Martha Argerich's concerts are always planned, but they are never guaranteed.

Friday, February 7, 2014

In Memoriam Claudio Abbado

The world of classical music is still mourning the loss of Claudio Abbado, who passed away at the age of 80 in Bologna on 20 January 2014. A conductor without ego, for whom music came first and foremost, he was also a dear friend of Martha Argerich. Their friendship lasted a good half century, and together they forged a musical relationship which produced many wonderful recordings and live performances ('live' in the best and truest sense of the word!).

Some of my most treasured musical memories involve Argerich and Abbado. In February 2004, I travelled to Ferrara for the first time to see their performance of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. Indeed, many fans had gathered for this performance, as it was a one-off in more ways than one; the concert marked the first performance by Argerich of the work in over 30 years, and with Abbado as her partner, tickets sold extremely quickly.

After the first half - of chamber music by Prokofiev and other composers with Bruno Canino and members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Contrary to what the booklet of the CD that was subsequently released says - Jeremy Nicholas erroneously writes that the Beethoven concerto came in the first half of the concert) - the whole orchestra came out for the concerto in the second half of the concert, sat down, and along with them, the audience waited for the soloist and conductor to appear on the stage. Two minutes passed, with no sign of the artists. Even after five more minutes, no one seemed to appear, and the crowd, who had started murmuring quietly, were now asking themselves aloud as to whether this was going to be another 'Argerich cancellation'. Finally, I saw two figures backstage. It looked as if Argerich was nervous and fumbling behind the stage, unsure of whether to go on stage or not. Eventually Abbado physically pushed her (gently, mind you) to take her bow. As the orchestra started the initial tutti, it was obvious that she was indeed nervous to perform the work she had avoided playing for three decades. She seemed restless during the orchestral introduction and her first entry was marred by a few wrong notes at the very beginning.  But because the first movement is musically a stormy affair, her nervousness was in some ways appropriate, and the forward drive she displayed in the movement was welcome rather than bothersome.

It was in the second movement that she came into her ownArgerich is naturally a probing performer, always finding new nuances and colours to the same notes, and in this particular performance, her concentration was so intense, even by her own standards, that time literally stopped for those few minutes. I remember Abbado trying to talk to her to ease her nerves, and it seemed to have helped! The third movement was again aided by Argerich's nervous energy and restless state, and was rapturously received by the publicAfter prolonged applause and flowers thrown from the gallery, they repeated the last movement as an encore, which, in typical Argerich fashion, was faster than the first time! 

For me, the recording of that performance is also especially memorable for a personal reason. The recording is based on that single live concert (with only a few patches taken from the rehearsals recorded under studio conditions), and unusually, DG somehow decided to keep the applause intact. And that first enthusiastic shout of 'bravo!' you hear at the end of the concerto is my voice. :)

The next time I saw Argerich and Abbado together was only in 2013, but as luck would have it, they performed quite a few times. In Lucerne they performed two Mozart concerti - KV 503 in C major and KV 466 in d minor - on two evenings with the young Orchestra Mozart, and in Ferrara (and Paris, which I had to unfortunately miss) Beethoven's First Piano Concerto, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Apart from Argerich's mercurial playing, all three performances were notable for the beautiful balance that was achieved in the orchestral part. Abbado drew out the finest colours from his musicians in the Orchestra Mozart. In the closed rehearsal I was able to attend in Lucerne, one saw that it was achieved with precision. Although Abbado was famous for being a man of few words when rehearsing - his arms, hands and baton often spoke louder than his words - the times he did speak, it was pared down to the essentials, and the musicians seemed to hang on to his every word. In the performance Beethoven concerto in Ferrara, the sound of the winds of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra mixed beautifully to that of the brass section, and it was the first time I noticed that the brasses didn't overpower the rest of the orchestra (as is unfortunately often the case) without losing their identity. 

And in these performances, there was also an unusually wistful, nostalgic quality - even the Beethoven and Mozart C major concerti - which permeated the atmosphere. At the time, I put that down to the maturity of both artists acquired through age and vast experience. No one, apart from maybe Abbado himself and the people closest to him, could have guessed that the four performances he gave with Argerich would be his last with the pianist, and among his last-ever concerts altogether (after all, he had concerts planned through 2015). In any event, the combination of Martha Argerich and Claudio Abbado was a beautiful and formidable partnership, and for this one can only be thankful for the unforgettable experiences and memories. 

I certainly am.

Here are some images of the dream team through the years

Prokofiev & Ravel Sessions. Berlin, 1967  © Getty Images/Erich Auerbach

© Getty Images/Erich Auerbach
© Getty Images/Erich Auerbach
Prokofiev Sessions, Berlin, 1967 © DG/Ilse Buhs
© DG/Ilse Buhs
Chopin & Liszt Sessions, London, 1968 © Getty Images/Erich Auerbach
© Getty Images/Erich Auerbach
Berlin, ca. 1992-1993 © DG/Susesch Bayat
Beethoven session, Ferrara, 2004 © DG/Marco Caselli Nirmal
© DG/Marco Caselli Nirmal
© Marco Caselli Nirmal

© Marco Caselli Nirmal
Rome, 2011 © Marco Caselli Nirmal
Mozart sessions, Lucerne, 2013 © Lucerne Festival/Priska Ketterer
© Paul Rah
© Paul Rah
© Lucerne Festival/Priska Ketterer
© Lucerne Festival/Priska Ketterer

Grazie maestro. May you rest in peace. 
Ave atque vale.

Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

1 comment:

  1. You are so lucky to have attended such beautiful concerts :-) Perhaps I figured out how you felt when I hear that "bravo" bursting out :-)
    And it's really great to know more about these performances from exactly one of the audiences.
    I hoped somebody had recorded the encore part, it would be very exciting then.