Conductor Klaus Tennstedt (1926 – 1998) was a meteor who shot across the classical sky, inspired millions, not thousands, of listeners, and then sputtered and died. What made his story all the more inspiring is that he came along—in the West, at least—at the exact same time that Carlos Kleiber, also immensely talented, was thought of as the greatest classical conductor in the world.
There were remarkable similarities between Tennstedt and Kleiber. Both were inspired and inspiring orchestral builders. Both led emotionally white-hot performances in both the opera house and the concert hall. Both had a surprisingly small repertoire, mostly confined to the Romantic era, and both were strangely haunted personalities. In Kleiber’s case it was probably neurosis caused by the sneering disapproval his father, world-famous conductor Erich Kleiber, had towards his son taking up the same profession, but in Tennstedt’s case it was his traumatic experiences as a youth in Nazi Germany and his later confinement within East Germany. When I met and interviewed him in 1984, I found him strangely nervous, jittery, and completely lacking the feeling of his greatness that many critics—myself included—recognized in him, despite the fact that he was willing to defend his sometimes unorthodox readings of standard repertoire.
After studying the violin at the Leipzig Conservatory, he avoided military conscription during World War II by working for a Baroque orchestra—but he was sent out with others to collect the dead bodies after the bombing of Dresden. In 1948 he became concertmaster at the Halle Municipal Theatre. but a finger injury ended his career as a violinist and he turned to being an opera coach. He then slowly turned to conducting, eventually starting his career in earnest with an appointment as music director of the Dresden Opera in 1958 and then as music director of the Schwerin State Orchestra and Theatre.
His big break came, inadvertently, in 1971 when his visitors’ visa to Sweden was accidentally stamped as an exit visa, which meant he was free to live and work in the West. Arriving in Sweden, he immediately announced his decision not to return and somehow convinced the East German authorities to let his wife Inge join him. Slowly but surely his career took off, first in Europe and then via guest appearances with the Toronto Symphony and Boston Symphony Orchestras. Critics were bowled over by the emotional passion and musical intelligence of his performances; in fact, he was one of the few conductors to appeal to both those who loved musically accurate performances and emotionally over-the-top ones. By the late 1970s, largely due to his many appearances with the Boston Symphony (some of which were broadcast, such as a fantastic Beethoven Ninth I heard), he had amassed a hardy group of fans who actually followed him around from city to city to hear him conduct. They called themselves the “Klausketeers” and attracted both supporters and derision, but they didn’t care. They loved what this man had to offer and weren’t shy about their support. Before long, they had an actual club set up and even issued a periodic newsletter (this in the days before computers and the Internet).
I caught up with Tennstedt when he came out to Cincinnati to conduct Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Cincinnati Symphony in the annual May Festival. I was lucky enough to interview him for a monthly classical journal, which is where I discovered that he was a somewhat nervous and edgy chain-smoker. But he was immensely charming and answered all of my questions intelligently.
At the time I met and interviewed him, I had only one of his recordings, the Schumann Third Symphony and the Konzertstück for 4 Horns because it was the only one I had heard that I felt captured the excitement of his live performances (he was gracious enough to autograph it for me). This, as in the case of many great classical performers, was his bane: he could and did give 110% in front of live audiences but seldom rose to that white-hot level in the recording studio. One of the things I specifically recall him bringing up in our interview was his view of the last measure of the Schubert “Great” C Major Symphony. It was his opinion that the final note, in the written score, had a long decrescendo over it, whereas the printed score reduced it to an accent mark, thus he considered it his mission to restore Schubert’s original view of the music. At the time, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me…why end a very long symphony, and particularly a long and dramatic movement, with a decrescendo? But I heard his recording of it (one of his better recordings) and found that I liked it. A few years later, I also heard Nikolaus Harnoncourt do the same thing in his superb set of the complete Schubert symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and I liked it even more. But nowadays, when it is done more often than nor, it seems to be forgotten that it was Tennstedt who pioneered its use.
