Klaus Tennstedt: captured in concert

Friday, July 9, 2010

For a precious handful of concert seasons, Klaus Tennstedt (1926-1998) dominated the orchestral scene on London’s South Bank. As principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra between 1983 and 1987 he built up a loyal following and his performances of the so-called “core” Austro-German repertoire were widely regarded as yardsticks.

Under the ambitious leadership of its then chief executive John Willan (also Tennstedt’s favoured producer at EMI) the LPO boldly proclaimed itself to be “London’s Premier Orchestra”. Despite the remarkable things the LSO was continuing to achieve under Claudio Abbado across town at the Barbican Centre, there was some justification for the claim. Simultaneously, his successor as musical director of the NDR Symphony Orchestra, Günter Wand, was belatedly receiving the recognition he deserved, working with the BBC Symphony Orchestra as its principal guest conductor.

The two men never got on personally and their world views could hardly have been more different, for Klaus Tennstedt excelled, above all, in his highly personal interpretations of the works of Gustav Mahler and once said he loved the LPO so much because “it is a romantic orchestra”. All that was anathema to Wand, whose approach to music was far more fastidious, not detached exactly, but far less subjective.I recall many of those “classic” Tennstedt concerts very clearly indeed. As a schoolboy I used to gaze in awe, in rehearsals and then at the concerts, as this awkward-looking, improbably tall figure swayed from side to side in an ungainly fashion, with little or no discernible conducting technique, drawing from his devoted players the most exquisite sounds – stupendous fortissimi, breathtakingly beautiful pianissimo and almost too much passion.

Although my personal road to musical addiction and Gramophone may have begun with those performances, my first experience of the Tennstedt phenomenon was on record. When I first discovered Mahler as a mildly Byronic teenager, I went off to the local WH Smith to order the highly recommended, recently recorded 2-LP set of Mahler’s Symphony No 2 with Tennstedt conducting “his” LPO. I was immediately hooked and, within a matter of weeks, was commuting excitedly to London on a cold February evening, to hear Tennstedt’s Mahler in the flesh – the Symphony No 1, preceded by Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. I left behind me my favourite teacher, Liz Nash, whose inspired teaching of German had played no small part in stoking up my love of the wider culture that bred Mozart and Mahler, with instructions to record the BBC Radio 3 relay of the concert. I wore those tapes out.

The phenomenon that was Tennstedt in concert will never, can never, be recreated. You simply had to be there, though there are two excellent EMI DVDs of him, and other performances languish in the archives – for instance at least one Brahms symphony with the NDR orchestra and the BBC film of his legendary LPO Mahler 5 in December 1988. What even DVDs cannot fully capture is the peculiar, dangerous quality that Tennstedt uniquely possessed – greatly enhanced in his later years by the fact that no one ever knew, until he was there on the podium in front of us, whether he would conduct a concert at all.

Discovering Tennstedt live

As I crawled onto the road to recovery after a nasty bout of glandular fever, my first public outing was at the Prom concert in 1987 that was to have marked Tennstedt’s return from his own skirmish with illness – in his case, cancer of the throat, no doubt exacerbated, if not caused, by his heavy smoking habit. It transpired that he had collapsed at rehearsal and James Loughran had been rapidly drafted in as cover. That day Tennstedt also resigned his position as music director of the orchestra. It was indeed a day of darkness and drama, and I never did hear him conduct either Barber’s Adagio for Strings or the Symphony No 4 by Brahms. Tennstedt’s relationship with the world of recording was just as tempestuous as that with the concert podium.

So far as studio recordings are concerned, his recorded legacy does scant justice to either the breadth of his conducting activities, or to the depth of his finest interpretations. They enjoyed a mixed critical reception at best. Tennstedt favoured long “takes”, and one or two releases (the LPO Mahler 7 for instance) do not boast the most immaculate ensemble imaginable.

However, the good news is that recent years have seen a growing interest in Klaus Tennstedt and a resultant burgeoning of licensed releases on CD of live recordings from his heyday and also, in lesser degree, some studio recordings he made in Germany before his fame had reached its peak. Pirate and semi-pirate recordings of Tennstedt’s concerts have been on the market for many years, but mainstream labels now provide a far better insight into his life’s work.

Berlin and Baroque

New on the market from Testament are a set of live recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic from the early 1980s. Much of the repertoire is predictable, but some is much more recherché and unexpected. So far as the great works of the classical era are concerned, these are very much “big band” performances, and Tennstedt’s habit of excluding repeats would bring him into immediate conflict with contemporary performing practice. Even for the purists, however, there is much here to enjoy. There is passion, and power, but also a palpable love of the music.

