Peter Maag

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The Independent Online

Ernst Peter Johannes Maag, conductor: born St Gallen, Switzerland 10 May 1919; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Verona, Italy 16 April 2001.

It takes an exceptional man to decide it is time to retire because he is "having too much success" and to take himself off to a Chinese monastery. But that is exactly what the Swiss conductor Peter Maag did, in his early fifties, when anyone else would be lying back to soak up the comforts of fame. For Maag it was time well spent: "Those two years spent meditating and praying in a small cell purified my soul."

Maag was born into a highly cultured family: his father, Otto, was a musicologist, critic, philologist and Lutheran minister, and his mother, Nelly, played second violin in the prestigious Capet Quartet. His great-uncle was the conductor Fritz Steinbach, whose Brahms interpretations had the approval of the composer himself. Maag treasured a piece of slate tabletop on which Brahms, at a post-concert meal, had written in chalk: "Many thanks for the wonderful performance of my C minor Symphony" (Steinbach had later stolen back to the restaurant and broken the piece off the table).

At Zurich, Basle and Geneva universities Maag, encouraged by his father, studied Theology (with Karl Barth and Emil Brunner) and Philosophy (with Karl Jaspers). He furthered his musical education with private lessons from the Polish-born Czeslaw Marek, one of Switzerland's most eminent pianists and pedagogues. He then went on to Alfred Cortot in Paris for more work on his piano technique.

Maag's career began with his appointment in 1943 as répétiteur in the theatre in Biel-Solothurn, between Basle and Berne; by the time he left, three years later, he had risen to the post of music director. His instruction in conducting thus came largely on the job, as he now became assistant to Ernest Ansermet at the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva; he was coached also by Franz von Hoesslin and later said that he had learnt much from attending Wilhelm Furtwängler's rehearsals.

Maag's first full post was as principal conductor at the Düsseldorf Opera from 1952 to 1955, after which he spent four years as the General Music Director at the City Theatre in Bonn. He made his UK début in 1958 at Covent Garden with Mozart's Die Zauberflöte and, a little later, at Glyndebourne, with Le nozze di Figaro – he was already beginning to establish a reputation as a considerable Mozart interpreter. His US début, with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, came in 1959, with Fidelio at the Lyric Opera in Chicago following in 1961; his first appearance at the New York Met, with Don Giovanni, was in September 1972.

A four-year stint as chief conductor at the Volksoper in Vienna, from 1964 to 1968, coincided with the growing success of a series of recordings for Decca, which had begun in the late 1950s. It was then that the theological concerns of Maag's youth resurfaced and he set off for his two years' meditation, not far from Hong Kong. On his return the focus of his activities shifted to Italy: he became artistic director of the Teatro Regio in Parma in 1972 and of the Teatro Regio in Turin in 1974 for another two-year period.

Between 1984 and 1991 he was principal conductor of the Berne Symphony Orchestra, touring occasionally with them and continuing to make guest appearances all over the world. But Italy retained his attention: he was conductor of the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto from 1983 and in 1989, with his friend Maurizio Jacobi, he set up a workshop for young singers and conductors in Treviso, north of Venice.

Maag's first marriage was to the Yugoslav stage-designer Yasmina Bozin; his second to the Italian harpist Marica Franchi.

Although Maag's principal reputation was for his work in the mainstream repertoire, not least in Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, he was noteworthy also for his rescuing of neglected scores. And he cast his net widely, embracing the oratorio Rappresentazione di Anima, et di Corpo by the Baroque Emilio de' Cavalieri, Abramo ed Isacco by Mozart's friend Josef Myslivecek, Schumann's only opera Genoveva and Ferdinando Paër's Leonora – a dust-covered opera known only to musicologists because of its influence on Beethoven's own Leonore (later Fidelio) until Maag's revival made it living music.

Martin Anderson