Wielders of the Baton

Whether they play different continents on consecutive nights and record everything possible with any orchestra, or loathe the limelight but always cause a sensation, conductors of the twentieth century come in all shapes and guises. Michael Tanner gives us the score.

The great age of the conductor, or the age of the cult of the great conductor, coincided with the rise fo the gramophone. The relationship between art and technology has been, here as elsewhere, fraught. Many of the finest conductors loathed recording, especially when they had to stop every four minutes, as in the age of the 78rpm record. Both Toscanini’s and Furtwängler’s greatest records, with a few exceptions, tend to be of live performances. But with the advent of the LP and of recording tape, some conductors became more attached to the studio than the concert hall, and some even learned scores in order to record them, rather than setting down, after many years, the fruits of their experience. And as recording techniques became ever more sophisticated, it was the sheer sound rather than the meaning of the music which absorbed much of their attention. The most conspicuous case of that was Herbert von Karajan (1908-89), who made a phenomenal number of records and became more interested in the control room than the podium. The other crucial way in which records affected conducting, as they did to a lesser extent other modes of music making, was that the educated musical public began going to concerts, or buying new recordings of familiar works, with the experience of many other performances fresh in their minds. Correlatively, younger conductors naturally tended to listen to the recordings of the masters to hear what they sounded like, and either formed resolutions to play in the same way – a striking example was the Italian Guido Cantelli, killed in an air crash in 1956, who modelled himself very successfully on his idol Toscanini – or determined that they would be different. But as the number of Beethoven Fifths increased, it became difficult to be different from all of them, so some very strange recordings resulted from this need to be individual. It was this factor, too, rather than any burning artistic zeal, which led to the cult of period instruments and ‘authentic’ performances.

We talk in terms of generations, but actually things don’t divide up as conveniently as that term suggests. The oldest distinguished conductor is Sir Georg Solti, who began his career in the 1930s, but he was also one of the first conductors who made his reputation primarily from recording his classic version of Wagner’s Ring cycle being, in some of its parts, his first active encounter with the work. Other conductors of his generation, such as Gunther Wand and Klaus Tennstedt, are much more inclined to stick with their own orchestras and only occasionally venture into the recording studio; Carlo Maria Giulini is of the same exalted company.

The senior elderly figure of the next period is perhaps Bernard Haitink. He has a very wide range of competence and is equally active in the opera house and the concert hall. If one were asked what his specialities are, it would be hard to say. He is unlikely to be heard in music before Mozart, and he has recorded a great deal of Bruckner and Mahler. He is the type of the dedicated music maker, the despair of the hype-merchants.

At the opposite extreme in some ways is Carlos Kleiber, Erich’s son, who can be rarely persuaded to give a concert or make a recording, but creates a sensation whenever he does; his repertoire is tiny and decreasing. Then there is the middle generation of Daniel Barenboim, in the first place a piano prodigy; James Levine, the prodigiously hard-working artistic director of the New York Met; Claudio Abbado, a perfectionist who is the first Italian to be chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as being a leading operatic conductor; Riccardo Muti, a kind of Abbado rival, without quite such solid credentials, and more flamboyant in manner; and third among the Italians, slightly younger is Riccardo Chailly, who has shown himself primarily interested in the Austro-German symphonic masters, above all Bruckner and Mahler, of whom he has given highly personal accounts; Giuseppe Sinopoli, originally a composer, of whom one might say he goes in for composing the scores he conducts, so idiosyncratic are his readings; Lorin Maazel, once a whizz-kid, now still an amazing musician who has never really fulfilled his amazing promise; and Zubin Mehta, characteristic of the age in that he conducts at the Three Tenors jamborees, but has serious contact with music too. The list could of course be continued.

Standing apart from all these is the sometimes daunting figure of Pierre Boulez, who was primarily a composer, and only became a conductor to proselytize for the twentieth-century music which he loves but felt was badly performed or not performed at all. He has subsequently become a Wagner conductor, much to the surprise of those who thought that Wagner was old hat. In general, Boulez’s sympathies have been more with music outside the German symphonic tradition than with staples of the repertoire, but he has championed passionately the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Most star conductors have not been notable for espousing the cause of so-called ‘contemporary’ music, partly because they would be performing in front of tiny audiences if they did. It was Boulez, with his flair for sloganising and publicity, who made it possible for agencies to put on adventurous programmes without financial disaster.

Where Boulez, born in 1925, has led, many have followed. The next important conductor to take up the cause of twentieth-century music and to make it central to his programming and recording schedule has been Sir Simon Rattle, born 30 years later. It is symptomatic of our time that Rattle may be most famous for not leaving the City of Birmingham Orchestra for a more prestigious one as soon as an offer was made. Not only has he remained with that body for an extraordinary number of years, but in doing so he has been able to study scores at a depth which the jet-setters, sometimes conducting in different continents on consecutive evenings, learning their scores on the plane, couldn’t hope to do. Rattle has, as the old-time conductors did, mainly established his reputation by exciting and penetrating performances and recordings of works whose particular historical distance from him gives them a quality of freshness and also the sense that they need advocacy – a very important sense for a performer to have. Building on that extensive and unusual foundation, he has moved backwards, seeing, because he looks for, the idiosyncrasies in the composers he has performed. Thus when he finally decided to conduct a Wagner opera it was the last, Parsifal, because it is also the most musically revolutionary; and the result was an overpowering triumph, for Wagner as well as Rattle.

