Claudio Abbado lit a cigar and looked uneasy, as he often did.
The Italian conductor, who died in 2014 but would have turned 90 on June 26, was at a meal with the actor Maximilian Schell, in a scene captured in a 1996 documentary. Schell, who was typecast playing Nazis for much of his Academy Award-winning career but worked with Abbado on Schoenberg’s “A Survivor From Warsaw,” among other things, was telling everyone at the table that conducting must naturally give a musician a sense of power.
Abbado smiled, quizzical. Power has nothing to do with music, insisted the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, an orchestra on which Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan had once imposed their interpretive will. “For me,” Abbado added, “power is always linked with dictatorship.”
But not all power is political, Schell said; for instance, what might Abbado call the power of music over people? “Love, or respect, or understanding, or tolerance,” the conductor replied. “Remember that, for thinking people, music is one of the most important things in life. It’s part of life itself. That has nothing to do with power.”
If Abbado’s life had a theme, it was this question of power: of what power means in music, where it comes from, and to what ends. Few of his peers enjoyed such a vita — before Berlin, he held posts at the Teatro Alla Scala, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera — yet were so ambivalent about authority and attention. Shy, quiet, stubborn, he took bows timidly, avoided publicity and denied that he had anything so ignoble as a career. “For me, conducting is not a game,” he told The New York Times in 1973.
Politically a man of the left, Abbado as a musician was most comfortable among equals, if even that; he was a sublime accompanist to the pianists Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini, as well as to any number of singers. The film in which he spoke with Schell, “The Silence That Follows the Music,” portrayed him as an embodiment of democracy, an exemplary figure to lead the Berlin Philharmonic after the fall of the Wall and the death of Karajan in 1989, symbols of tyranny and ego alike. If Karajan, as critics described him, saw orchestras as single entities and denied their members any individuality that might impinge on his own, Abbado increasingly saw them, over the course of his life, as more of a collective, in which the players might freely share the spirit of chamber music.
Achieving that ideal was no simple task with orchestras of long traditions and routines, though Abbado remade the Philharmonic in his image, and lastingly so. Striving to fulfill that promise led him not only to embrace the energy of youth orchestras, but also to support and found ensembles of like mind: the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestra Mozart. The most extravagant was the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, a coterie of colleagues and admirers with whom he gave critically sanctified summer performances from 2003 until just before his death. “All the musicians in the orchestra,” he said in 2007, offering his highest praise to a group that included several noted soloists and sometimes entire string quartets, “they are listening to each other.”
But what kinds of interpretations did Abbado’s approach engender? And how will they endure?
Many certainly will last, on the evidence of a comprehensive collection of his recordings for the Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Philips labels that the Universal Music Group released earlier this year. Complete with a hardback hagiography and a price tag that, at some retailers, has drifted into four figures despite the easy prior availability of its contents, it compiles 257 CDs and eight DVDs. The breadth is extraordinary — what other conductor was as adept as Abbado in Rossini as well as in Webern and Ligeti? — yet it still excludes records he made for EMI, RCA and Sony, as well as most of his vaunted Mahler from Lucerne.
Slide a sleeve out of the box, and chances are that you will select a confirmed classic — the joyful distinction of his Schubert with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, or the formidable La Scala “Simon Boccanegra” and “Macbeth” that are the best of his Verdi. You might happen upon a less celebrated gem, like his early Stravinsky or his late Pergolesi, his “Fierrabras” or his “Khovanshchina.” Far from every disc is faultless, though the worst to be said about all but the weakest of them — his Haydn is dismayingly fussy, some of his Mozart wan — is that they are anonymous, refined but bland. But that was the risk that Abbado took in the name of beauty.
BORN INTO A richly musical and bravely antifascist Milanese family in 1933, Abbado spent his youth watching the leading conductors of the day as they passed through La Scala. He trained as a pianist, making a couple of recordings, but his fascination was always with the magic men of the podium. Denied entry to observe rehearsals at the Musikverein in Vienna when he was a student there, from 1956 to ’58, he sang his way into them instead, joining the basses of a choir that performed Bach with Hermann Scherchen, and Mahler with Josef Krips.
