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.