Claudio Abbado dies aged 80

- 20 January 2014

Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, one of the most highly regarded figures of the international classical music industry, has died aged 80.

Claudio Abbado Photo: Marco Caselli

Claudio Abbado
Photo: Marco Caselli

Abbado was appointed principal conductor of La Scala at the age of 35 in 1968, subsequently becoming music director and chief conductor before leaving in 1986. During this time he also became music director of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1987.

In 1990, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he became artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic following the death of Herbert von Karajan. Abbado held the job until 2002, including a break from performing of several months in 2000 as he underwent treatment for stomach cancer. He significantly developed the orchestra’s sound, presenting his successor, Sir Simon Rattle, with a leaner and more contextually assured group.

After leaving the Berlin Philharmonic he founded the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003, an ad-hoc group based on a core of players from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra supplemented by orchestral principals and international soloists. In 2012 Abbado received the Royal Philharmonic Society’s best conductor award for a series of concerts with the group at the Southbank Centre, London.

He was founder conductor of the European Community Youth Orchestra (later the European Union Youth Orchestra) in 1978 and was principal conductor of its offshoot, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, from 1981. He also founded the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in 1986.

He was musical director of Vienna Staatsoper from 1986 to 1991, and a regular conductor with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1971.

He was artistic director of the Bologna-based Orchestra Mozart, conducting its first concert in 2004. The orchestra was run along similar principles to the Lucerne group but at ‘Mozart orchestra’ size.

Abbado held a recording relationship with Deutsche Grammophon which began in 1967 with a famous account of Ravel’s G major piano concerto and Prokofiev’s third concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and soloist Martha Argerich. With DG he recorded two Beethoven symphony cycles (with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics), a Mahler symphony cycle with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic, and a Schubert symphony cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

The citation of his 2011 award read: ‘Every one of the infrequent but annual appearances by this conductor produces a performance of indelible, life-changing moment. His extraordinary, revelatory concerts with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in 2011 changed perceptions, and raised the bar once again on what it is possible for a group of musicians to achieve.’

A statement on behalf of the Berlin Philharmonic read: ‘We mourn the passing of an extraordinary musician and human being. His love for music and his insatiable curiosity were an inspiration to us and have left their mark on our music-making since his first concerts with us in 1966. We are proud to be able to number him among our chief conductors and be part of his musical legacy. His death is a tremendous loss for all of us. The Berliner Philharmoniker pay tribute to Claudio Abbado with deep love and gratitude.’

Sir Simon Rattle, Abbado’s successor at the Berlin Philharmonic, said: ‘We have lost a great musician and a very generous man. Ten years ago we all wondered whether he would survive the illness which has now claimed him, but instead, he, and we as musicians and public, could enjoy an extraordinary Indian Summer, in which all the facets of his art came together in an unforgettable way.

‘He said to me a few years ago, “Simon, 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. And I still feel that music saved my life in that time!”

Rattle continued: ‘Always a great conductor, his performances in these last years were transcendent, and we all feel privileged to have witnessed them. Personally, he was always immensely kind and generous to me, from my earliest days as a conductor, and we kept warm and funny contact together even up to last Friday. He remains deep in my heart and memory.’

Sir Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera House, said: ‘Claudio Abbado was for Italy and the world a unique spirit, a visionary. He seemed to truly have the Midas touch as everything he brought to life shone with a fierce light. Whether in the opera house, on the concert platform, in the recording studios, surrounded by the créme de la créme of young musicians for whom he created orchestras(!), he is by any standard a giant. A tremendous loss.’

Roger Wright, controller of Radio 3 and director of the BBC Proms, said: ‘The death of Claudio Abbado leaves a huge hole in the world of classical music. He was one of the most important conductors of his generation and leaves an enormous legacy of operatic and orchestral events. He conducted at the BBC Proms over a 40 year period and his last appearance there in 2007 was an unforgettable performance of Mahler’s third symphony.

‘I was privileged to have worked with him at Deutsche Grammophon and will never forget his gentle manner, combined with a steely determination only to offer high quality music making, which delivered so many remarkable performances and recordings.’

Conductor Daniel Harding, a protégé of Abbado’s, called him ‘one of the wonders of the world’.

Harding told the Guardian: ‘He created at least six orchestras, most of them for young people. Through this he did more than any single person in our time to educate an entire generation, maybe two generations, in what it means to play in an orchestra. He was the greatest conductor I have ever seen or heard in person. Not always, not for all repertoire, but when he was in his element and comfortable with those around him then there was nobody to touch him.’

Mark Wilkinson, president of Deutsche Grammophon, said of Abbado: ‘The world has lost one of the most inspiring musicians of our era, a man who put himself entirely at the service of the music he conducted and, in doing so, made listeners feel that they were hearing it properly for the very first time.’

Max Hole, chairman and chief executive officer, Universal Music Group International, said: ‘Like all music lovers around the world, I am deeply saddened by Maestro. Abbado’s death. Claudio Abbado’s contribution to musical life is inestimable, from the ensembles he created to his positions at La Scala, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Lucerne Festival.  It has been a privilege for everyone at Universal Music to work with him over so many years, he was truly one of the greats.’

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