The conductor Daniel Harding was a close friend of Claudio Abbado for 20 years. He recalls here, in an exclusive article for Slipped Disc, the unique qualities of an elusive maestro.
Claudio was one of the wonders of the world. I think in more than 20 years of knowing him I only heard him raise his voice twice. One of those times was, typically, in jest!
He was the master of leading those around him exactly where he wanted them without ever seeming to demand or insist, without ever being too explicit, or damaging the feeling of freedom that he gave each musician.
He created at least 6 orchestras, most of them for young people. Through this he did more than any single person in our time to educate an entire generation, maybe 2 generations, in what it means to play in an orchestra. I doubt there is a single professional orchestra in the whole of Europe without a group of musicians who played at some point in one of the orchestras he founded.
Musicians who will never forget his simple message – Listen! (of course said in barely a whisper) Claudio sought to remove himself from the equation, he talked endlessly (on the rare occasions when he spoke at all!) of all music as being Chamber Music. If he could aid the musicians to play, so to speak, undirected then he could work his magic. Cajoling and inviting, he would then take the performance to unimagined heights He spoke multiple languages perfectly, but always pretended he couldn’t! Especially if the conversation taking a turn he didn’t appreciate!
His wonderful look of total confusion could disarm almost any situation, we all loved him desperately but few dared to risk upsetting him. His acts of generosity were extraordinary and his single-mindedness could be hugely demanding. There is a large group of us who were lucky enough to have been, at one point or another, part of his close circle. This was not always an easy place to be but I know of none of us who would have had it any other way.
He was, and will continue to be, often imitated. It isn’t very difficult!! Take all the focus out of your consonants, look lost and confused, put your hand on your chest and say ‘beautiful music’ ‘schöne Musik’ What more did he need to say?! He was cheeky, impish, wicked and hysterically funny. He was magnetic, charming and, so I am told, gorgeous!
He was the greatest conductor I have ever seen or heard in person. Not always, not for all repertoire, but when he was in his element and comfortable with those around him then there was nobody to touch him.
In Lucerne, over the last years, once again he built himself a fortress. Everything was on his terms; who played, what was played, when he rehearsed, for how long.. It could be merciless, but in the end the results were unforgettable like almost nothing else. I don’t think the musicians of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra would have done all that for anybody else. There was nobody else like Claudio and there won’t be again.
I will always remember him in the silence that follows the music. There was no moment he treasured more than those seconds of reflection and privacy before the tumult swept the music into the past, into memory. He wasn’t always good at closeness, not good at conversation, not good at taking applause, so he held onto that last moment alone with the music as long as he could. Always listening.