Armin Jordan

Conductor of wide compass
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The Independent Online

Armin Jordan, conductor: born Lucerne, Switzerland 9 April 1932; married (one son, one daughter); died Basle, Switzerland 19 September 2006.

Armin Jordan died - almost - in the saddle: he was conducting the Basle Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Prokofiev's opera The Love of Three Oranges on 15 September when he fainted; rushed off to hospital in an ambulance, he seemed to be rallying but then suffered a relapse. He worked to the last in a career that, next year, would have been half a century long.

He had reduced the burden of his intense schedule in 2001, when pneumonia brought him down during an engagement at the Metropolitan Opera in New York - but retirement doesn't seem to be an option for conductors, and his operatic and concert engagements over the past few seasons still brought a workload that would have tested a far stronger constitution.

Jordan's importance as a conductor was not simply because of the quality of his work. Musicians can be a lazy breed: why go to the effort of learning out-of-the-way repertoire to the exacting standards of concert readiness only to have conservative managements balk at an unknown name; far safer to stick to the trusted handful of composers who pull in the audiences. Jordan wasn't one of those. He knew his mainstream material, of course, and excelled in it, but he was also aware of his duty to those forgotten scores which, for whatever vicissitude of history, had slipped from sight.

Thus, though his enormous discography is centred on the standard repertoire - often exemplary accounts of composers like Debussy, Dukas, Fauré, Franck, Mahler and Strauss - it also includes a considerable number of rarities. There are three French operas, Chausson's Le Roi Arthus, Dukas' Ariane et Barbe-bleue and Lalo's Le Roi d'Ys. The German Romantics and late Romantics received his attention, too, with recordings of Schumann's ambitious oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri, Zemlinsky's opera Eine Florentinische Tragödie and his Lyrische Symphonie (he conducted the opera Der Zwerg in concert). He stood up for his fellow Swiss, too, with recordings of music by Frank Martin and Norbert Moret.

Jordan's life began in Lucerne, and didn't first seem to point to music: with an unusually absorbent mind, he attended Freiburg University and studied law, literature and theology before music took his attention more fully. He was therefore a relatively late starter - in his mid-twenties - when in 1957 he first took to the podium as assistant conductor in the municipal theatre in Biel, in the canton of Bern; he was appointed music director four years later.

Jordan now moved steadily up the ladder, with position of Principal Conductor at the opera houses in Zurich (1963-68) and St Gallen (1968-71). In 1971 he was appointed music director of the Theater Basel, remaining there for two decades - an association which endured: it was here he suffered his final collapse. Jordan kept faith with the institutions which employed him: his music-directorship of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra lasted from 1973 until 1985, and his principal conductorship of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (OSR) from 1985 until 1997.

His home turf was always Switzerland and France, and he appeared regularly as guest conductor with all the main orchestras there; he was an especially frequent visitor to Paris. His horizons widened in 1985, when he made his American operatic début with Die Walküre in Seattle. East Coast engagements duly followed, in the Mostly Mozart festival and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Jordan toured the OSR widely, with no fewer than five visits to the United States, and made a generous number of recordings - and continued to do so: his performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Geneva (the OSR doubles as the opera orchestra there) was recently released on DVD, as was a staging of Humperdinck's Königskinder (long since eclipsed by Hänsel und Gretel - Jordan was on another of his rescue missions) made with the National Opera in Montpellier.

For all the compass of his work in the recording studio, though, Jordan reached his biggest audience in 1981, when he conducted the soundtrack of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's film version of Wagner's Parsifal - also appearing on screen, draped in white, as the dignified and dying Amfortas, "lip-synching" to the bass of Wolfgang Schöne.

Although his work on the Syberberg film rather resulted in Jordan's being typecast as a Wagner conductor, his activities continued to mirror the breath of his interests. And although many conductors seem to use the podium to attract attention, he always knew he was there to serve the music. A New York Times review by Mark Swed of Jordan's handling of The Magic Flute captured the essence of his music-making:

Mr Jordan is a middle-of-the-road Mozartean, which means he does not demonstrate interest in the light textures or fleet tempos of the period-instrument movement and avoids the other extreme of making momentously weighty statements. Yet, if this seems one more instance of the conductor courting anonymity, Mr Jordan offsets that by leading a performance that can be both forceful and elegant, one alert to the opera's sharp contrasts between light and dark. Most significantly, though, Mr Jordan's performance here - and in the other new recordings as well - is a mystical one that builds to a particularly satisfying spiritual catharsis at the end.

Nor is the name Jordan gone from the world's concert halls: his son Philippe is currently Principal Guest Conductor at the Staatsoper in Berlin.

Martin Anderson