Today's Classical Music Video

Friday, January 24, 2014

Claudio Abbado In Memoriam (1933-2014)

Claudio Abbado's passing last week was not unexpected - he had been seriously ill for some time - but it came as a heavy blow to those who had known him and admired his work. In that number were thousands of young people who had played in orchestras he had created. And there were many older musicians too who had been devoted to Abbado and his kind of music-making.

Abbado was a shy but dedicated and determined man for whom music came first. He was not interested in personal glory, only in serving the music he loved. In that respect and in many others he was following in the footsteps of his compatriot Arturo Toscanini. Unlike Toscanini he rarely if ever lost his temper and was known more for his whispering than his shouting. But musicians knew from the look on his face when he was unhappy and sensed how it pained him to hear poor playing. Like Toscanini, Abbado conducted for many years at La Scala, and late in life had the honor of having an orchestra created for him. For Toscanini it was the NBC Symphony, and for Abbado, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. In both cases the conductors got results that were exceptional.

In Europe Abbado was perhaps the foremost conductor of his generation. Although he grew up in Italy and called it home throughout his life he held important posts in Berlin and Vienna. He succeeded Karajan as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and headed the Vienna State Opera for several years. But he had a particularly close connection with La Scala where he was music director from 1968 to 1986.

He was also in great demand in the United States. He was principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony in the 1980s and he was expected to succeed Sir Georg Solti as music director. But the post was offered to Barenboim instead. In Chicago he recorded extensively, including a complete cycle of the Tchaikovsky symphonies. In the U.K. he is fondly remembered for his tenure as head of the London Symphony.

He had a lifelong interest in young musicians and spent much of his time working with them. He founded the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and made several recordings with them. Late in life, when his health deteriorated, he began to spend the winter months each year in Caracas where he worked often with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. In 2010 he gave a sensational performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony with this orchestra at the Lucerne Festival. It is available on a DVD (Accentus Music ACC20101).

Abbado made fine recordings throughout his career but some of the Mahler performances he conducted with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra between 2003 and 2012 are in a class by themselves. For me, the Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" with the Orfeon Donostiarra is one of the finest I ever heard.

Abbado was a man of few words in rehearsal and in interviews. But the documentary by Paul Smaczny gets as close to Claudio Abbado as we will probably ever get (Claudio Abbado: Hearing the Silence. Euroarts DVD 2053278)

In tribute to Abbado the Berlin Philharmonic is making available all its videos with him free of charge. To access this collection go to

On Monday, January 27, at 12:00 noon EST, La Scala will pay tribute to Abbado with a live streaming performance conducted by Daniel Barenboim. It can be accessed at

Paul E. Robinson



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