Following my interview with him, I had the rare opportunity to watch him in rehearsal. Let me tell you, he was not gentle with orchestras when he didn’t get what he wanted. We’ve all heard stories of Toscanini, Rodzinski and Reiner being martinets with an orchestra, but I’m here to tell you that orchestral musicians learned to cower under Tennstedt’s wrath when things didn’t go right. The worst moment (for the orchestra) cane in the Tanz, or Dance, which they were playing with a smooth, refined tone. Tennstedt kept trying to get the strings to bow more roughly but wasn’t getting his way until he exploded in a Toscanini-like rage. “What is WRONG with you?” he roared. “This is a peasant dance! It’s not supposed to sound like a ballroom dance in a palace! Rougher! Dig in!” That seemed to do it, because Tennstedt got what he wanted—both in the rehearsal and in the performance.
I also got to hear him conduct the Cleveland Orchestra, not too long thereafter, in a concert that included Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. As coincidence would have it, I attended this concert with a local couple who were Klausketeers. The afternoon before the concert, the man of the house turned to the lady and asked her to look up the previous evening’s review of the concert “to see if we’re going to enjoy it”! I was amazed and a bit appalled to learn that at least these two Klausketeers didn’t even know enough about music that they had to rely on a critic to tell them if they would enjoy their favorite conductor. But his performance was superb in every way: powerful, lyrical, sweeping, you name it, he delivered. And in finally seeing him conduct, in both of these concerts, I noticed his odd, jerky motions on the podium. Tennstedt simply couldn’t stand still when he conducted, and although it seemed to be a natural part of his style and not something he did for show it still put me in mind of a marionette on acid.
I was also lucky enough to hear his Metropolitan Opera broadcast debut in Beethoven’s Fidelio (January 7, 1984) and be in touch with the Rocco of that performance, basso Paul Plishka. Plishka was very impressed with Tennstedt’s command of the music, the orchestra and the singers: “He definitely knows what he’s doing” was his understatement. Much later, I learned than Tennstedt and tenor Jon Vickers, his Florestan, got into a heated argument over the interpretation of the role, yet another example of Tennstedt’s explosive temper when he believed he was right. Yet anyone who has heard that broadcast, which can be sampled here, will know just how great it was. Met Opera Orchestra cellist James Kreger described it as one of the high watermarks of his career: “From the outset of the very first rehearsal, one could sense his total, life and death, commitment to the score. That made the orchestra even more eager to reciprocate in kind. Those incredible moments on January 7, 1984 made me feel privileged to be part of this great orchestra, and will remain with me forever as one of the high points of my career.” And, so help me Beethoven, the Saturday broadcast audience went absolutely, positively nuts after his performance of the Leonore Overture No. 3, inserted, as usual, just before the final scene of the opera. In all of my years of listening to Met broadcasts, I have never, ever heard a Met audience go crazy like that after the playing of an overture.
As the years passed, Tennstedt became more and more involved with the London Philharmonic, of whom he became principal guest conductor in 1977, and less and less involved with American orchestras, thus I had to follow him via recordings. By and large, I was disappointed by his studio-recorded Mahler cycle although the Eighth was pretty good. After his death, several of his live performances with both the LSO and the New York Philharmonic came out on CD and I was enthralled all over again, particularly by his Mahler Second and Third with the former orchestra and his Mahler Fifth with the latter (in a special, limited-edition set issued by the New York Philharmonic, available for listening online here and here). But by and large, poor Tennstedt left fewer footprints of his greatness for us to enjoy than even Kleiber.
Will he be remembered in the future as the great musician he was? I can only hope so. His commercial recordings of the Schumann works mentioned and his Schubert Ninth (paired on CD with a surprisingly sprightly Mendelssohn Fourth), and the Beethoven Violin Concerto (with Kyun-Wha Chung) are wonderful (the latter stemming from a live performance) while his Met Fidelio and live Mahler Second and Fifth just mentioned should also be acquired by any really hard-core music lover. Hearing these anew, you simply cannot escape the feeling that here was one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, one we were lucky enough to hear, off and on, in his prime. We are fortunate that at least some of his genius was caught like lightning in a bottle, so that we can savor it over and over again.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley
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