Obituary: Klaus Tennstedt

Klaus Tennstedt, conductor: born Merseburg, Germany 6 June 1926; Guest Conductor, London Philharmonic Orchestra 1977-80, Principal Guest Conductor 1980-83, Principal Conductor 1983-87, Conductor Laureate 1987- 94; married 1960 Ingeborg Fischer; died Kiel, Germany 11 January 1998.

Success came so late to Klaus Tennstedt it almost destroyed him. He was 48 when a stand-in concert in Boston drew sensational reviews, dates with the finest orchestras and more money and admirers than he could count. After a lifetime in provincial theatre pits, the limelight was all too dazzling.

Whirling around the hemisphere of world-class orchestras, he was ravaged by self-doubt: who am I to direct musicians accustomed only to the greatest? At his first rehearsal in Philadelphia he related, tears coursing down his cheeks, how in the Hitler era he had crawled with his gramophone beneath an eiderdown to listen reverently to their forbidden recordings with Stokowoski.

He would come home to his high-rise apartment overlooking the Bay of Kiel, torn between the demands of ambition and the comforts of obscurity. He called it his Zasur, the moment when his life split in half. In the midst of this crisis, he discovered Gustav Mahler, the most introspective of composers. "I knew that not every man could conduct Mahler," he realised, "but I, too, had led a complicated life."

Tennstedt set about Mahler with a unique and dangerous intensity. Heeding neither caution nor fashion, he embodied the composer's expressed preference for exaggeration. Every rehearsal became a life-and-death struggle; each concert required a health warning, the musicians fearing for his safety and their own.

His Mahler recordings, though subdued in comparison to his live performances, contain the most terrifying of Sixths - a symphony in which Tennstedt heard pre-echoes of Nazi horrors - and the most lyrical of Sevenths. His account of the Eighth Symphony is unaffectedly majestic, the first credible record of that gigantic unresolved question.

Klaus Tennstedt was born in 1926 in Merseburg, a small town in Saxony equidistant from the musical incubators of Leipzig and Halle. His father, Hermann, was leader of the second violins in the Halle opera orchestra, a gregarious musician who played cards with Richard Strauss when he came to conduct his operas.

Tennstedt survived the Nazi era without serious moral or physical injury, joining a baroque orchestra to avoid political music and combat duties. He emerged, nevertheless, with a sense of guilt at having "closed our eyes to what was going on" and was poignantly pleased when invited to conduct the Israel Philharmonic, the first German of his generation to escape its boycott.

A prodigiously talented violinist, he was made leader of the opera orchestra in his teens and was making his name as a soloist when a pebble-like growth between the fourth and fifth knuckles of his left hand wrecked his budding career at the age of 19. After months of depression, he returned to the opera house as repetiteur, accompanying singers at rehearsal. He was always a capable pianist and played Chopin and Beethoven for pleasure and instruction, though only in the strictest of privacy.

He had watched conductors with professional curiosity, admiring the famously vague beat of Wilhelm Furtwangler, deploring the indolent flicks of Richard Strauss. But he had neither handled a baton nor stood before an orchestra when, at an hour's notice, he took over a performance of Wagner-Regeny's Der Gunstling. His father, who had not known of the substitution, could hardly draw a bow that night for trembling.

Proven competence led to a career in opera at Karl-Marx-Stadt, the Dresden Landesoper and Schwerin. Refusal to join the Communist Party and a taste for officially disapproved composers confined him to second-string houses and orchestras. In his mid-thirties he moved to Berlin, determined to defect. His chance came in March 1971 when he was allowed out to conduct in Gothenburg.

Back in Berlin on the opposite side of the Wall, he soon learned that success was no more readily attainable there. He settled for the music directorship of the opera at Kiel, on the Baltic coast, miles from any musical centre. Three years later, he was heard by the talent-spotting manager of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and introduced to North America.

