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Monday, January 20, 2014

Obituary: Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

An Italian conductor who defined opera and symphony.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Precision and refinement: the conductor Claudio Abbado.
Photo © Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Classics
Claudio Abbado died today at his home in Bologna, Italy, according to a report in the New York Times. In a career spanning more than half a century, Mr. Abbado served as music director of La Scala, the London Symphony Orchestra and later the Vienna State Opera and  Berlin Philharmonic.

Mr. Abbado passed peacefully following a long illness, the Times reported. He was 80.

Mr. Abbado was a revered conductor known for technically accurate recordings that always sparkled with clarity and finesse. His repertory ran from the piano concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to the modern experimentation of Karlheinz Stockhausen. In between, he performed and recorded much of the standard symphonic and operatic repertory, drawing acclaim for his subtle, detail-oriented orchestral leadership and his close work with an arsenal of great singers, including Hermann Prey, Placido Domingo and Cheryl Studer. His opera recordings were wide-ranging, from Bizet's Carmen to Berg's Wozzeck. However, he only made one Wagner recording, a 1994 Lohengrin that garnered mixed reviews.

Although he appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall Mr. Abbado was not a frequent visitor to these shores. For a brief time, he was under consideration for the post of music director with the New York Philharmonic, a job that eventually went to his friend Zubin Mehta. He was also a candidate to succeed Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but accepted the post of Principal Guest Conductor with the orchestra when Mr. Solti elected to stay on.

After serving as the music director of La Scala and the London Symphony Orchestra, it was Mr. Abbado who was tapped to succeed Herbert von Karajan as leader of the Berlin Philharmonic. The Italian conductor brought fresh polish to the sound of the German orchestra. (I saw Mr. Abbado lead the Berliners a floor-shaking performance of Mahler's Third Symphony in 1998 and a deeply spiritual moving Bruckner Ninth a year later.)

In a long recording career for Decca and later Deutsche Grammophon, Mr. Abbado helped define the sound of opera and classical music in the second half of the 20th century. He was also a stickler for the letter of the score, offering clean, sparkling recordings that allowed listeners to hear the depth and beauty of major classical compositions, often in a fresh, new way. (Dissatisfied with a studio-bound DG cycle of Beethoven symphonies made in the 1990s in his early tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic, he brought the orchestra to Italy and recorded all nine of the works again in a live acoustic setting. The results were brilliant, and remain in print.)

In 1971, Mr. Abbado released a recording of Il Barbiere di Siviglia that used the new critical edition of the score and cast mezzo Teresa Berganza in the leading role of Rosina, presenting the heroine not as a soubrette but as a complex young woman of considerable emotional death. With a brace of talented singers including Hermann Prey, Luigi Alva and Enzo Dara, Mr. Abbado's Barber restored standard cuts and establishing performance practice for decades to come.

He did the same for Verdi's Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra, doing much to restore the reputation of these masterpieces and bringing them back to the standard repertory. (A later attempt to do the same for Don Carlos resulted in the first major recording of that opera in its original French.) He later did the same for Mussorgsky's unfinished masterpiece Khovanschina, offering the first Vienna recording of that important opera.

Founding new orchestras was important to Mr. Abbado. In 1978, he created the European Community Youth Orchestra, which continued its existence at the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Following the end of his tenure at La Scala and his subsequent stint as music director in Berlin, Mr. Abbado centered his base of operations on Switzerland. There, he founded the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra which later evolved into the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. In 2003, he founded the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and made a number of acclaimed DVDs of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler with the orchestra.

Mr. Abbado's last recording, a set of Mozart Piano Concertos (Nos. 20 and 25) with the pianist Martha Argerich, will be released in March on Deutsche Grammophon.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.