Though conductors often begin by creating a sensation – Toscanini by conducting Verdi’s Aida, unscheduled, at the age of 19 – to consolidate a serious reputation is a slow business. So while we are constantly being told that new geniuses of the rostrum have appeared, it is as well to wait and see how impressive their development is. Cynicism is always unattractive, but classical music has become to so alarming an extent a matter of business, as Norman Lebrecht has demonstrated in his frightening When the Music Stops, that caution at any rate seems justified.

Still, even with so many stacked against genuine artistic achievement, there are some encouraging young and fairly young figures on the scene. Christian Thielemann, who has recently been appointed to a key position in Berlin’s operatic life, has shown in his performances this year at Covent Garden of the rare Palestrina by Pfitzner, and Richard Strauss’s Elektra, that he is an artist of unostentatiously deep perceptions. He has made only two CDs so far, one of Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, in which he defiantly conducts in so Furtwänglerian a style as to risk dismissal as a delayed acolyte. Valery Gergiev, in charge of St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, has made an impressive series of recordings of Russian opera, as well as one of the rarely heard original version of Verdi’s La forza del destino. They are dynamic, thrilling readings, unafraid of sounding wayward – the direst tendency of recordings is to induce people to play safe and produce central versions of works. Daniele Gatti, from Milan, has made a big name for himself in many opera houses conducting Verdi, but so far has only recorded Rossini’s Armide for Sony Classical and Respighi’s famous Roman tone-poems for Conifer Classics, from which it is hard to make any judgement except that he commands an orchestra vividly.

We are presently, then, encountering a strange situation: from a marketing point of view, everything is set for maximum promotion. From an artistic standpoint, something closer to a loss of nerve seems to be apparent.

Six of the greatest
Herbert von Karajan: The ultimate jet-setting maestro, he had a solid grounding in Vienna and Salzburg, rose rapidly in the Third Reich, and when Furtwängler died in 1954 succeeded him as chief conductor of the BPO, a post he retained until shortly before his death. He made four recordings of the complete Beethoven Symphonies, seven of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, and cultivated a star image which did a great deal of harm.

Sir Georg Solti: A Hungarian Jew, he spent the war in Switzerland, took over Munich’s music life after the war and signed a contract with Decca, with whom he has made prodigious numbers of records. Notable for the verve and ferocity of his attack.

Carlo Maria Giulini: Beginning as a conductor of opera, he has become one of the great, if sometimes over-reverential interpreters of the German symphonists. His conducting is notable for refinement, broad tempi and warmth of sound.

Sergiu Celibidache: Even in a profession of mavericks, the Romanian Celibidache stands out. He refused to make records, though rumour has it that since his death last year his son has made a deal with EMI to publish CDs of his concerts. The BPO’s main conductor after the war for a time, he quarrelled with every orchestra he worked with except the last, and was unquestionably one of the greatest conductors of the century.

Claudio Abbado: A representative modern conductor in the best sense. A dedicated craftsman, he leaves nothing to chance, and his supreme professionalism is his distinguishing feature. He keeps to a small repertoire, endlessly repolished, and makes sure his audiences are never disappointed.

Daniel Barenboim: Another kind of contemporary phenomenon, dashing down to Salzburg to conduct a Mozart opera in between parts of the Ring in Bayreuth, recording everything, commuting between Chicago, of whose great Symphony Orchestra he is chief, and Berlin, where he directs an opera house.

The new generation
Sir Simon Rattle impressed the Philharmonia Orchestra when he was 18, and has gone on impressing every orchestra he has directed ever since. He is modest, eager to learn from his predecessors, and wide and generous in his tastes. Never less than reliable, his greatest performances are truly inspired.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, a young Finn who has mainly confined himself to twentieth century repertoire, though his recording company has marketed him as a Byronic romantic in a cage. His best discs are superbly rich in sound, characteristically not of standard repertoire, perhaps slightly tamed versions of fierce new works.

Tadaaki Otaka is so uncommercial a figure I have no idea how old he is: it’s several years since I heard him conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and was very impressed. I went on listening to his concerts, and felt that he was a true inheritor of the great tradition of interpreting the Viennese classics, as well as many other works.

Franz Welser-Möst sprung into sudden and youthful fame when he was appointed chief conductor of the London Philharmonic. His tenure of that post was controversial, ending in bitterness. Evidently a gifted artist, he may well become an important one.

Valery Gergiev has established a huge name as director of the Kirov Opera and Ballet. His speciality has been Russian theatrical music, but he conducted a remarkably fine series of performances of Lohengrin at Covent Garden earlier this year. As a conductor he elicits the maximum amount of colour from an orchestra.

Christian Thielemann is a recent arrival on the scene, but is becoming an important force in Germany’s operatic life. A specialist in romantic opera, especially Richard Strauss and Pfitzner, his style of conducting is decidedly traditional.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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