Claudio Abbado, exquisite maestro, is no more. A first appreciation

Claudio Abbado, exquisite maestro, is no more. A first appreciation


norman lebrecht

January 20, 2014

Shortly before Christmas, Claudio Abbado returned home to die. After being given months to live with a stomach cancer diagnosis 15 years ago, he had outlasted all medical predictions ma y times over and enjoyed a golden autumn of indelible performances with the musicians he loved most, chiefly at the Lucerne Festival where he obtained the rehearsal conditions and affection he had longed for all his life.

In his final months he was named a Life Senator of the Italian Parliament. Typically, he gave away the salary to music education.

The loss of Abbado is irreparable.

He achieved the highest summit of music in Europe – artistic director of La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Phlharmonic – and stamped each of them with a facet of his principled personality. he was known for leaving jobs early on a point of musical principle. He was, in fact, the first music director of the Berlin Philharmonic to leave the post alive.

Much can and will be said about the quality of his music making.




At this moment, I want to remember Abbado the man: stubborn, inspirational, shy and with a smile that could melt glaciers. He was a maestro of the one-liner. Once, we were sitting in his favourite Italian restaurant in London and he saw on the menu gnocchi (potato pasta) with nettles. His face lit up and he began recalling his life in hiding during the Second World War. His mother would send him out with heavy gloves to pick nettles which she cooked with the gnocchi.

‘And we would eat it as a delicacy,’ he confided. ‘Sometimes,’ he added, ‘with a little cat.’


abbado argerich

And then he collapsed in giggles at our mortification. He loved to laugh at his own jokes.


  • Mike Schachter says:

    Very sad, great conductor and musician, and a great and good man.

  • sdReader says:

    Well said, Norman.

    And we must not forget his unique “Orchestra Mozart” in Bologna, 2004-2014.

    Minor correction: Herbert von Karajan lived for three months after quitting the BPO in April 1989.

  • John says:

    Very sad but also miraculous that he lived and worked so long. When he conducted the Verdi Requiem for the death centenary in 2001 I was convinced we would never hear him conduct again. A very special man and musician.

  • Lisa Fogler says:

    R.I.P Mr Abbado, You gave us so much, Job well done.

  • musicbox says:

    Such a loss… Really hard to write anything…

  • David says:

    Having heard the news on Radio 3 I watched the Finale of Mahler 2 on Youtube and wept.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    Very sad news indeed. A remarkable musician.

    A maestro in the truest sense of the word. Certainly one of the great conductors of the last 60 years and, arguably, following the death of Carlos Kleiber about a decade ago, probably the leader of the pack.

    Abbado’s music-making was so natural and he lacked the vulgar mannerisms of so many hopelessly overrated egomaniacs of the podium. He was always concerned with the singing line, orchestras always played beautifully for him. But he combined this Italianate warmth with a stunning analytical mind and a grasp of large scale symphonic and operatic structures, unsurpassed in his time.

    R.I.P Maestro.

  • Alan says:

    Im not convinced by his later Mahler recordings. Not nearly enough grit or dirt under the boots.

    • PJ says:

      And you’ve chosen the ideal moment to make your precious opinion known to the world.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      If you have such a simplistic idea of what matters in Mahler’s music, it really doesn’t matter whose recordings you listen to. You don’t get the music anyway.

      • Alan says:

        I think it’s important to challenge this apparent status quo that Abbado was this fantastic Mahler conductor, when he clearly wasn’t. You can’t slick over or smooth over Mahler’s scores like he did. His Mahler is out of touch with the composer’s wishes. He should have gone to Mr Gielen for advice.

        The younger conductors these days, they get lucky through word of mouth and they simply aren’t very good! Many of them can’t sight read at the piano to save their lives, but they can look good on the front of a CD booklet.

        • John says:

          I’m confused… Was the 80-year-old Abbado one of these “younger conductors” who can’t sight-read…?

          Btw didn’t Reginald Goodall (another younger conductor) say that sight-reading was like cleaning your teeth – not to be done in public!!

  • Sad news. But Celibidache left the Berlin Philharmonic post alive, too, in 1951.

