(Author’s Note: I first came to Berlin in 2003, just after the great Claudio Abbado, who has died this week in Bologna, had passed the baton to Simon Rattle after more than a dozen years at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic. While living in Berlin, I had the chance to hear Abbado only once in what turned out to be his penultimate visit as guest conductor to the Philharmonie, one of the world’s greatest concert halls of any era, and proof that warmly welcoming and imaginative public buildings could be created in the harsh climate of the Cold War and, almost literally, in the shadow of the Iron Curtain. This is my review of that concert as it appeared in May of 2012 — a year before the maestro’s final return to the Berlin podium this past Spring. That 2012 concert was Abbado’s 690th performance in the Philharmonie, his relationship with the orchestra stretching back to his debut there in 1966, when the building itself was just three years old.)
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The Democratic Maestro
Claudio Abbado’s Return to Berlin
When Beethoven’s 9th or other large-scale works for orchestra and chorus are performed in Berlin’s famed Philharmonie concert hall the Podiumplätze—those seats directly behind the orchestra—are taken by the choir. That gives a sense of just how close they are to the action; to sit there is to feel like you’re in the band. You can count the endless rests with the percussionists or eavesdrop on the small-talk of the brass before the concertmaster enters and the tuning begins.
Taken as a group, the occupants of the so-called Podiumplätze seem demographically quite different from the rest of the audience. That they are younger has to do at least partly with the fact that the benches have no backs or armrests. This set-up requires somewhat more energy from the sitter: it’s hard to snooze in this section unless you’re prepared to flop into the lap of the person sitting behind you. Needing to stay awake can place great strain on even the most enthusiastic, since many a symphonic slow-movement masterpiece launched well after nine o’clock is irresistible in its siren-song to lower into the waters of sleep for the quickest of dips …
The tickets for these seats go on sale three days before the concert and have to be bought in person at the Philharmonie. The box office opens at 3pm, an hour suited to those not tethered to their office desks—students, tourists, and Bohemians with plenty of time to stand in line and not enough money to pay for the pricey seats out in the hall. Each person is allowed only two tickets, each one a mere 16 Euros.
The seating in the Podiumplätze is open, and there is often competition for the best real estate. Opinion is divided on what to go for: some prefer to be in the front row even if it means getting a close-range shelling from the timpani; others opt to take up their position farther back not only so as to hear less percussion bombast, but also to get a greater sense of the whole.
But counterintuitive as it may seem, one doesn’t give up much, if anything, as a listener by sitting in the Podiumplätze. The Philharmonie acoustics are rightly celebrated not least because even when seated behind the orchestra one can hear everything in its proper proportion and balance. One does miss something in concertos and orchestral lieder with the singer or violinist or pianist facing out to the main part of the hall. Visually the denizens of the Podiumplätze have to make do, for example, with a view of the strapless back of the soprano, while the long-time subscribers on the other side of the stage are rewarded for their social and financial standing with the abundant décolletage of, say, an Anne-Sofie Mutter. Foregoing such perks is made up for many times over by having the conductor right in front of you—from the insouciant Simon Rattle to the haughty Christian Thielemann.
For Claudio Abbado’s return to Berlin last week to lead his old orchestra the clientele in the Podiumplätze seemed quite different in its makeup—older and more weighted towards the female side. I sat amongst a densely-packed group of local women in their 50s and 60s. The intensity of their ovations and their intermission reveries about concerts heard in the Philharmonie under his baton three decades earlier suggested that they had long been in love with the maestro.
Abbado took over as director of the orchestra in 1989 when Herbert van Karajan died not exactly in the stirrups, but having just dismounted from a rehearsal of Un ballo in maschera in Salzburg. The choice of Abbado as his successor came as a great surprise to the music world, if only because Abbado was temperamentally and artistically the opposite of Karajan, who had been in the post since 1954 and had first directed the orchestra back in 1938 when he was a Nazi party member.
