They came, saw him one last time and cried

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The Independent Online
THE MAN said by many to be the greatest conductor in the world mounted the podium on Friday for the first time in over a year and conducted an orchestra for what may well be the last time.

Klaus Tennstedt handed his walking sticks to his wife, Inge, sat on the stool placed on the podium for him and addressed the Oxford University orchestra in the Sheldonian Theatre. 'My hip is bad, my eyes are bad, my voice is bad, my English is bad. But we make music.'

Tennstedt is the conductors' conductor, whose marvellous live performances of Mahler and the German Romantic composers have never been quite reproduced on his recordings. He records, in any case, much less than Solti or Abbado and does very little opera. For these reasons he has never attained the top rung of public celebrity. But almost nobody who has seen him conduct doubts that he is among the world's finest exponents of his craft.

On Friday fewer than a dozen of us watched him. It was a poignant and fascinating occasion which had Tennstedt's aides close to tears. The 68- year-old German conductor, who is to receive an honorary doctorate at Oxford on Wednesday, had surprisingly agreed to a request to rehearse the university orchestra last Friday night.

It was the first time the conductor laureate of the London Philharmonic Orchestra had conducted anywhere since May 1993, and it follows a year of hip surgery and ensuing complications. He had cancelled all other engagements over the past year, including the Proms this summer, and though he is due to conduct the LPO in the autumn, two of his aides who watched him on Friday were close to tears at the end, convinced they had seen him conduct for the last time.

Tennstedt was in pain throughout and said as he left that he could not guarantee he would ever conduct again. If that proves to be the case the last memory of him will be an enthralling two hours in which he transformed the sound of the university orchestra.

Ever ambitious, the students had asked him to rehearse them in a movement from a Mahler symphony. When he said this would take four rehearsals with the Berlin Philharmonic, they settled on Weber's Oberon overture.

'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 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 smile and 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, or, I suspect, 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.' Then he signalled them to stop for another small chiding that immediately had a dramatic effect on the playing.

'You must make a different accent. There are many accents, but only with the left hand, not with the right arm in piano. The other accents are in allegro, a summer storm. And listen to the horn, everybody must listen to the other group.'

'It is a tragedy,' said Judy Grahame, now with the management of the Philharmonia Orchestra, formerly with the LPO and an old friend of Tennstedt. 'He is the greatest conductor in the world, and he just doesn't conduct any more.'

Tennstedt said: 'Will I conduct again? How can I say? Don't know. My doctors don't know. Nobody knows.'

(Photographs omitted)