In 1958, Abbado triumphed at Tanglewood in the United States, then, after three years spent teaching chamber music in Parma, won a year as an assistant at the New York Philharmonic. “He is a talented conductor and one of temperament,” the Times critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote after his Lincoln Center debut in 1964. If his basic approach was evident from the start — “he seems to allow his players a freedom to enjoy themselves and yet provides an unobtrusive discipline,” one reviewer noted in 1967 — it was surely made possible by the quality of the ensembles he was quickly blessed to work with. “Now I can choose only the best orchestras,” Abbado said while still not yet 40.
And how he used them. The earliest sessions in the Universal box date from February 1966, when Abbado and the London Symphony excerpted Prokofiev ballets with enjoyable flair. There are moments, in the decade or so of recordings that followed, in which his awareness of the past seems to weigh a touch too heavily — a stolid Beethoven Seven from Vienna, a morose Brahms Three from Dresden — but the impression on the whole is of a young conductor of rare intelligence.
All the Abbado hallmarks grace the ear, such as the immaculate balances of his crushing Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” and the poetic elegance of his first Brahms Second in Berlin, although it is striking how the incision that marks his fledgling readings of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” and “Italian” Symphonies and Berg’s “Three Pieces for Orchestra” would be sanded down in equally successful later accounts. At his best, Abbado was already considerable: His Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, from 1970 to ’71, are not just some of the finest recordings he made, festivals of color composed with the eye of a master, but count among the choicest in the history of that orchestra.
Abbado remained acutely conscious of conducting history, symbolically wearing a watch given to him by Erich Kleiber, a fellow champion of Berg. When he appeared on the BBC radio program “Desert Island Discs” in 1980, he selected favorite recordings by Pierre Monteux, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter and his one idol, Furtwängler, whose rare ability to generate tension he admired. But Abbado came to sound little like any of these predecessors, and took from none of them an aesthetic agenda to promote as his own. He barely spoke in detail about his artistic principles at all; “he tells you about a piece by conducting it,” one of his producers said in 1994.
Given that Abbado was a slightly elusive interpreter, any generalities to be offered about him are necessarily weak. But even after he started trialing new sonorities and scales of ensemble with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the early 1980s — developing an immediacy of communication that encouraged a taste for details in him that could become a little much — there were clear traits that ran through his recordings: a warm lucidity, a smooth, long line and an ability to bring out the lyricism in a work, however dense, that critics reductively called Italianate.
With the London Symphony, there is tender, precisely shaded Ravel, a survey of cultivated Mendelssohn, exquisite Debussy, fiery Prokofiev and touching Strauss. The Chicago Symphony, too, often gave him its best, including some of his more persuasive Mahler, in whose music he was not as reliable, or at least not as distinctive, as his lifelong fidelity to the composer might suggest.
The recordings from Vienna and Berlin are more variable. Typically, the more distant a piece is from the most commonplace repertoire, the more impressive the results, though there are exceptions: chiefly, a magnificent Brahms cycle from around the start of his tenure in Berlin, audibly in the lineage of his predecessors, if gentler.
There is a gorgeous “Pelléas et Mélisande” and a sweeping “Gurrelieder” from Vienna, but there are also unusual choral works by Schubert and Schumann, endearingly done, plus unmissable Berg and Boulez. Both orchestras supply Beethoven cycles. The Vienna is patchy, the Berlin livelier but finicky, the shrunken ensemble blanched of tone. Abbado’s Berlin era is better approached through other routes: a ravishing Hindemith disc; charming Mozart and Strauss with Christine Schäfer; a moving, if dimly recorded, Mahler Third along with a profoundly humane Sixth, taken from his first return to the Philharmonie since his departure in 2002, after treatment for cancer.
Illness left Abbado unable to conduct more than sporadically, mostly at Lucerne and with the Orchestra Mozart, which he founded in Bologna in 2004; experimentation decorates his late recordings with that ensemble, including with period-instrument practice, though more affectingly in his concerto collaborations with friends such as the flutist Jacques Zoon and the hornist Alessio Allegrini than in his Mozart, Schubert and Schumann symphonies.
“You never arrive in a lifetime,” Abbado had told The Times in 1973. Perhaps it was apt that his last recording was of an unfinished symphony, Bruckner’s Ninth, in a farewell Lucerne account that, in its final bars, seems almost to glow with compassion. He died five months later.