Claudio Abbado and the sound of snow

The Italian conductor Claudio Abbado’s last performances were of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony and Schubert’s Eighth Symphony with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. By all accounts, they were transcendent. Fortunately, those who did not have the privilege of being there can still hear them.

Bruckner-SymphonyIn the booklet accompanying Deutsche Grammophon’s release of the recording of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, there is a poignant photo of the maestro leaving the concert platform behind the orchestra, whose players remain on stage. A few months later, Abbado literally slipped away, depriving classical music of one its humblest yet greatest performers.

In “Visions of the beyond at the Lucerne Festival” on The Guardian classical blog (28 August 2013), Tom Service wrote:

“Abbado has always been the most extreme conductor working today in terms of the freedom with which he trusts his musicians and the economy of his gestures. But he took all that to new levels in this concert. He eliminated absolutely everything from his body language that wasn’t directly to do with the expression and progress of the spiritual experience of these pieces. There was hardly a downbeat worthy of the name in the entire concert, and there were no grand gestures of rhythm or pulse. Instead, there was only a distilled, gossamer communication of the music’s line and internal motion to his musicians. This was genuinely spiritual music-making: in the ethereal beauty of the sounds this orchestra created, in the extraordinarily broad but flexible speeds Abbado chose in both pieces, and even more fundamentally, in the sense that Abbado was drawing all of us into an intense interior journey that he somehow managed to convert into sonic, symphonic energy.”

A last recording is a kind of palimpsest. The music is there (together with a little ambient noise if it is a live recording), but behind the notes one senses the now absent artist. Abbado was there, of course, but spiritually rather than physically. As a performer, he took pains never to place himself between the music and the listener, never to render an interpretation of a work but to recreate what the composer intended. Paradoxically, in his last performances of the Ninth Symphony and as is evident in the recording, it is Abbado who breathes every note and every phrase, making the work wholly Bruckner’s. His presence and absence are palpable.

Listening to the recording, we feel Abbado shape this achingly beautiful music which, as Bruckner intended, glimpses eternity. The Ninth Symphony celebrates not God, but life itself and it is this that Abbado conveys with the complicity of his superlative players. And such sounds as almost defy belief: always singing (not merely playing, as Toscanini used to say). And then there are the pianissimos and the echoes and the silences.

Claudio-AbbadoA wonderful tribute published by The Economist after his death (1 February 2014), noted:

“There was, said Claudio Abbado, a certain sound to snow. It did not come from walking on it. If you stood on a balcony, too, you could hear it. A falling sound, fading away to nothing, pianissimo, like a breath. You could hear it only if you listened to what some supposed was silence.”

Listening, that was Claudio Abbado’s golden rule. Listen to the oboe; listen to the strings; listen to the snow. One wonders if he knew “The Snow Man” by the American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), who wrote:

“For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

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