Everywhere in the West except Germany, he acquired a reputation as one of the most exciting yet profound exponents of Romantic and Late Romantic music. His Beethoven in the Royal Festival Hall had an impact unequalled since Klemperer's. "Seeing him walk on stage," said a member of his orchestra, "you were never sure he would not trip over his feet or poke himself in the eye with the baton." Tennstedt, too, was never sure. His was a transparent honesty that allowed all around him to witness the many fragile layers of uncertainty.

In his 60th year, cancer struck. He was possessed by the notion that, like Mahler, he would die unfulfilled. The greater his success, the more insecure he became and the more dependent on his patient wife. Inge, an alto he captured in a 1954 Falstaff, would travel with him as perpetual reassurance. Childless and self-absorbed, prone to outbursts of petulance, his moods were unpleasant though short-lived.

He was not a star in the Bernstein or Karajan sense; he could not be expected to develop the socio-political skills essential to the cultivation of mass celebrity. Dressed like a provincial musician, he never learned to covet possessions. His pastimes included sailing, cycling, hot-air ballooning and chess, but in truth he had no real interest outside music and was never happier than when studying scores.

His association with the London Philharmonic was characterised by both sides as a love affair. He restored such confidence to the orchestra it began to believe itself the best in town and, when Tennstedt conducted, usually was. Every concert he gave was an event: audience, musicians and conductor alike would emerge shaken.

Lack of appreciation in his native land pained him. It does not alter the fact that he is the only major conductor to emerge in Germany since the Second World War, probably the last link in a tradition stretching back to Nikisch and Weingartner. Unlike earlier titans, he possessed no discernible charisma, nor was he an intellectual (though he was tolerably well-read), or a visionary. Spiritually he was confused, socially a disaster. What set Klaus Tennstedt apart as a conductor was his constant self-sacrifice to the music and an instinctive musicianship that, once heard, could never be denied.

- Norman Lebrecht

I was the only journalist present on a memorable but poignant evening in June 1994 when Klaus Tennstedt conducted for the last time, writes David Lister, and then gave me what was his last interview in Britain. He was honouring an invitation to conduct a rehearsal by a nervous but thrilled Oxford University orchestra before receiving an honorary doctorate a few days later. Fewer than a dozen of us watched him.

Tennstedt was already ill and it was the first time he had conducted for over a year, during which he had undergone hip surgery. He handed his walking sticks to his wife, Inge, sat on the stool placed on the podium for him and addressed the orchestra: "My hip is bad, my eyes are bad, my voice is bad, my English is bad. But we make music."

During the next two hours he transformed the sound of the university orchestra.

"I am nervous," he told me before entering the Sheldonian, glancing down at his hip. "I am afraid now. Every time I go up there, I don't know what will happen."

Yet though Tennstedt's features were constantly contorted in pain, as the students played the opening bars of Weber's Oberon overture he amazed his wife and his aides by leaping up from the stool and darting about, fixing individual members of the orchestra with a reprimanding look or a nod of encouragement or a twinkle of the eye as his body seemed to dance with the music, swaying to the slower romantic parts, darting with his outstretched arms in the allegro, his back arched in the old familiar position.

The students, many in T-shirts and jeans and at the end of a day in which some had been taking finals, began to perspire. They had, they admitted afterwards, never been worked so hard, nor, I suspect, been spoken to so directly.

"That noise," he said, beginning to revel in the job and glaring half- jokingly at the violins as he scratched the inside of his ear as if it were invaded by an alien body, "that noise is a Kartoffelsalat [potato salad]."

And then the conductor famed for his romantic music performances gave an insight into that romanticism, as he chided the students into producing a mellower sound.

"The whole overture is in a big forest and the moon is out and there are nymphs and there are glow-worms." And he whistled the length and feel of the note he wanted to convey "an army of glow-worms".

The girls in the string section began to mop their brows as he drove them on into the overture's faster, more emotional swirl. He spat at his own hands in some signal to them to improve their fingerwork. "Remember the fingerboards. Vibrato. Romantic vibrato."

Tennstedt said to me afterwards: "Will I conduct again? How can I say? Don't know. My doctors don't know. Nobody knows."

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
News
A rub on the tummy sprang Casey back to life
video
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little