Claudio Abbado conducted the best concert I have ever attended—and then surpassed it with his simply extraordinary Mahler’s 9thby Martin Kettle / September 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
Maestro: Abbado conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra
In my hot youth, to borrow from Byron, the palm (or should it be baton?) for the title of most legendary living conductor undoubtedly belonged to Sergiu Celibidache. The Romanian had given up the job of principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1952, never recorded, rarely performed, demanded immense rehearsal time, increasingly adopted strikingly slow tempi, and was famous for cancelling at the last minute. The only time I ever saw him conduct he appeared, appropriately, with that other legendary recluse and last-minute canceller, the Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli.
When Celibidache died in 1996, the legend’s baton passed to Carlos Kleiber, a conductor who increasingly could not bring himself to conduct at all, but whose occasional performances, latterly more often in the opera house than the concert hall, are held as peaks of musical experience by those fortunate enough to have attended. Consider this anecdote, told to me by Simon Rattle. He was in a Kleiber rehearsal in London in the 1980s when Bernard Haitink turned to him and said: “I feel as though my studies of the art of conducting have only just begun.”
Kleiber, who would have been 80 this year and whose recordings (many recently reissued) are some of the few essentials in any collection, died in 2004. Since then, no one has worn the crown in the same unchallenged way; the closest thing we have is surely Claudio Abbado, now 77, both in terms of his infrequent performances and legendary status. In 2002 he gave up the chief conductor’s post in Berlin on health grounds; soon after, he was treated for stomach cancer, and almost overnight he turned from an unusually youthful man into a distressingly frail one. On his return, he cut back his schedule to a tiny handful of dates which draw audiences from around the globe.
For the past few years, Abbado has focused his energies on two projects. One is the Orchestra Mozart, based in Bologna, where he has two concerts scheduled in November. The other is the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (founded by Toscanini in 1938), which he revived in 2003 after a decade-long hiatus and conducts each August in Switzerland. This year he also takes that orchestra on tour for a single date in Paris and two in Madrid.
This summer I attended the last of Abbado’s four Lucerne concerts, a performance…