by Peter Byrne
(Swans - January 27, 2014) Claudio Abbado, by general agreement Italy's foremost conductor, died January 20 at eighty years of age. He had been holding off cancer for some time. Half his digestive system was removed in 2000, leaving him gaunt and shrunken. Nevertheless, in 2003 he embarked on his last great project, the creation of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Music had given him a will to live and in his last decade various elements of his art would come together as never before.
He told Sir Simon Rattle, his successor at the Berlin Philharmonic, "My illness was terrible, but the results have not been all bad: I feel that somehow I hear from the inside of my body, as if the loss of my stomach gave me internal ears. I cannot express how wonderful that feels."
Only another musician, one of the caliber of our late colleague Isidor Saslav, could do justice here [ed. see our special edition dedicated to Isidor Saslav]. Abbado, an artist of rare energy and professional rigor, was a man of few, often no words at all. When honored with long minutes of applause he would simply say thank you and sit down. But we must rely on words just now and will cull the best of them from his obituaries.
David Nice in the Guardian, Monday, 20 January 2014, explains what he called Abbado's absolute pulse. This was "an unerring sense of the right and natural tempo relations in a piece that could give shape and meaning even to the most seemingly amorphous of works, and within that a supple life to the individual musical phrases that no contemporary has equalled." Nice adds that the performances have gone, but "What remains are the films and the discs, equalling in their mastery and outshining in their breadth those of his equals, Furtwängler and Toscanini."
The obituaries quite rightly enumerate Abbado's remarkable itinerary, which included musical director of Milan's La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, and the London Symphony Orchestra; principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic; and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic. But Abbado's political concerns seem to be forgotten. La Scala was known for catering to the rich when he took over in 1968. However, he refused the distinction between high and low culture and took the orchestra into the factories to perform for workers. He led the musicians in performances of instrumental works as well as operatic standards.
The Abbados were a politically-minded as well as a musical family. Claudio's mother had been in trouble for protecting Jews during WWII. As a boy, Claudio contributed to the graffiti war by painting "Viva Bartók" on a wall. The Gestapo came to his house and demanded to know the identity of the anti-Fascist Partisan, Bartók. "They didn't know about music," said Abbado. Béla Bartók, the contemporary Hungarian composer, was one of his favorite musical figures.
Italy has suffered twenty years of shameful government. The great panjandrum of sleaze, now a convicted criminal, boasted that he had reduced the national intelligence to that of a ten-year-old. One of the prices to be paid now is "austerity" and drastic cuts to the cultural budget. In present circumstances it's doubtful whether another Claudio Abbado could appear. Yet his career and the fact that they did name him a Senator for Life gives Italians something to be proud of in decidedly murky times.
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