MUSIC / Conduct unbecoming?: Beset by bad reviews, Franz Welser-Most is leaving London just as he has begun to make his mark. Edward Seckerson meets the LPO's outgoing music director

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A member of the London Philharmonic board was once quoted as saying that there were two and a half great conductors in the world: Klaus Tennstedt, Bernard Haitink, and Franz Welser-Most. In the light of recent history, has he now revised his opinion? Is Welser-Most more or less of a fraction? Was his appointment as music director brave and far-sighted, premature, or merely an aberration? What lies behind his dismal showing with the London press? Did he fall or was he pushed? Time for some answers.

When ill-health forced Klaus Tennstedt's resignation from the helm of the London Philharmonic, his departure cast a long, tall shadow across the orchestra's future. How do you follow a man whose every performance (for better or worse) is an event, whose Mahler genuinely changes people, whose Beethoven carries the conviction of a personal crusade? Rather than attempt to replace the irreplaceable, the management of the orchestra, at that time led by John Willan, decided to change tack and go for youth: Tennstedt was named 'conductor laureate', Welser-Most brought in as 'music director'. It was a bold appointment: a new broom, a different kind of energy.

But a year or so into Welser-Most's contract, it became unclear as to what exactly the new broom might be sweeping. The core repertoire remained stubbornly mainstream; the brave new dawn of the South Bank residency had brought little sign of real change. It was business as usual, but without Tennstedt.

Welser-Most felt handicapped: 'I asked for a year to listen and observe, to start slowly to make changes. Changes take time. And yet the first changes I made in personnel caused an outcry. Already I felt the resistance, particularly with regard to my ideas for broadening the repertoire. I believe that the management's thinking at that time was, get yourself a young Klaus Tennstedt and continue down the same road. But I wasn't a young Tennstedt. I was me. And I had my own road to go down.' Commerce ruled, of course. In retrospect, Welser-Most feels that, instead of running the business, the old regime was 'run by it'. 'You must be able to say to yourself - we do what we believe in. Otherwise, what's the point.'

As if to reinforce that argument, his resignation two months ago coincided with the announcement of the new London Philharmonic season - the first, he says, to bear his personal stamp. Trust at last. It makes interesting reading. Messiaen's L'Ascension twinned with Bruckner's Sixth Symphony, Beethoven and Henze, Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's 'Faust', Mozart's Requiem and Franz Schmidt's Fourth Symphony ('also a kind of Requiem and also very much a Viennese work'). Programmes like this win respect. Who knows, they might even have won him the kind of notices he's been garnering in the USA.

Was Welser-Most's music directorship of the LPO simply a case of too much, too soon? Even he concedes that he was unprepared for the 'directorship' part. But musically? He didn't just descend on the orchestra from Venus. He had 10 years' experience and key areas of the repertoire under his fingers: the Beethoven and Bruckner symphonies, Schumann, Brahms, Mozart, the St Matthew Passion, Tristan und Isolde. He conducted his first Missa solemnis at 20. Eyebrows will raise at that. Madness or arrogance? How long should one wait for the great works to come knocking at one's door?

In the case of Missa solemnis, he remembers his teacher's advice: 'Do it now. Because when you are 50, you will have lived with that piece for 30 years, and that's 30 years of advantage over those who wait till they are 50 . . .'

'Look, Furtwangler conducted Bruckner Nine when he was 19. And you can be sure that it was not the way he conducted it at 50 or 60. You explore, you develop, you learn. The big problem we have today - and it's partly because of the record industry - is that we are forever comparing performances. We have a saying in Germany - 'comparison kills love'. I think the same is true for music. How can you compare my Mahler, aged 34, with Tennstedt's, aged 66? You can't. It makes far more sense to compare my performances now with those I have given in the past or will give in the future.'

Actually we can. And it may provide clues as to Welser-Most's critical reception of late. He first came to my attention by way of a quite extraordinary recording of Mahler's Fourth on the budget EMI Eminence label. His sense of Mahlerian style (well, he is Austrian), the freedom and flexibility of those big expressive rubatos was so sure. His slow movement - sensationally slow - was a classic case of courage through conviction; the heart dictating the pace. It remains among the finest accounts on record. Less than five years on, his approach to Mahler, indeed to everything - his whole musical demeanour - has changed. His work is much tighter now, much stricter with regard to tempo and rubato. More direct, but at a price.

We compare notes on his recent performance of Mahler's Second Symphony. I ask him why he chose to minimise Mahler's notorious gear-changes. 'To make 'the break lines' in the music less obvious.' But surely that's the whole point. They are obvious, they are uncomfortable. And why so reluctant to linger? Why shave rubatos that are effectively written into the line?

Constructive disagreement never worries him. He welcomes it. 'I am very much aware of the changes you describe in my work. But I find it hard to defend what I feel. These are choices I have made - for now. The relationship between tempo and expression fascinates me. It's always a temptation when the music gets beautiful to get slower. I am trying now to do more with the colour and underlying emotion than with tempo. I have become almost obsessive about the letter of the score . . .' (not obsessive enough, it seems, in Mahler's case). 'I am much stricter about rhythm and the accuracy of tempo markings. And that shows very much now in the way that I conduct Bruckner.'

He does indeed have some forthright and refreshing views on his countryman's music - bringing it off the high altar into the real world. He is particularly proud of a forthcoming recording of the Fifth Symphony: a big advance, he believes, on the days when he was so influenced by the recordings of Furtwangler and Karajan that he didn't dare have an opinion of his own. EMI are similarly excited by a live Beethoven Fifth that they're putting out as a CD single. The impetuosity that so dogged his London Tristan und Isolde concert performances has by all accounts possessed this performance of an electrifying in-the-moment urgency. Blind testings on the sales force have brought suggestions that it might even be Tennstedt. Now there's an irony.

Welser-Most's London experience has proved salutary. He's asked and answered many questions of himself. Why am I doing this? What is right and what is wrong? Instead of 'I interpret' he now prefers 'I reproduce'. He explains: 'I believe that music is timeless. Rather like certain human emotions that repeat themselves again and again and yet are always new to us. Like falling in love: it is always new for you, even if you have done it 10 times before. It's still strong. So with music I don't believe you can look at a piece and say - that's the way it should be. No, when you are on stage, you have to live it every time.'

Next Sunday, Welser-Most bows in at Glyndebourne with Peter Grimes. He says he's really come to understand Grimes's isolation. Opera is about to dominate his professional life. In 1995 he takes over as music director of the Zurich opera - a prosperous and enterprising house; an 'Aladdin's cave' of possibilities. Only this time he's taking nothing on trust. He has the right of veto over producers written into his contract.

'Peter Grimes': in repertoire at Glyndebourne Opera House, near Lewes, East Sussex (0273 813813) from Sunday

(Photograph omitted)