    • David H. says:

      De jure Celi was never the official chief conductor of the BPhO, even though during Furtwängler’s “de-nazification” period between 1945-1952 de facto he was.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        Furtwangler’s denazification lasted only until 1947, not 1952. I don’t know why he only again became the official principal conductor of the orchestra in 1952 though. Technically, the post had been vacant since Furtwangler had been fired by Goebbels in 1934 over the Hindemith affair.

        Hans von Bülow also quit while he was still alive, two years or so before his death.

        • Petros Linardos says:

          Also, Ludwig von Brenner, 1833-1902, Music Director of the BPO 1882-1887.

          Final count:

          Brenner, Bülow, Celibidache, Karajan, Abbado left alive.

          Nikisch, Furtwängler and Borchard (interim director in 1945) died in office.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            Brenner wasn’t really music director of the orchestra. The BPhO was founded when the musicians walked out en masse on their previous boss, Benjamin Bilse, who led highly profitable popular concerts with mostly “light classics” in which food and drink were served. The Boston Pops (originally “Promenade Concerts”) were actually modeled on these concerts (“like the famous Bilse concerts in Berlin”). But Bilse paid and treated his musicians badly, so they decided to try their own luck.

            They voted for Brenner to be their first conductor, but he mostly led popular concerts similar to Bilse’s.

            The influential concert agent Hermann Wolff took the orchestra under his wings and organized the first series of concerts with “serious” programs, and he hired Franz Wüllner to be the conductor for that. So the first “real” principal conductor of the orchestra was Wüllner, from 1882-85. But he never held an “official title”.

            Other important figures in the early years were Joseph Joachim who conducted a number of concerts in his own series, and Ernst Rudorff who was the director of one of the large amateur choir associations in Berlin. It was actually Rudorff who conducted the very first concert.

            Brenner felt pushed aside by the bigger names and left after less than two years. So Hans von Bülow really was the first principal conductor or artistic director in that sense and in title.

  • John Richmond says:

    Ah…and it seems such a short time ago that he was one of the young, rising stars in the world of conducting. There used to be a video–since taken down–of Abbado and BPO playing Beethoven’s 7th. In the fourth movement, Abbado’s facial expression is one of utter joy and delight, and even some of the players crack a smile, from time to time. *Utter joy* is not always easy to find. R.I.P., indeed, and may angels lead you into Paradise and welcome your arrival.

  • CounterTenor says:

    Such a breadth of repertoire on disc as well – from the Viennese classics through the Second Viennese School to contemporary works. All performed with such style. An incomparable talent.

  • Daniel Farber says:

    Still remember a Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony he did with the Boston Symphony in the late 1970’s (with Jessye Norman) and how painstakingly he worked in open rehearsal (generally a public run-through) on the diminuendo at the end of the song until it was absolutely “right”. He came a few years later to do the Mahler Third but never returned because the Boston Symphony “management” refused to allow him the stage extension generally used for such huge works in Symphony Hall. Loss of revenue for missing seats and all that. He was reputed to be extremely unhappy. And he never returned. Probably the greatest Mahler conductor of our (or any other) time.

    • Donald Denniston says:

      The Mahler performance with the Boston Symphony was on March 8, 9 and 10th in 1979. Barbara Hendricks was the other soloist with Jessye Norman and The New England Conservatory of Music Chorus (Norman later pulled a BSO beauty that left Philips Records and concert goers out in the cold!!). It was indeed a pleasure meeting Maestro Abbado after what I can recall as being A STUNNING STELLA PERFORMANCE!!!

      • Daniel Farber says:

        I don’t know (or don’t remember) what you mean when you say “Norman pulled a BSO beauty that left Philips Records and concert goers out in the cold.” Do you have a moment to explain?

  • Tony says:

    A stirring tribute, indeed.

  • Edgar Brenn says:

    Words do not come easily to express my feelings. I have fond memories of the few concerts and opera performances under Claudio Abbado’s leadership. What gives comfort is knowing that through his art and humanity he gave us such a vast amount of richness in so many ways that I, for one, will spend the rest of my life on this planet discovering some of them each day…

  • Steve says:

    interesting to glean from one of the obituaries that Abbado joined the bass section of the Vienna Singverein to learn from the techniques of Karajan.

