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 Recording of the Week  Claudio Abbado, 1933-2014

I arrived at work this morning to be met with the extremely sad news that Claudio Abbado, the great Italian maestro, has died at the age of 80. He had been ill for some time (having been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2000), and yet his death comes as an enormous shock, and so I hope you will forgive me if my thoughts are somewhat more incoherent than usual.

Claudio Abbado
Claudio Abbado

It’s hard to know quite how to sum up adequately his career in such a short space: the roster of orchestras and institutions of which he was principal conductor is impressive indeed, including the London Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1988, and La Scala from 1968 to 1986. From the latter association he made several outstanding Verdi recordings in particular, including some of my favourite interpretations: Un ballo in maschera with Domingo and Ricciarelli, and extremely fine versions of Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth, both with Piero Cappuccilli in the title roles.

However, I think I can safely say that his most indelible partnership was as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. He took over the role in 1989 from Herbert von Karajan (who had been in the position for over thirty years), and so to say that he had some pretty daunting shoes to fill is something of an understatement. I recall watching a documentary about Abbado’s first year in Berlin (unfortunately no longer available), and there seemed to be genuine enthusiasm from the players for the new life that Abbado was injecting into the orchestra. It’s easy to throw around clichéd terms such as ‘cultural ambassador’, and yet one mustn’t forget Abbado’s work in this area: 1989 was of course also the year in which the Berlin Wall came down, and part of the documentary shows how he brought over soloists from East Germany to come and perform concertos with the orchestra.

Latterly, he has conducted some thrilling recordings with Orchestra Mozart (including an extremely fine disc of violin concertos by Beethoven and Berg with Isabelle Faust, which I wrote about two years ago), and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, an ensemble consisting of players hand-picked by Abbado. As you can imagine, the quality of these performances is simply staggering, especially their concerts of Mahler symphonies. Unfortunately that particular cycle is not quite complete, as the performance of the Eighth Symphony which was due to take place in 2012 was cancelled and replaced with Mozart’s Requiem, but we can be grateful for stunning accounts of the other eight symphonies.

I only ever saw Abbado conduct live once, at a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony at the BBC Proms back in 1996 with the Berlin Philharmonic, and the effect of that performance is still with me today: what a monumental sound he managed to coax from choir and orchestra alike. Fortunately, many of the fine symphony recordings he made are available in a 40-CD box entitled Claudio Abbado: The Symphony Edition. It’s such a treasure trove of great interpretations, including symphonies by Brahms, Mahler, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Bruckner, and others.

Also, if you want to find out more about Abbado himself, there’s a fascinating profile available on DVD called Hearing the Silence, in which he talks about his life and work, his conception of music, and his favourite compositions. It also has some rehearsal footage showing the great man at work. Finally, it was with Orchestra Mozart that he conducted what will now be his final recording, a disc of Mozart piano concertos with the always-sublime Martha Argerich. It is due out next month, and so I haven’t heard it yet, but I can only assume that it will show in abundance the combination of poise, grace, and enormous musicianship that Abbado displayed throughout his long and distinguished career.

I have linked below to some of the recordings I have mentioned, and you can also browse his full legacy of over 500 recordings here.

Claudio Abbado: The Symphony Edition

rliner Philharmoniker; Wiener Philharmoniker; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; London Symphony Orchestra; Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Available Format: CD

Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 20 & 25

rtha Argerich (piano), Orchestra Mozart, Claudio Abbado

Available Format: CD

Verdi: Six Great Operas

Singers including Piero Cappuccilli, Plácido Domingo, Katia Ricciarelli, Leo Nucci, Bryn Terfel, Thomas Hampson, Mirella Freni, Shirley Verrett and many others. (Download not available in all countries)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D major (DVD)

Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado Also available on

Available Format: DVD Video

Claudio Abbado: Hearing the Silence (DVD)

Available Format: DVD Video