In 2009, Claudio Abbado conducted three works with the Berliner Philharmoniker by composers with whom he had a particularly intimate relationship. Claude Debussy played an important role for the conductor, because his Nocturnes aroused a desire in the seven-year-old Abbado to become a musician. The compositions of Franz Schubert and Gustav Mahler, incomparable masters of the Viennese tone, were always a central focus of the repertoire of Abbado, who spent his formative student years in Austria’s capital city.
Debussy added the subtitle “Three Symphonic Sketches” to his orchestral work La Mer, which was premiered in 1905. It bears few similarities to the symphonic poems of the German school, however, especially since the “programme”, insofar as there even is one, has an obviously maritime theme, without human beings. The incredibly free development of the work’s dramaturgy, which comes to a splendid climax at the close, reflects the French composer’s almost religious reverence for nature. Or, as he expressed it himself: “To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! … that is what I call prayer.” Abbado conducted La Mer with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time at this concert.
Debussy and Gustav Mahler, who were almost the same age, are linked by their attempt to capture the sounds of nature in music. The selections from Mahler’s Wunderhorn Songs chosen by Abbado and sung by mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager included an animal fable, an enigmatic war song and a light-hearted, innocent waltz, revealing the expressive richness of Mahler as a song composer in only three works.
The concert opened with Franz Schubert’s incidental music for Helmina von Chézy’s play Rosamunde, Princess of Cypress, which is forgotten today; along with Kirchschlager, the Rundfunkchor Berlin was heard in the vocal numbers. The Berliner Philharmoniker also played an interlude from this music, which is moving in its songlike simplicity and delicately dreamy atmosphere, in May 2014 at a memorial concert for their former chief conductor, who had died six months earlier. During the performance of this work the conductor’s desk remained empty, symbolizing the void left in the music world by the death of the deeply revered Abbado.