"Herr Bernard, have you ever seen this gentleman before? Met the former horn-player or myself ?"
I was sitting in the fortified compound of the Berlin Philharmonic's Alumni Association
"No, sir. Not personally."
"You have worked a lot on your own, haven't you ?"
"Yes, sir. I have."
"Your reviews normally lampoon period practice?"
"I'm not presently disposed to discuss these operations, sir."
"Did you not mock Norrington's wretched survey of the Beethoven symphonies in your Amazon review?"
"Errr, no, sir."
"Did you not ridicule Rattle's Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic?"
"Sir, I am unaware of any such activity or operation - nor would I be disposed to discuss such review if it did in fact exist, sir."
"Herr Bernard, you have heard of Claudio Abbado?"
"Yes, sir, I've heard the name."
"Gerd, would you play that tape for captain, please. Listen carefully."
"October 9th, 0430 hours, sector PBK."
The slow movement of Mozart's Horn Concerto K 495 filled the air. The performance was sufficiently lightweight as to trivialise the music. Clipped phrasing marred the orchestral tuttis. There was nothing special about the soloist - he was clearly concert grade but sustained legato, let alone poetry, was not his forte. The other concertos followed. For all their energy, not one of them resonated in my mind: they were brightly anonymous. I yawned.
"This was monitored out of Bologna," a former first violinist growled. "This has been verified as Abbado's anaemic, bore-the-backsides-off-them conducting. Claudio Abbado was one of the most outstanding conductors that Italy has ever produced. He was a brilliant and outstanding in every way and he was a good man too. A humanitarian man, man of wit, of humor. He succeeded Karajan at the Berlin Philharmonic. After that his ideas, methods have become unsound... Unsound. Now he's crossed over into Period Practice land with his scratch ensemble, the so-called Orchestra Mozart who worship the man like a god and follow every clipped gesture, however ridiculous." He paused. "Well, I have some other shocking news to tell you. Claudio Abbado was about to be arrested for murder."
"I don't follow sir. Murdered who ?"
"The good name of the Berlin Philharmonic. It is degrading to see the former head conductor trying to impress the likes of Christopher Hogwood and Sir Roger of Norrington."
He drew back on his cigarette.
"Well, you see Bernard... In this war between traditionalists and the period practice Nosferatus, things get confused out there, power, ideals, pitch, portamenti and vibrato. Out there with these scratch orchestras it must be a temptation to be god. Because there's a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between full expressiveness and clipped phrasing. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes Hogwoodism overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every conductor has got a breaking point. Claudio Abbado has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane."
"Yes sir, very much so sir. Obviously insane."
"Your mission is to proceed up to Po River in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Abbado's path at the next concert of the Orchestra Mozart in Bologna. Follow it, learn what you can along the way. When you find the Maestro, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Maestro's command."
"Terminate ? The Maestro?"
"He's out there operating without any decent restraint. Totally beyond the pale of any acceptable performances of these masterpieces. And he is still in the field commanding young musicians."
"Terminate with extreme prejudice."
Thus spoke a former clarinet player to my left. He pushed a package towards me. I opened it up. It contained Brain's performances of the Mozart Horn Concertos with Karajan.
"All you need to do is place this on his iPhone - Uncle Herbert and Dennis will do the rest. You understand captain, that this operation does not exist, nor will it ever exist."