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.
There are conductors who, with advancing years, gradually pare back their repertoire. And then there was Claudio Abbado, who tirelessly introduced exquisite rarities to the public at his guest appearances in Berlin – as was the case in this concert featuring works by Schubert, Schoenberg and Brahms. Abbado was joined this evening by Christianne Stotijn and Jonas Kaufmann.
The concert opens with rarely heard orchestral arrangements of three Schubert lieder. The beauty and independent substance of the original piano accompaniments enjoy recurring praise, so it will be particularly appealing to hear these interpreted by the Berliner Philharmoniker. With Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder we then encounter original orchestral lieder, a work which proved to be this artist’s greatest success. The concert then closes with Brahms’s cantata Rinaldo which has never been performed before by the Berliner Philharmoniker and gives us an idea of what an opera by this composer might have sounded like.
The evening’s soloists are among the new star of the classical music scene. A contemporary review in the Times wrote: “Among young mezzo-sopranos, Christianne Stotijn is in a class apart”, and the year before, critics polled by Opernwelt named tenor shooting star Jonas Kaufmann “Singer of the Year”.
In a newspaper interview, Claudio Abbado once said Herbert von Karajan had been “like a father” to him. The veteran passed on much valuable advice to the man who became his successor in Berlin, also decisively promoting Abbado’s career by inviting him to the Salzburg Festival in 1965. So for Abbado it was not only a duty but also a matter of personal significance to conduct this 1999 Memorial Concert by the Berliner Philharmoniker in Salzburg Cathedral to mark the tenth anniversary of Karajan’s death. The programme included the Requiem by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Hardly any other work is surrounded by such a similar sense of mystery. Firstly, because of the story of its composition. In the summer of 1791, a strange messenger came to Mozart requesting him to compose a requiem. Some later alleged that this messenger was to blame for Mozart’s early death – a mistake, because as we now know, the Requiem was commissioned by a harmless count whose eccentricities included passing off works by other composers as his own creations.
The mythical status of the Requiem was strengthened by the fact that Mozart died during its composition – we experience him here, as it were, on the threshold of the afterlife. The unusual character of the work may however be critical to its strong appeal. Throughout his life, Mozart had clearly separated his life and composition, his feelings and moods are expressed at best indirectly in his music. The Requiem, however, seems to give us an unfiltered reflection of his feelings, his fear of death – the pent-up composer becomes a fellow man.
In this concert from May 2014, the Berliner Philharmoniker remember their former chief conductor Claudio Abbado who died 4 months earlier on 20 January. In remembrance of this sad loss, Frank Peter Zimmermann plays Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Concerto in G major without conductor. In the second part of the concert, Sir Simon Rattle performs Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7.
The Berliner Philharmoniker’s statement on the death of Claudio Abbado: “The Berliner Philharmoniker mourn the loss of an extraordinary musician and man: His love of music and his insatiable curiosity were an inexhaustible source of inspiration for the musicians of the orchestra and shaped our work together ever since his first concerts with the orchestra in 1966. The Berliner Philharmoniker are proud to be able to include him among their chief conductors and to be a part of his musical heritage. His death is an infinitely heavy loss for all musicians. The Berliner Philharmoniker bow before Claudio Abbado in deep love and gratitude, and dedicate this concert to his memory.”
This was the concert with which the Berliner Philharmoniker founded the tradition of the European Concerts. Every year on 1 May – the day in 1882 when the orchestra was founded – they give a concert in a historically significant location in Europe, keeping alive the memory of the collective cultural heritage of the Old World. The first of these concerts took the orchestra and its chief conductor to Prague in 1991, where an all-Mozart programme marked the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death.
Mozart himself would probably have been very satisfied with this choice, as it was here he finally gained the recognition which he was so cruelly denied by his superiors in Salzburg and Vienna. On his first visit to Prague in 1787, he happily noted that in the city’s streets, “the only thing being played, sung or whistled is – Figaro”. So it is no surprise that his next opera Don Giovanni was premiered in Prague, where, according to Mozart, it was received with “the loudest applause”. Of course, the opera could not be left out of this European Concert. Cheryl Studer sings Donna Anna, the role which played no small part just a few years before in laying the foundation of her global career.
What in particular is shown in the two Mozart Symphonies of this concert is the exciting artistic phase the Berliner Philharmoniker found themselves in at that time. The full, elegantly flowing sound which Herbert von Karajan had cultivated over the decades is unmistakeable. But as Karajan’s successor for a year and a half, we can already hear Abbado making his mark on the orchestra, giving this particular performance a buoyant Italianate expression.