Enormously sad news today: the great conductor Claudio Abbado has passed away at the age of 80.
I saw Abbado only twice. Or perhaps I should say: I was lucky enough to see Abbado twice. The most memorable of those occasions was when he brought his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra to the Proms in 2007. On the programme was Abbado’s greatest speciality, Gustav Mahler, in this case the enormous Third Symphony. In six movements, ranging in length from three minutes to thirty and clocking in at over 100 minutes in total, it takes supreme intelligence and structural understanding to bring off this beast of a work successfully in concert. Abbado brought it off and then some.
At the time, I wrote in The Guardian that “to call this occasion a special event would be to damn it with faint praise: it was a profound musical experience and an outstanding achievement in every respect.” The same might have been said of so many Abbado performances, particularly in his later years. A musician’s conductor, he frequently directed applause intended for him towards his collaborators, refusing to take to the podium and instead standing side-by-side with his players. The result was a level of trust rarely seen between conductor and orchestra, and it paid extraordinary dividends.
Today, I’m sure you will read many much finer eulogies for this great musician than I could ever write. Instead I leave you with this, the sublimely beautiful last movement of Mahler’s Third, about which Bruno Walter said:
Words are stilled – for what language can utter heavenly love more powerfully and forcefully than music itself?