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."

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