81 Can Wait: James Inverne's Tribute to Maestro Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

By James Inverne on Jan 21, 2014 08:33 PM EST

They were the words all music-lovers hoped never to hear, though they knew the day was inevitable. Claudio Abbado has passed away. He defied the odds to live a full decade beyond an illness that had looked likely to kill him. In that time, he gave us performance after performance of stunning brilliance.

Brilliance is, in this context, an apt word. Usually, it is taken in a general way to mean an abundance of talent or intelligence, but Abbado's performances were also brilliant in the sense that they were so precise that they gleamed. It was through laser-like precision that he found freedom. Somehow, and it was never through an autocratic approach, he got what he wanted in such a detailed way that the music did in a way seem to convey light.

Or, perhaps, I mean enlightenment.

Although I didn't quite share the general adulation for his Mahler (I prefer a less finely-honed approach), there was little music in which he didn't excel. From his Beethoven to his Rossini to his Mozart to his Mussorgsky, his readings were exact and immensely powerful.

Favorite recordings? There are so many but, for me, Rossini's sing fest Il Viaggio a Rheims (an opera he recorded twice, with two generations of great Rossinians; I prefer the second, marginally), Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov with the Berlin Philharmonic, and Verdi's Macbeth will all retain pride of place of the shelves (I'm an opera nut, hence the choices).

There were some composers he never really did too much of. Wagner, for one, despite a discography that includes a pretty terrific Lohengrin.

He also tended to leave the great Czech masters to his great colleague Sir Charles Mackerras and others, a shame because his Leoš Janáček would no doubt have been magnificent. Puccini, as well, was left more or less untouched by him in recent times, surprising for an Italian conductor.

Listeners, and orchestras, loved him. Musicians at the London Symphony who remember his tenure there still speak of him in rapt tones. Many young musicians were helped by him.

One personal anecdote...

In Tel Aviv one year, as a young teenager, my father forlornly asked the box office attendant whether there was any chance of getting a ticket to that evening's Don Giovanni, conducted by Abbado, which somehow we had not found out about more in advance. Of course, it was long ago sold out, but when a disgruntled man came along and offered his tickets back (because his wife wanted to shop), we eagerly accepted. That blistering performance is one of the very greatest performances I have seen.

Precision, brilliance, and no little soul.

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TagsJames Inverne, Claudio Abbado, Mahler, Beethoven, Rossini, Il Viaggio a Rheims, Leoš Janáček, London Symphony Orchestra, Don Giovanni

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