    In an inspired piece of programming, here is Abbado’s rare foray into British Music…the seething,wild textures of Brian Ferneyough’s “La Terre et un Homme”

    • I was at that concert, sitting near the front on the ‘green’ side of the RFH. The audience applauded Abbado and the LSO but booed Ferneyhough quite violently when he came running to the stage to shake the conductor’s hand. The boos turned to cheers, though, when our Brian lost his footing trying to jump onto the podium and nearly ended up on his ar$e on the floor of the stalls.

      Abbado conducted Tchaikovsky’s Fourth after the interval, brilliantly finding a way to blow his nose at the beginning of the last movement without taking his attention off the brass section. He sweated so profusely I slipped out at the beginning of the applause, bought a bottle of beer in the foyer and went off to wait for him in the corridor to the Green Room (I knew my way around the RFH in those days. Security was also virtually nil). He eventually arrived, looking quite surprised to see a teenager in front of his dressing room door holding out a bottle of Tuborg. We exchanged niceties and he signed my programme. In those days, he was the spitting image of Bryan Ferry.

  • Marc says:

    The photo of the maestro with Martha Argerich reminds me of the dozens of times I listened to their collaboration in the Chopin E-minor Concerto on DG. Their Romanze has never been equaled by anyone. I’ll always remember the documentary about him with the Berlin Phil, particularly his joining the players for a backstage meal — something that “just wasn’t done.” A musician, and a man, like no other…

  • PK Miller says:

    RIP Signor Abbado. We seem to be losing so many of the greats with few to replace them. I never met or worked with him, much to my regret. I do remember a Tosca (?) at La Scala millennia ago & a Mahler with the Philadelphia back in an era when students could get tix to the Philly dirty cheap even by 60s standards.

  • Nick says:

    I had the utter joy of working with Abbado on the stunning production of ‘Carmen’ (Berganza, Domingo and the LSO) at the 1977 (and 1978) Edinburgh Festival. No-one present in the King’s Theatre will ever forget his electrifying rendition of the Prelude at the first stage/orchestra rehearsal. From that point on, the production rose to a level that had Bernard Levin describing it in his book ‘Conducted Tour’ as “the finest performance of the opera that any of us had ever seen or heard.”

    As obituaries have noted, even when problems arose, he would maintain an aura of calm, almost dignified serenity over a steely determination. At the first piano rehearsal in London’s Morley College, Domingo’s understudy (an experienced interpreter of Don Jose whom I shall not name) sang the Flower Song fortissimo. At its close, Abbado gently pointed out that the score is marked ‘piano’. It was sung again, with no discernible alteration in volume. Abbado praised the interpretation, politely requesting it be sung a third time, this time piano. It was not. The rehearsal then continued with Festival Director Peter Diamand hovering nervously in the background. The following day it was announced that a new understudy would be taking over!

    Obituaries have pointed out that he generally disliked working with American orchestras where rehearsals were rigidly ruled by the clock rather than the music. Yet, a minute before the scheduled end of that same Carmen orchestral rehearsal, a member of the LSO brass section stood up in the pit fiercely pointing to his watch. Abbado nodded. Exactly a minute later he stopped mid-phrase. I can only assume that by the time he became the LSO’s Principal Conductor, he had won the musicians round to his preferred way of working.

    • Anon says:

      “I can only assume that by the time he became the LSO’s Principal Conductor, he had won the musicians round to his preferred way of working.”

      I rather doubt it, but that’s simply how the players’ world works, and no reflection on Maestro.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    “…particularly his joining the players for a backstage meal — something that “just wasn’t done.””

    Really? Where did you hear that? Abbado’s predecessor Karajan often sat down and ate with his musicians, particularly on tour and after performances in Salzburg. He also invited members of the orchestra to stay with him in St.Moritz during the summer vacations.

    Abbado was a great conductor, and apparently a really nice guy, too. There is no need to elevate him by making up stories to put others down.

  • Robert Kenchington says:

    A beautifully written tribute to a great and a good man. I first saw Abbado when he conducted the opening concert of the Barbican with the LSO back in 1982 and was impressed with his technical mastery, charisma and youthfulness. I later heard him conduct a slightly untidy but enthusiastic Vienna Philharmonic in an inspirational programme of Haydn and Mahler at the Proms ten years later and I was at that unforgettable 1994 Proms appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic when Abbado conducted Mahler’s Ninth with an energy and intensity that left a capacity audience in awed silence for two minutes prior to respectful and sustained applause.

