Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos: Conductor who championed the music of his native Spain


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The conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos performed with many of the world's leading orchestras, combining technical aplomb with subtle yet lively interpretations in hundreds of recordings. In March, his frail appearance while conducting Washington's National Symphony Orchestra visibly alarmed the musicians onstage as he struggled through Respighi's vigorous Pines of Rome.

Frühbeck de Burgos, who had been the NSO's principal guest conductor in the 1980s, received an ovation from players and audience. Until last week he was chief conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and maintained a steady schedule of guest-conducting jobs. In a career spanning more than five decades, he became Spain's foremost conductor with a devoted following worldwide. Critically, he was known more for unleashing great zest from a score than for groundbreaking interpretation, although there were exceptions.

Frühbeck de Burgos came to prominence as principal conductor of the National Orchestra of Spain in the 1960s and '70s, and for his many effervescent recordings showcasing Spanish composers, such as Manuel de Falla (Three-Cornered Hat) and Isaac Albéniz (Suite española). His Spanish repertoire was vast, from modern composers to Renaissance-era choral works, and he frequently collaborated with his compatriot, the pianist Alicia de Larrocha.

But in hundreds of recordings and countless performances, Frühbeck de Burgos was not defined solely as a champion of Iberian music. He gained critical attention for his interpretations of Mozart's Requiem and oratorios including Mendelssohn's Elijah and Haydn's Creation. He also brought to international stages Carl Orff's cantata Carmina Burana, and his 1965 recording with the New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus is considered a classic.

When Frühbeck de Burgos conducted "Carmina Burana" with the NSO in 1982, the Washington Post critic Joseph McLellan called it "a smashing performance — not perfect but overwhelming and unforgettable. Frühbeck is a complete master of this massive score in all its nuances, as he demonstrated from the opening bars — a thunderous chorus invoking the goddess Fortuna."

As high-spirited as the music could be, Frühbeck de Burgos was not flamboyant on the podium. He said he valued precision and clarity over showmanship. "If I made unnecessary gestures to impress the audience while I was standing up in front of 100 professional musicians, my face would turn red," he said.

He was born in 1933, in Burgos, a northern Spanish city that became a stronghold for Franco's regime during the Spanish Civil War. His German-born parents had settled in Spain after the First World War. His mother bought him a violin, and by 14 he was concert master of the local orchestra, which specialised in zarzuelas. At the behest of his businessman father, he spent studied law while attending a conservatory in Madrid.

In 1953, he began three years of compulsory military duty. "I won a competition to direct a military band — the second best job in the army," he said. "The first one I could not apply for, because that meant being a priest." He said he developed critical skills in the army band, honing a near-photographic memory for hundreds of symphonies he transcribed. After his discharge, he went to Munich for further training as a conductor and at 25 was named chief conductor of Bilbao's municipal orchestra.

He said he added "de Burgos" to his surname when he brought the Bilbao orchestra to a music festival in France and was told by the orchestra's manager, "We must do something about this German name. I cannot explain to everyone that you really are Spanish."

He was music director of the Dusseldorf Symphony and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra while working for the National Orchestra in Madrid, and began to attract attention in the US in the late 1960s when Eugene Ormandy, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, invited him to conduct.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, he was a guest conductor at the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, one of the finest orchestras in Japan, and was later served as chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. In 2012, as music director emeritus of the Dresden Philharmonic, he led the orchestra at New York's Lincoln Center for a performance that included Beethoven's Fifth.

"It would be an exaggeration to say that Frühbeck de Burgos made the work sound new or surprising," Allan Kozinn wrote in The New York Times, "but he made its titanic gestures unfold like an epic drama, with enough freshness and power to draw you in and keep you in its grip." Frühbeck de Burgos died a week after announcing his retirement following a cancer diagnosis.


Rafael Frühbeck, conductor: born Burgos, Spain 15 September 1933; married 1959 Maria Carmen Martinez (two children); died Pamplona 11 June 2014.

© The Washington Post