Where Karajan was dictatorial and megalomaniacal, Abbado was warm and sympathetic; in accordance with his political convictions, his approach was free and democratic, a style and attitude diametrically opposed to the god-like aura cultivated by most conductors, chief among them Karajan. Instead of “maestro” Abbado was called “Claudio” by the musicians. One can hardly imagine Karajan (who, when he died was worth somewhere around $250 million) asking as his fee, as Claudio Abbado did when called to return to La Scala in Milan a couple of years ago, that his native city plant 90,000 trees.
During Abbado’s early years in Berlin there was a generational shift in the orchestra with many retirements and a correspondingly quick drop in the median age of the players. Whereas Karajan jealously guarded his power, Abbado seemed to encourage independence and initiative in interpretation; he created the powerful illusion that each musician could follow his or her own musical instincts so long as he or she was listening to the ensemble. The result was the freedom and excitement of chamber music made by a large orchestra, one still firmly guided by Abbado’s baton and ethos.
His fiery intensity drew his listeners and musicians towards its warmth. Perhaps my favorite opera DVD of all presents the commanding Abbado of those years conducting Alban Berg’s Wozzeck from memory at the Vienna State Opera in 1987. In this ninety-minute tale of sadistic exploitation, madness and murder, poignant lyricism rubs shoulders with apocalyptic twelve-tone fury. To watch the dark-haired and dashing Abbado lead the orchestra and singers through this horror story is to understand that his technical mastery and magisterial knowledge of the complex score are only the means to attain a unique expressive vision. This darkness troubled by terrifying colors does not yield alienation but a music that is shatteringly personal.
Abbado was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2000 but was not defeated by it. He retired from his Berlin post in 2002 not because of the cancer, but in keeping to his 1998 announcement that he would leave the orchestra after his thirteen-year stint. In the meantime he has founded the Mahler Chamber Orchestra among other groups, and has been especially active in nurturing young orchestral players and in bringing contemporary music to the public.
Abbado’s most recent Berlin program was typically thought-provoking: two works by Berg framed by two works by Robert Schumann. The effect of this structure was to draw out the romanticism of Berg’s music while bringing Schumann’s harmonic daring to the foreground of his symphonic canvasses.
Still conducting from memory, Abbado made the portentous opening chords with rolling timpani and sighing violins of the overture to Schumann’s Genoveva seem reluctant to give way to the charge of symphonic forces and their benediction in the form of Germanic brass hymns.
Anne Sophie van Otter sang Berg’s epigrammatic Five Orchestral Songs after Postcard Texts of 1913 with a mix of whimsy and melancholy; in Abbado she found a precise and attentive accompanist, drawing a warmth from the orchestra that allowed the singer’s reading of the final song (“Here is peace, here I can cry myself dry over everything”) to find its surreal catharsis in a lushly romantic landscape.
Isabelle Faust followed with a memorable performance of the Berg violin concerto, his last composition finished just a few months before his death in 1935. Faust pulled from the so-called “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius— an instrument at her disposal thanks to the largesse of its owner the L-Bank Baden-Württemburg—both mournfulness and anger.
After the intermission the evening was dedicated to Schumann’s second symphony. From the contrapuntal introduction with heroic cantus firmus given to the brass—a passage that evoked parallels to, and contrasts, with Berg’s use of a Bach chorale in his violin concerto—through the madcap interlocking scherzos, the elegiac expressivity and fugal investigations of the third movement, to the Ode to Joy evocations of the finale, Abbado at nearly eighty appears no less thrilled by the symphonic traditions of Germany’s 19th century. He deftly contours the counterpoint, allows the crux of long phrases their rapture, and each time he characteristically rounds off the final chords he confirms the truth that great music inspiringly performed lives on long after the last note hast been played and the baton lowered.
Now seventy-eighty, Abbado walks slowly on and off stage, but his conducting remains as intense, gracious, and generous as it was in more vigorous days. The ladies in the Podiumplätze clearly had not forgotten the superman who came to the Berlin as the Wall fell in 1989. Stamping and clapping, the women called him back one last time after most of the hall had emptied. They were not the only one’s grateful for another unforgettable appearance by the master, aged but unbent.