan recording with Mutter, Ma, and Zeltser is a favorite of mine though. It’s pretty groovy, especially the last movement.

          • David H. says:

            The circumstances I quoted (after the concert or after the recording?) might be not precise, but the core message is the same. Is it humorous when you open your heart saying “Ich bin ein Deutscher [like Beethoven]”, resonating Kennedy’s spirit of “Eeesh been ain Barleener” from a few years ago. And the counterpart basically ridicules you? I really fail to see the humor in this. Karajan *was* a very lonely man after all.

  • David – the comment Karajan made to Richter is mentioned on page 118 of Bruno Monsaingeon’s book (“Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations”) after Richter has discussed the circumstances of their recording of the Triple Concerto, which took place after a performance of the work in Moscow. The comment doesn’t seem to have been linked with any performance of the concerto; Richter merely says it occurred “one day, while we were talking” and it was probably related to Richter mentioning his own German ancestry.

    Richter describes Karajan as “a phenomenal conductor” but his account of the recording sessions for the Triple Concerto is hilarious (“Battle lines were drawn up with Karajan and Rostropovich on the one side and Oistrakh and me on the other”). Equally amusing is the photo of them on p. 119 which EMI didn’t publish (Richter comments: “what a nauseating photograph it is, with him posing artfully and the rest of us grinning like idiots”). But can anyone explain the absurd photo on p. 120 in which Richter is apparently wheeling a trolley loaded with copies of Karajan’s Beethoven symphony set around what is presumably DG’s warehouse?

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      I don’t know either but it is a strange picture – he is even wearing a workman’s coat. Maybe he asked to be paid in LP sets which he could sell on the black market in since he probably had to deliver most of the fees he earned in the west to the government when he returned to the USSR?

  • sdReader says:

    Eeekh! You’re right. Richter sounds completely disgusted with Karajan. Recording date was Sept. 1969. Cocktail party with cameras followed? Still, he must have had a better experience with him on the Tchaikovsky (recorded Sept. 1962) because he returned to “collaborate” again.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      I think it was probably a much better experience for both of them because I just listened to the Tchaikovsky recording – which I had never heard before – with Richter and Karajan and it is fabulous. I came to it wondering how the two might work together musically (or not), given that they were both such strong musical personalities and their styles of music making seemed so different.

      But it became clear right from the beginning that that was just an unfounded preconception on my part. After the very emphatic opening bars – the Viennese F horns sound great here -, Karajan immediately takes the orchestra back to allow the soloist to enter in the foreground, letting the violins and celli play the “big tune” just mf – like it says in the score, rather than the ff one hears here most of the time. Throughout the entire performance, there is an ideal balance, musically and acoustically, between piano and orchestra which not just means that what Karajan does with the orchestra always supports Richter’s musical arches but also that where the piano accompanies and dialogs with sections of the orchestra, Richter also does just that. There is no egotripping going on here at all by either soloist or conductor. Listen to how subtly the orchestra enters behind the soloist 1:10 into the last movement, and how perfectly timed the ritardando is. Just one example of many, of the entire performance really. It doesn’t get any better than this.

      Highly recommended!

  • Alan says:

    I think Roberto Abbado is a better conductor.

    • sdReader says:

      He is certainly different from his uncle, in his musical priorities, physical manner, style, and other aspects. You would think they had no connection at all!

      And I would agree he is remarkably effective.

  • m2n2k says:

    And I think that Alan was just trying to be funny. He succeeded.

    • sdReader says:

      @m2n2k: What do *you* think of Roberto Abbado?

      • m2n2k says:

        That he is a competent conductor.

        • sdReader says:

          Yes he is. And it’s not clear why his name came up on this thread. A non-joke leads to an empty comment about its success, from posters without opinion.

          • m2n2k says:

            Every poster has opinions, but some of them, such as the one expressed by Alan above here, can hardly be taken seriously. However, the reason Maestro Abbado is mentioned on a thread about Maestro Abbado is rather obvious.

          • sdReader says:

            If he wasn’t serious, then we didn’t learn his opinion. And you have taken no position either.

            I answered his remark at face value because leaving it permits a cheap shot at an artist not under discussion.

            Do you have anything to contribute?