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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea