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Claudio Abbado

Conductor

Conductor

Born: June 26, 1933; Died: January 20, 2014

Claudio Abbado, who died yesterday aged 80, was the doyen of modern Italian conductors, although when he first appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966 - helping to inaugurate Peter Diamand's 13 magisterial years as director - he was a bright new star in the Edinburgh firmament. The question was: would he continue to seem someone special, or would he turn out to be just another international flash in the pan?

Making his Usher Hall debut that year, he was one of a cluster of conductors - Carlo Maria Giulini and Daniel Barenboim were others - to be nurtured by the festival's newly-appointed director, who encouraged each of them to devise programmes they might have been discouraged from presenting elsewhere, and to conduct operas under what, it was hoped, would be ideal conditions, albeit in a small, shabby, ill-equipped Edinburgh theatre.

The summit of Abbado's many achievements under Diamand's aegis was his famous Carmen in 1977, a brand-new production by Piero Faggioni with Teresa Berganza, Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni in the leading roles, and with the London Symphony Orchestra resplendent in the pit. It sublimely justified Diamand's founding of his own Edinburgh Festival opera company.

Galvanised by Abbado's flame-hot conducting, it was an enticing, innovative event, whose success was repeated the following year, although by then Domingo had dropped out.

Giulini was already a gold-standard conductor when Diamand adopted him for Edinburgh. Barenboim was also worth watching, not least as a pianist. But Abbado was an unknown quantity when he first stepped into the Usher Hall, his arms and legs visibly tense, with Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces as his principal visiting card and Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe as the concert's shining climax.

Music had always been in his family from the beginning. He was born in Milan where his father was a violinist and teacher and his mother was a pianist and taught him to play. As a boy, he watched Toscanini and Furtwangler rehearsing, but had been shocked by Toscanini's tendency to shout. He was never at ease with the feuds at La Scala and was still, in his old age, weighing up his relationship with the most famous opera house in the world.

Within a few years of his first appearance in Edinburgh, the city would know him for his version of Bach's Musical Offering, placed side by side with Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, and for a devoted, if weighty, festival opening concert in the form of the St Matthew Passion, with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the London Symphony Orchestra, of which he was by then musical director.

But despite being rebuked on one occasion by the novelist Kingsley Amis, who accused him over a festival lunch of failing to conduct Mozart with any sort of understanding, Mozart by then lay so high in his esteem that he made what was destined to be his last major Edinburgh appearance with an endearing, perfectly poised Magic Flute at the Festival Theatre during Brian McMaster's regime as director.

Using his own Bolognese forces - his superb Orchestra Mozart is at present under threat of disbandment because Abbado had become too ill to conduct it - he obtained one of those intimately radiant performances that sometimes blossom in an inappropriately large theatre. Coming modestly on to the stage at the end, he surely knew that he had made history but would never have claimed to have done so.

Likewise, when he was Herbert von Karajan's successor as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and suffered his first battle with the stomach cancer that would menace him for the rest of his life, he was never a martinet in the Karajan mould. Beethoven's symphonies, of which he recorded all nine and conducted the Ninth in Edinburgh, were examined anew and gloriously rethought by him.

Sometimes, of course, he could seem too quiet to be a great conductor. Though deeply left-wing in his political views, and an eager football supporter, public brawls were never his scene. When plotted against by deceitful Viennese factions, he instantly bade a gentle farewell to his conductorship of the Vienna State Opera in 1991. Though some critics defined it as a form of passive resistance, he was true to himself and to his private detestation of authority.

Bologna, where he died, was more his style, and his orchestra there - like his European Community Chamber Orchestra and Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, both of which he brought to Edinburgh - was the sort of ensemble he liked to work with.

Finally, and perhaps best of all, there was the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, whose members travelled from all over the world to play for him and with whom he performed his beloved Mahler and Bruckner in the city's marvellous modern hall. Many of his performances in these surroundings can be experienced on DVD, and you can see in close-up the sort of rapport that existed between the conductor, with his by then quite minimal beat, and the players.

As a farewell tribute to him, these performances could not be bettered. Through them, Abbado - heard so long ago in the bel canto sweetness of Bellini's Romeo and Juliet in Edinburgh with an almost unknown Luciano Pavarotti in a secondary role - will endure in the memory.

He married twice and is survived by his second wife Gabriella and their son Sebastiano, as well as by his brothers Marcello and Gabriele and sister Luciana.

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