Claudio Abbado ‒ Biography
For a man who has dedicated a lifetime to music, Claudio Abbado – who celebrates his 80th birthday in June 2013 – has few words to describe his work as a conductor. He prefers to speak through the music, something he has been doing with extraordinary results for over half a century. Little interested in celebrity, he once said: “The term ‘great conductor’ has no meaning for me. It is the composer who is great.” They are not empty words, for he has demonstrated their meaning through his innate ability to go directly to the heart of a wide range of music.
Claudio Abbado was born into a musical and artistic family in Milan in 1933, and studied piano, composition and conducting at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in his home city, before going to Vienna to follow a postgraduate course in conducting in the mid-1950s. He won the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Koussevitzky Prize in 1958.
He made his debut in 1960, at the Teatro alla Scala, and was appointed music director there at just 35, remaining in post from 1968 to 1986. Three years after his debut he won the Mitropoulos Prize, and worked for several months with the New York Philharmonic as assistant to Leonard Bernstein. He was then invited by Herbert von Karajan to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time at the Salzburg Festival in 1965. In the same year he directed the world premiere of Giacomo Manzoni’s Atomtod at La Scala.
He was known for ground-breaking initiatives in Milan, expanding the repertoire to embrace major new works. He introduced guest conductors, such as Carlos Kleiber, and discouraged notions of elitism by opening up the house to a wider audience, presenting a concert programme specifically for students and workers.
During his 18 years in Milan, he also became music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, where he served from 1979 to 1987. He was music director of the Vienna State Opera from 1986 to 1991, and in 1987 became Generalmusikdirektor of the City of Vienna.
At the end of 1989, amid the turmoil and optimism of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was elected by the players of the Berlin Philharmonic to succeed Karajan as the orchestra’s artistic director, and again his appointment led to the establishment of new initiatives, such as the Berliner Begegnungen, an opportunity for young players to perform with established artists. Abbado was forced to stand down from the podium for several months in 2000 when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, but he returned to the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic for two final seasons, during which he conducted Parsifal and Lohengrin in Berlin, Edinburgh and Salzburg.
Throughout his career, Claudio Abbado has been a champion of contemporary music. He has promoted the works of Nono, Stockhausen, Rihm and many other composers. In 1988, while serving at the Vienna State Opera, he initiated the “Wien Modern” Festival, offering 20th-century music its own platform in Vienna.
Abbado devoted much time to nurturing young talent, and was founder and music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra, which developed into the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1981. He also founded the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in 1986, formed the highly acclaimed Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003 and the following year was named musical and artistic director of The Orchestra Mozart in Bologna.
In 1967 he began what was to become an extraordinary and long-lived relationship with Deutsche Grammophon. It is an indication of his musical maturity even relatively early in his career that his first recording for the label remains in the catalogue to this day: an iconic account of Ravel’s G major piano concerto and Prokofiev’s Third with the Berlin Philharmonic and soloist Martha Argerich.
Abbado’s recording history reflects the story of his musical career. La Scala productions that he recorded include Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth, with the theatre’s orchestra and chorus. His years with the London Symphony Orchestra saw many recordings, including Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Cenerentola and notably music by Mozart (piano concertos with Rudolf Serkin), Mendelssohn (symphonies), Ravel, Stravinsky and Debussy. When he moved to Vienna in 1986, it was the beginning of a tenure which saw many legendary productions, including Wozzeck and Pelléas et Mélisande, both preserved on record by DG. His recordings with the Berlin forces include a complete set of the Beethoven piano concertos with his long-standing colleague Maurizio Pollini and, in 2001, his second cycle of the Beethoven symphonies (his previous cycle, with the Vienna Philharmonic, had been issued in 1989). A complete cycle of Mahler symphonies, including the Adagio from Symphony No. 10, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic, was released in 1995. With the Chamber Orchestra of Europe he conducted recordings of Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims and Schubert’s complete symphonies (both winners of Gramophone’s “Record of the Year” award, in 1986 and 1988 respectively).
In time, Abbado amassed a huge discography on Deutsche Grammophon, including the entire symphonic works of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Schubert, and more than 20 complete operas. For Abbado’s 80th birthday year there will be two new releases with the Orchestra Mozart (Mozart Concertos and Schumann Overtures and Second Symphony) and a 40-CD Symphonies Box.
Among the many awards bestowed on Claudio Abbado are the Bundesverdienstkreuz – Germany’s highest award –, the Légion d’honneur and the Mahler Medal. In 2012 he was honoured with a Gramophone “Lifetime Achievement Award” and won the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Conductor. The citation for the RPS award summed up a conductor who has given so much to music: “Every one of the infrequent but annual appearances by this conductor produces a performance of indelible, life-changing moment. His extraordinary, revelatory concerts with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra … changed perceptions, and raised the bar once again on what it is possible for a group of musicians to achieve.”