What a gift it was to play with him!
The first time I met Claudio Abbado, I sat opposite him at dinner after his concert at the Lucerne Festival. At first he said very little, but shortly we began to speak about music, Sardinia and sailing. Claudio Abbado loved to sail! Michael Haefliger, the director of the festival, told him in the course of the evening that I was a Pianist. It was my good fortune that shortly after our first meeting Claudio Abbado listened to a recital I gave in Munich of Mozart’s Concerto KV 467 in C-Major. Evidently, my interpretation of the piece convinced him…
On several occasions Claudio Abbado invited my husband and I to his house in Sardinia… and what an extraordinary house it was! It seemed to lie almost underground. By means of a bridge-like system one passed over the roof from one room to another. This startling craftsmanship was complemented in a charming way by the lush vegetation, which was comprised of exotic plants and royal palms. The entire scene was one of untouched nature. It was a place of enchanting tranquility. Claudio Abbado had the same passion for this place as he had for music. This was felt in the simple, elegant manner of its furnishing. Everything was focused upon the essentials. On an old wood-carved music-stand lay a priceless score of the Fidelio.
Claudio Abbado certainly didn’t want to be addressed as Maestro, but rather as Claudio! That was his attitude towards anybody who played music with him. What was most important to him was always the same: “sharing the wonder of music with good friends.” He loved to work with young, gifted musicians, for example the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which he founded.
The first concert we played together was a performance of Beethoven’s 2nd piano concerto in the Teatro Real in Madrid. At the first rehearsal he worked with me alone. He seemed to be satisfied by the “inner sound” of the music.
The beautiful sound of the piano was of special concern to him since had also been a pianist. In a slightly arch manner, he showed me a way of fingering typical of his friend Friedrich Gulda whom he admired greatly. His philosophy was that one should hear all the tones. Short Staccato notes had no appeal for him. “Why are you lifting your hand? The chord hasn’t died away yet,” he asked. The second sentence was meant almost reproachfully. Memories from my childhood were awoken. My first teacher, Anna Stadler, taught according to the “inner sound” of Beata Ziegler. “The ideal Piano tone should sing, similar to the sound of a bell. First it should be heard from inside and then it can sweep out to the last rhythmic wave.” I was caught red handed by Claudio Abbado for not consequently following this rule.
He had very precise ideas about time - a “con brio” absolutely had to be complied with! – and also about dynamics, use of the pedal and embellishments. One simply had no other choice but to comply. Claudio Abbado sounded so convincing! On one occasion I repeated a verse several times over and asked him whether I could play it one more time. To which he replied “But of course! Play it a few more times… the music of Beethoven is so majestic!”
At the first full-orchestra rehearsal, when I played one chord a bit too loud, he admonished me in no uncertain terms. I should be able to hear the oboe! It was an absolute prerequisite that every individual in the orchestra consciously heard every other musician. This form of listening to one another had such a high level of precision, the likes of which I had never previously experienced. On a later occasion Claudio Abbado explained to me, by way of aside, that he’d noticed a change in his capability to listen after an operation on his stomach. He could easily hear four or five voices at the same time and with equal attention paid to each. For me this was unimaginable! The wonder of the music that he was able to convey, the joy that he radiated (despite his fragility) spurred us on and transferred itself to all of us.
For my 50th birthday he sent me some flowers. Later followed an invitation to perform Mozart’s A-major KV488 at Regio Emilia. It was in this little town that Claudio Abbado, as he became ever more political engaged in the 1970s, had, along with Maurizio Pollini and Luigi Nono, set up special concerts for students and workers.
In the second movement of the Mozart Concerto he asked me to embellish the unusually long notes. Luckily I was prepared. Shortly beforehand Alfred Brendel had given me some indicators that this might happen. After the Concert we were sat in a typical Italian tavern. Claudio Abbado took great care of his sensitive stomach, so he only had a very small portion to eat. He always had a little glass of red wine but he would only take the occasional sip from it.
He could also be very funny. Once, when visiting us in Switzerland he was extremely amused by the name of a Swiss pastry – the “mother-in law’s tongue.”
When I returned to Lucerne in 2011 to attend one of his concerts I could sense his fragility. Nonetheless, he conducted with the same energy and wonder as he always had.
For this marvelous collaboration I am unbelievably thankful!