I only heard Claudio Abbado 'live' twice, both times with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra: at the Proms, in Mahler
(a performance I found admirable, but which did not bowl me over as it seemed to do almost everyone else), and at the Royal Festival Hall, in Mozart and Bruckner
. Both performances I recall vividly, and doubt I shall ever forget. Nevertheless, my knowledge of Abbado's work lies mainly through recordings. I admit that I retain an unfashionable preference for much of his earlier work, especially in Classical repertoire, but the following are a few personal favourites, in no particular order, which I wholeheartedly recommend to the curious and committed alike:
1. Pergolesi Stabat Mater
. A recording which, in many ways, typifies Abbado's music-making. An apparently modest, even simple piece, which in the wrong hands might even sound banal. Abbado makes it glow from within, treating it with just as much loving care as he would Parsifal
. He must be one of the few conductors to have recorded the work twice (going on to record a late 3-CD set of Pergolesi: who else would do that?) This LSO recording, with Margaret Marshall and Lucia Valentini Terrari has, for me at least, greater radiance.
Septet. Again, unfashionable repertoire, but the delight of a Mozart connoisseur. (Karajan recorded Mozart divertimenti too, offering adorable performances.) This recording, from relatively early on during Abbado's Berlin tenure, must boast the most ravishing woodwind playing such music has ever received - or so one is convinced at the time. Again, Abbado takes just as much care with the introductory and concluding marches - a lovely touch to include them - as he would with more portentous repertoire. More important still, the performances verily fizz with life.
3. Boris Godunov
. Yes, we might all have occasional hankerings, especially in the Coronation Scene, for the bad old Rimskyfied days, but Abbado's Mussorgsky marked a true turning point. Fidelity to the darker, rawer, more dramatically truthful 'original' is never pedantic; however, it reveals this greatest of Russian operas in all its terror, never again to be relegated to the category of 'problematical', almost indeed an operatic rival to Wagner.
4. Pelléas et Mélisande
. Speaking of great opera (and closer to Wagner), Abbado's Vienna recording of Debussy's sole completed work in the genre ravishes the senses and proves dramatically irresistible. Debussy's refusal to play to the gallery is clearly so akin to Abbado's own that the partnership proves ideal. And what orchestral playing he coaxes, the fourth interlude truly leaving one utterly shattered.
5. Berg orchestral and vocal works. Difficult to choose a single example here. I surprise even myself in opting for the LSO rather than the Vienna Philharmonic, but with the proverbial gun held to my head, I think I should, and not only for Margaret Price. Abbado's Romantic warmth illuminates and clarifies the Bergian labyrinth without a hint of chilliness. Prepare to be overwhelmed by the Three Orchestral Pieces and ravished by the Altenberg-Lieder
. Or should that be the other way around? And then there is the Lulu-Suite
: perhaps the finest recording I know. Truly no one has ever conducted Berg better - and only a handful of conductors would be mentioned in the same breath
6. Mendelssohn's 'Reformation' Symphony. One of the most scandalously neglected of Romantic symphonies, sounding every inch a masterpiece in Abbado's hands. Again, the LSO proves a perfect partner! Freshness and weight are shown to be anything but antithetical; harmony provides the key.
7. Nono's Il canto sospeso
and Mahler's Kindertotenlieder
. This recording resulted from a 'provocation', as Abbado's longtime friend, Luigi Nono would have put it - and such as 'provoked' all or at least many of his works. In this case, the return of mass racial violence to Europe as Yugoslavia disintegrated, provoked Abbado and his colleagues to issue this cry for help. Nono's cry from the heart resounds with an exquisite agony that is judged to perfection. Perhaps no work was closer to Abbado's heart.
8. Mozart concert arias and Strauss songs. 'Accompanist' is both the right and wrong word for this ultimate in collegiate music making - not that we should forget Christine Schäfer's part in these well-nigh perfect performances! Again, Elysium comes to mind with Mozart, and the loving care with which Strauss's writing is delineated and communicated has one lamenting that a projected series of all of that composer's orchestral songs never materialised. I have never understood why this outstanding disc is not better known.