Otmar Suitner: Conductor who was the last surviving product of Germany's 'Kapellmeister' tradition

Otmar Suitner must be the only conductor to have been honoured both by the Communist government of East Germany, with the National Prize in 1963, and the Catholic church, when Pope Paul VI bestowed the Order of St Gregory on him 10 years later. As it turned out, his musical career was not the only thing Suitner had to balance over the fulcrum of the Berlin Wall.

Otmar Suitner was one of the last survivors of the old Kapellmeister tradition, learning his crafts as he made his way up the professional ladder in slow and steady stages, rather than the catapult-to-stardom system that deposits young conductors before the public these days. Eventually, Suitner's name was to become a frequent one on recordings, but the fact that he spent most of his working life in the former East Germany meant he was not as familiar a figure on the international scene as his abilities deserved.

He was born in Innsbruck on 16 May 1922, initially studying piano at the Conservatory there with Fritz Weidlich before continuing his piano studies with Franz Ledwinka at the Salzburg Mozarteum, where he also took up conducting under the tutelage of the eminent Clemens Krauss.

Suitner's first professional position came quickly, in 1942, as ballet répétiteur for the Tiroler Landestheater. The job allowed him to take to the podium occasionally, although for the years after 1944 he was active mainly as a concert pianist. His second post, in 1952, brought more responsibility, as Musikdirektor in Remscheid, near Düsseldorf, whence five years later he progressed to the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz as Generalmusikdirektor. With his next step, in 1960, he covered several rungs at once, with a move to Dresden as chief conductor of the Staatskapelle, a post that attracted some of major names in conducting: Suitner was preceded there by Fritz Busch, Karl Böhm and Rudolf Kempe, among others, and in 1964 he was succeeded by Kurt Sanderling.

His most prestigious position took the form of a two-part period as Generalmusikdirektor of the Staatsoper in East Berlin – perhaps the foremost musical job in the German Democratic Republic – first from 1964 to 1971 and then again from 1974 to 1990, although he was also busy as a guest conductor during his interregnum. Here his interpretations of Mozart, Wagner and Strauss were admired for their freshness, as was his handling of Italian repertoire – less predictably, perhaps, but then his mother was Italian. His friendship with the composer Paul Dessau was to result in the premieres of no fewer than three operas: Puntila in 1966, Einstein in 1973 and Leonce und Lena in 1979 – the latter two documented in CD recordings.

Suitner also continued to appear in the West, not least at Bayreuth in the mid-1960s, the far West, as a guest conductor of the San Francisco Opera from 1969, and the Far East. Indeed, he was a frequent guest in Japan, especially with the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, where he was made an honorary conductor in 1973. He was also professor of conducting at the Hochschule für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna from 1977 to 1988.

The Austrian passport that enabled these peregrinations in and out of restrictive East Germany also came to his aide in a more personal manner. Suitner had come to East Germany in 1960 with his wife, Marita, settling in East Berlin. In 1965, while he was working at Bayreuth, he met a West German student by the name of Renate Heitzmann, and a relationship developed; in 1971 she bore him a son, Igor.

For two decades Suitner ran a balancing act between his two families on either side of the Wall; after it came down, the two families were reconciled. When Suitner turned 80 in 2002, Igor Heitzmann, who had grown up to become a film-maker, decided to turn his lens to personal use and persuaded his father, who had been forced to retire in the 1990s because of the inroads of Parkinson's, to return to the podium for the cameras. Nach der Musik ("After the Music" but given the English title A Father's Music) was released in 2007 and garnered a number of awards.

Suitner's position with the Staatskapelle Berlin (the orchestra of the Staatsoper) allowed him to take early advantage of the advent of digital recording: his Beethoven cycle (recorded in 1980–83) on Denon was an early entrant to the field. Later symphonic recordings embraced Bizet, Brahms, Bruckner, Dvorák, Haydn, Mahler, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann – most of them laid down in Berlin or Dresden. His operatic recordings include a classic Humperdinck, Hänsel und Gretel (Dresden, 1969), Pfitzner's Palestrina (Berlin, 1986–88), Schubert's Alfonso und Estrella (Berlin, 1978 – with a stellar cast: Mathis, Schreier, Fischer-Dieskau, Prey, Adam) and, in San Francisco, Wagner's Tannhäuser (1973). Berlin Classics marked his 80th birthday with an eight-CD box of his recordings, largely of German repertoire, with his Dresden and Berlin orchestras; another boxed set, with the Staatskapelle Dresden, justly celebrates Suitner's "Legendary Recordings".

Martin Anderson

Otmar Suitner, conductor: born Innsbruck 16 May 1922; married 1948 Marita Wilckens (died 2008), 2010 Renate Heitzmann (one son); died Berlin 8 January 2010.

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