Kurt Azesberger, Erika Miklósa, Caroline Stein, Heidi Zehnder, René Pape, Anne-Caroline Schlüter, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Erwin Ortner
The Conductor as Humanist
When Claudio Abbado conjures up Mozart's E flat major sound-cosmos, he begins with a gesture of silence. His arms float weightlessly in front of his body, with the palms of his hands opened to the musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Abbado doesn't conduct. He channels music. And through him it is transformed into a fantastic world in which the voices wind their way along tortuous paths and byways, then come together again, visiting heaven and hell yet always standing firmly on the ground. Abbado conducts every note in the score, and invests every note with its own life, its own unending, vibrantly colourful story - weightless yet epic.
The music should emerge out of nothing, and ideally without any conductor at all. Abbado reads Mozart's fairy-tale parable, not as a cliché about the worlds of light and darkness, but as a chamber-musical cosmos in which good and evil are undefined. The Queen of Night wallows in the most delicate G minor, Sarastro becomes a patriarchal bureaucrat. Instead of looking for reality in the Mozartian world, the conductor in this recording is seeking truthfulness about the human individual and his spirit.
Abbado has always been more political, clever and obsessive than many other conductors. Together with Luigi Nono and Maurizio Pollini he put on concerts for workers; he introduced low-priced tickets at La Scala, Milan, mounted a concert in front of a rainbow flag during the Iraq War and, on succeeding Herbert von Karajan at the helm of the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1990, gave a remarkable speech, telling the musicians: "I'll be Claudio to everyone." After this extraordinary show of camaraderie the players quickly came to understand that idealism was not his exclusive preoccupation. His head may have been in the clouds while making music but was not necessarily there in his everyday dealings.
Abbado, like Adam Fischer and Zubin Mehta, was an intellectual disciple of the Schoenberg pupil and renowned trainer of conductors, Hans Swarowsky. His elucidation of the music he performs comes from a study of the original scores, and he has turned his attention to neglected works like Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina and Schubert's Fierrabras. His conducting has always seemed thoroughly thought through. His Zauberflöte sounds so natural that it seems to be conducting itself - in fact it's a symbiosis of deep knowledge and deep feeling.
It's something that transcends logic. The things Abbado used to brood over now seem quite clear to him. When Mozart celebrates humanity in the arresting block chords of the overture, he beats time without ceremony or raising his index finger. Abbado does not see humanity as some elevated quality, or idealism as an eccentric obsession. Both are normal.
In his 72nd year, Abbado thus not only found the musical key to the complex Zauberflöte. He himself is like Mozart's Tamino, who isn't just a prince, but also, above all, a human being. Abbado isn't so much a conductor as a music-making humanist. And that's perhaps why his Zauberflöte sounds like his answer to the question "How are you?" Mostly he just beams and says: "I'm a happy human being."
As chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker he was the maestro of a gigantic ensemble. How different his situation is now with the musicians from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. They are his friends. Abbado sits with them at the same table, eats pasta with olive oil and talks uninhibitedly, about Mozart and about music. Moreover, he's constantly in search of new, young voices. For the present recording he has found Christoph Strehl as Tamino, Dorothea Röschmann as Pamina, Hanno Müller-Brachmann and Julia Kleiter as the bird couple, René Pape as Sarastro and the coloratura discovery Erika Miklósa as the Queen of Night.
The composer Wolfgang Rihm once called the conductor a "wonderfully gifted questioner". And Abbado likes best to ask questions of young musicians.
The eminent contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk once asked the question: "Where are we when we listen to music?" And he answered it by saying: "Withdrawn into a sphere of unworldliness." By that he means that one is always within oneself when listening to music, because in music - unlike the visual arts - there is no opposing external object. Sloterdijk considers musical space to be boundless because the listener is always in the centre, never at the limits of the audible. "A philosophy of hearing", he says, "would therefore, right from the start, be possible only as a theory of interiority - as an explanation of that 'intimacy' which becomes receptive to the world in human alertness." And it is this alertness to the world that Abbado celebrates in his Zauberflöte.
Die Zauberflöte, K.620 - "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen"