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When the Berliner Philharmoniker elected Claudio Abbado to succeed Herbert von Karajan, it was a surprising choice for many – not least for Abbado himself. However, his term of office, which lasted from 1989 to 2002, subsequently proved to be an extraordinarily fruitful period in the history of the orchestra. The fact that it opened a new chapter for the orchestra was already evident by the radical change in leadership style. For example, Abbado wanted his musicians to simply call him “Claudio”, whereas it would have been unthinkable for the majestically unapproachable Karajan to be addressed by the orchestra members as “Herbert”. Furthermore, Abbado’s sometimes unorthodox rehearsal methods caused irritation. However, affection and trust increased in a more or less continuous crescendo until they reached unimaginable heights in the last few years of their time together and in the guest performances that were always scheduled for May in the years following.
The gestures and expression of Abbado as conductor were of uncommon beauty: with eyes that always sought eye contact with the musicians, the elegant and flexible guidance of the baton in the right hand and a left which moulded the sound with delicate movements, he created magical concert experiences time and again. “He could say more than any other conductor without using words,” as the Philharmoniker’s harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet said.
Claudio Abbado conducted an enormous repertoire with the Berliner Philharmoniker, ranging from Monteverdi to world premieres of works by contemporary composers such as Wolfgang Rihm and Matthias Pintscher. His grasp of such a broad repertoire and his selection of works showed no abstract encyclopedic ambitions. Abbado didn’t conduct the symphonies of Sibelius or Shostakovich, chose only particular ones by Bruckner, and took up Schumann’s symphonies in the final years of his career, resulting in an all the more impressive performance of his Second Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2012. In addition to his deep-rooted love of Italian opera, Verdi in particular, Abbado was a committed interpreter of music of the First Viennese School, of the French and Russian repertoire (where his partiality for Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev could be found) and the composers of the Second Viennese School. He also cherished contemporary music, such as the compositions of his friend Luigi Nono. In addition, he championed little-known works by famous composers such as Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethes Faust, Brahms’ Rinaldo and Berlioz’ Te Deum.
The central composers of his time in Berlin were nevertheless Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler. An acclaimed recording of the symphonies of Brahms was made at the beginning of his time in Berlin, and a celebrated cycle of Beethoven was presented at the end. And while Abbado conducted Mahler’s First Symphony for his inaugural concert as chief conductor, one of his last appearances at the same venue included the Adagio from the composer’s Tenth, the last (almost) completed movement by Mahler.
When the conductor became seriously ill at the turn of the century, it was a cause for great concern. After his recovery, in which, according to Abbado, music played a decisive role, many concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker of unique intensity followed. On 20 January 2014, Claudio Abbado died, and on the very same day, the orchestra responded with a statement expressing its deep attachment to Abbado: “The Berliner Philharmoniker are proud to count him among their chief conductors and to be part of his musical heritage. His death is an immense loss for all musicians.” This loss became movingly palpable at the memorial concert for Claudio Abbado on 17 May 2014, when the Philharmoniker performed an interlude from Franz Schubert’s Rosamunde without a conductor.