    I finally heard Abbado in Berlin itself in 2001 with Philip Langridge in the Britten Serenade and a surprise appearance by Maurizio Pollini in the Schumann Piano Concerto (substituting for Kimura Parker). The concert was rounded off with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I thought at the time, “it doesn’t get any better than this!”

    Abbado was one of the ‘superstar’ maestri, who, in contrast to his elderly bespectacled predecessors, was – with his amazing good looks and approachability – an easy figure for younger listeners to identify with. As his emerging fame coincided with the great recording boom in the 1960s and ’70s, he soon became a familiar figure to new generations as his distinctive profile graced many a DG album cover. Combined with his regular appearances on television, video and latterly DVD, Abbado became a household name the world over and as such, his music-making became a cherished part of our lives. Gone, but most certainly never forgotten. Rest in Peace, Maestro.

  • We lost a great one. I love so many of his performances. I love the Scriabin Poem of Ecstasy he did with Boston while still a young man (DG). There was a Verdi Requiem with Berlin on EMI that gets a bit lost in crowd, but shouldn’t. It’s terrific. The Beethoven Symphony 1-2 combination in the Berlin set were fizzy and full of joy. His “Carmen” with Berganza and Domingo is one of the best of the best. More to the point, he was a total “mensch”, and that comes through in everything he conducted. This is a loss.

  • bob erickson says:

    Attended that Mahler 2…..Spring of ’79. I am a tradesman who can’t read music…..but I know goosebumps. LOL. Saw Lenny do one @ Tanglewood in ’72 also. Thank you, Gustav.

  • Rosefry says:

    It was very sad news indeed. A remarkable musician.
    Abbado’s music-making was so natural and he lacked the vulgar mannerisms of so many hopelessly overrated egomaniacs of the podium. He was always concerned with the singing line, orchestras always played beautifully for him.Many many respect to him.

  • Chase Roh says:

    I have been a life long fan of Claudio. His music is just so inspiring and beautiful. Last year I got worried about his aging and health. So 2013 August, we travelled from California to Lucerne to attend his performance with Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9: his music was so profound and beautiful beyond words. Both my wife and I never experienced such emotional highs. His music expanded my emotional range I never knew I possessed. Total strangers in the KKL Hall were greeting each other for the great fortune we had to hear this great maestro one more time. I only wish they recorded this performance for Blu-ray. Few individuals in human history gave so much to fellow humans and are so loved by so many people. Thank you Maestro Abbado.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Abbado was an excellent conductor, but the music you heard wasn’t “his music”. It actually was music by Schubert and Bruckner.

      • Chase Roh says:

        Not so fast and simplistic, Michael. Surely the music was composed by Schubert and Bruckner, both monumental composers we all dearly love. I am not discounting their contribution. But the music in scores written by composers is one thing, performed music is a different thing. What I appreciated was Abbado’s interpretation of Schubert and Bruckner, “Abbado’s music.” To me the same scores performed by other conductors do not evoke the greatness I felt with “Abbado’s music.”

        The self-proclaimed “Bruckner Conductor” Sergiu Celibidache has great recordings of Bruckner’s No. 9. But beautiful as Celibidache’s music may be, I do not feel the same level of profoundness as Abbado’s. It may be due to the fact, I listened live for Abbado, but that may not be the case. There are countless recordings of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, but I thought only Carlos Kleiber’s performance with VPO had the same level of, but different, emotional evocation as Abbado’s performance.

        It boils down to the age old debate: who is more important– the composer or conductor? In music all three are essential: Composer, Performer and Listener. To this listener, performer has more influence on me than the composer. A good conductor can “make music”, great music, from just about any decent musical score with a good orchestra. To me, three conductors are most outstanding: Carlos Kleiber, Claudio Abbado and Len Bernstein, now all three are gone. (Others should feel free to name their three favorites. If they are different from my choices, it is entirely proper, as the listener’s taste can be very different.)

        We thank Bruckner and Schubert for their creation of the music, but their musical scores will always be there. Maestro Abbado is now gone, and his “music making” is no more. We have reason to mourn for the loss of this good man.