Shortly before Christmas, Claudio Abbado returned home to die. After being given months to live with a stomach cancer diagnosis 15 years ago, he had outlasted all medical predictions ma y times over and enjoyed a golden autumn of indelible performances with the musicians he loved most, chiefly at the Lucerne Festival where he obtained the rehearsal conditions and affection he had longed for all his life.
In his final months he was named a Life Senator of the Italian Parliament. Typically, he gave away the salary to music education.
The loss of Abbado is irreparable.
He achieved the highest summit of music in Europe – artistic director of La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Phlharmonic – and stamped each of them with a facet of his principled personality. he was known for leaving jobs early on a point of musical principle. He was, in fact, the first music director of the Berlin Philharmonic to leave the post alive.
Much can and will be said about the quality of his music making.
At this moment, I want to remember Abbado the man: stubborn, inspirational, shy and with a smile that could melt glaciers. He was a maestro of the one-liner. Once, we were sitting in his favourite Italian restaurant in London and he saw on the menu gnocchi (potato pasta) with nettles. His face lit up and he began recalling his life in hiding during the Second World War. His mother would send him out with heavy gloves to pick nettles which she cooked with the gnocchi.
‘And we would eat it as a delicacy,’ he confided. ‘Sometimes,’ he added, ‘with a little cat.’
And then he collapsed in giggles at our mortification. He loved to laugh at his own jokes.