Can you tell us about being assistant to conductor Claudio Abbado last year?
As you can imagine, when you first work with someone like Abbado, it’s intimidating. You’re working with a legend. But it’s such a wonderful experience. From the first day to the last, I enjoyed working with him. I felt pressure to help him achieve his expectations and to be committed to the music – as he was himself. He was very demanding with himself. So I tried to study as deeply as possible. Towards the last days of his life we were very close and he was very generous to me.
What did being assistant to him involve on a practical level?
Assisting means practically everything you can imagine: from making sure all the dynamics, articulation and so forth in the musicians’ scores are clear, to sitting together with scores listening to CDs. Sometimes I would conduct in rehearsal while he listened from the audience seats. We did that with Bruckner Nine. It was valuable for him as your ear can be more critical when you’re not conducting – you have more space and are more relaxed. Very often we would meet before rehearsals to talk about things from the previous rehearsal and about what to pay attention to in the next. He had a sociable and relaxed way of talking about music.
How would you describe his conception of Bruckner’s Ninth?
It was a very natural and organic approach. He would talk about how he was going to conduct, but it was when he stood in front of an orchestra that he would have the clear answer. He was very concerned about finding the right tempos, but for me it was also special to see him beating in quite broad movements, without always subdividing the beats. He was always listening. It created movement in a slow organic way and that’s something he could do better than anyone else.
The idea of making chamber music on a symphonic scale is often mentioned in relation to the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. How do you do that in large-scale Bruckner?
It's about listening. The conductor doesn't just give every beat, they react to the music. It was when he was hearing the music that he knew what to do. He couldn't tell you in advance or even afterwards what he did or why – it just happened. It's very hard to beat so little, so slowly, not subdividing and still to get the flow when the tempo is so slow. I remember when we worked on the last bars of the symphony, I said it's really hard to beat so slowly. He looked at me with his characteristic smile and said, 'Why? What's so difficult?' Which didn't mean he didn't find things difficult – he did. This piece is difficult. But with his charming manner, he would say, 'I don't know what you're talking about.'
How did the Lucerne Festival Orchestra respond to him and how did he respond to them?
I haven't seen anything comparable. There are other great orchestras in the world but this had a special atmosphere. And Abbado had something special. He could get all these great musicians, who have their own careers, personalities and ideas, to forget that and just make the music transparent. He had a fascinating personality: his movements, his look and his eyes would transform into music. And it is interesting that even with so many wonderful musicians, he did sectional rehearsals. He would go into so much detail, trying to get the best results. A typical Abbado sentence would be 'It's better for the music to do this in sectionals'. We were there for the music.
Did he ever contemplate conducting the four-movement version of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony?
I never heard a word about it. A number of times he said, ‘I like this programme.’ He was talking about Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony paired with Bruckner’s Ninth. He would say it with his typical smile – like a kid. He was full of joy just thinking about it. That was it. Not one word about the completion of the last movement. The Bruckner feels complete. We both said the same. Let it exist the way it is. It’s wonderful.
Do you have any particular memories of this final concert in Lucerne?
It was the only concert when I wasn't sitting in the audience. I was next to the stage. He was not doing well and was weak but he wanted to conduct and make music. In general he was a strong man – any other person in that situation wouldn't have been able to handle it. But music made him feel better. Even though he was feeling quite weak I remember him making a few jokes in the interval. It was wonderful and sad at the same time because people realised he wasn't well. To make music in such a human way was so touching.
What was he like after a concert?
He was a different person right away. Relaxed, smiling, making jokes – just a normal guy, like he was going to have a coffee. I remember he would say 'they can play', immediately remarking on the quality of the orchestra. What happened on stage was special and magical. But once he was offstage he was like a different part of himself. You could talk to him about anything – cinema, travelling, food, politics, sports, jokes. But for his innermost feelings? He had music for that.
Claudio Abbado's final recording of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra is reviewed in the September issue of BBC Music Magazine, out Wednesday 6 August