Conductor Otmar Suitner has died, aged 87

Gramophone14th Jan 2010
Otmar Suitner, who has died aged 87 (photo: Staatsoper Unter den Linden/Archiv)Otmar Suitner (photo: Staatsoper Unter den Linden/Archiv)

Otmar Suitner, one of the unsung masters of the baton, died in Berlin on January 8 at the age of 87.

The Austrian conductor could seduce his listeners with his elegant, warm-hearted Mozart or inspire awe with his handling of a Bruckner symphony, and happily for us he left fine recordings of both. Suitner studied piano at the Innsbruck Conservatory and, during the Second World War, at the Salzburg Mozarteum. He also studied under Clemens Krauss, whose feeling for precisely the “right” phrase or tempo was an obvious influence.

In 1957 Suitner became musical director of the Pfalz orchestra at Ludwigshafen and henceforth he made guests appearances in major German and Austrian cities. His big break came in 1960 when he was appointed chief conductor of the Dresden Staatsoper, taking up the appointment of general music director at the Deutsche Staatsoper some four years later, having succeeded Franz Konwitschny and preceding Daniel Barenboim.

He conducted three Paul Dessau premieres, Puntila (1966), Einstein (1974) and Leonce und Lena (1979) and later took up guest engagements in Europe, America and Japan. He was made honorary conductor of the Tokyo NHK Symphony Orchestra in 1973 and before the fall of the Berlin Wall was awarded the Nationalpreis of the German Democratic Republic.

It’s all too easy to forget that Suitner was a prolific recording artist. His complete set of the Beethoven symphonies with the Staatskapelle Berlin for Denon was among the first of the digital era; he set down a memorable Schumann cycle for the same label and his operatic discography includes recordings of Schubert’s Alfonso und Estrella, Strauss’s Salome, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and both Einstein and Leonce und Lena by Dessau, all currently available from Berlin Classics.

As to Suitner’s orchestral discography, perhaps the best examples of his fresh, spontaneous conducting style are a verdant and musically gripping complete Dvorák symphony cycle and a series that covers virtually all of the major Mozart symphonies. An 11-cd “80th anniversary special edition” on Edel offers a splendid sampling of Suitner’s art, with works by Bruckner, Dvorák, Wolf, Tchaikovsky, Strauss and others. All are with East German orchestras, principally the Staatskapelle Berlin.

Rob Cowan

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