The survey that follows is not fully comprehensive, but it should give a good flavour of what is available. Some of these recordings are already unavailable and others are in short supply. For those like me, who knew and revered Klaus Tennstedt, and for others who want to learn more about one of the Titans of a not so distant age, my advice is not to tarry. The best of these recordings are as good as anything in the catalogue. We cannot bring Klaus Tennstedt back in the flesh for a new generation, but we can now, thanks to the labels mentioned below, continue to explore and celebrate his art.

Tennstedt’s interpretations of the Baroque repertoire have always been few and far between, but Testament has now provided us with a splendid recording of a Bach Violin Concerto (BWV 1042) with the orchestra’s concertmaster Thomas Brandis as soloist. This is more than a novelty; it is beautifully played throughout, and also thoroughly idiomatic. This recording is doubly precious, for Tennstedt the accompanist is also a relative rarity in the catalogue. This has been partly remedied in recent years, which have furnished us with a characteristically poetic account of Schumann's Piano concerto by Jorge Bolet and the LPO (BBC Legends) and now a trim, impeccably classical Mozart Piano Concerto No.23 (Babette Hierholzer), Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 2 (with Horacio Gutierrez, a regular Tennstedt collaborator) and a fine Dvorák’s Violin Concerto (Peter Zazofsky), all recorded in Berlin and newly released on Testament.

Turning back to the classical era, there are still no Haydn symphonies in the Tennstedt catalogue, but there is a first-rate LPO concert performance of The Creation from 1984, with Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Benjamin Luxon and perhaps the conductor’s favourite soprano, Lucia Popp. This performance may look out of place in the Tennstedt discography, but that should deter no one from investigating it. Hänssler Profil then joins the field with a charming CD, curiously pairing a performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Mozart’s Symphonies No 1 and No 32, played with verve by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The only other Mozart symphony readily available is the composer’s last, No 41, the Jupiter. Some years ago EMI and the NDR jointly released a CD pairing it with Beethoven’s Symphony No 7, and there is now an extraordinary pairing, from BBC Legends, of the Jupiter (recorded at an end-of-season Prom in 1985) with a wild Edinburgh Festival performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 7. Both Jupiters are sprightly and dramatic.

Beethoven and Schubert

The Tennstedt “live” discography then moves swiftly to the cusp of the Romantic era, with an impressive array of Beethoven symphonies. The conductor chose his studio recording of Symphony No 6 as one of his Desert Island Discs, but there is no live performance of that piece in the catalogue, which contains only the “odd” symphonies. There are rugged Prom performances of Symphonies Nos 1, 5 and No 9 on BBC Legends, plus another recording of Symphony No 9, from the Royal Festival Hall, which again features Lucia Popp, just a year before her death (LPO Live). I was once told that this performance was recorded for commercial release, but was withheld at the soprano’s request. In the event, she sounds radiant. The Symphony No 3 was briefly available on an NDR LP, but the later EMI CD of the Eroica, recorded at one of Tennstedt’s last concerts with the LPO and still available, supersedes it in every respect. This piece evidently meant a lot to the conductor, as did Symphony No 7, which is now obtainable only on BBC Legends, caught on the wing at the 1989 Royal Concert at the Royal Festival Hall. The first half of that concert featured Tennstedt’s favourite violinist, Nigel Kennedy, in Brahms’s violin concerto. Perhaps this performance may see the light of day too, in due course; that was certainly a fruitful relationship.

Moving on to Schubert, Tennstedt’s profound interpretation of the “Unfinished” symphony is available only on a 2-CD set from Japan, but his take on the “Great” C Major can be heard both on BBC Legends (with the LPO in 1984) and also on Testament, where we hear a live performance given with the Berlin Philharmonic in the same week Tennstedt made his studio recording for EMI with them. Tennstedt was never much celebrated as a great master in the works of Brahms or Dvorák, but there are unexpected gems to be found.

A Brahms Requiem on BBC Legends was performed immediately before Tennstedt went into the studio to set down his audaciously slow and intense recording with Jorma Hynninen  and Jessye Norman. At the Proms the soloists were Thomas Allen and Lucia Popp and, to these ears at least, the hushed, romantic intensity favoured by Tennstedt works slightly less well on the concert platform than in the studio. What worked at Abbey Road struggles to be heard with clarity in the washy acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall. Recordings of Brahms’s Symphonies No 1 and Symphony No 3 with the LPO, both on BBC Legends, fare better. Symphony No 1 is muscular, whilst No 3 is played with both drama and affection.

Bruckner with the Bavarians

Tennstedt was always better known as a Mahler conductor than a Bruckner conductor, but a raft of posthumous Bruckner releases may serve to reduce that imbalance. Hänssler Profil offers an excellent, early recording of Symphony No 3 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (it sounds like a studio recording made for radio). It is a striking and also, perhaps, unexpected feature of the Tennstedt discography that, when the LPO and the BPO stand in direct competition in identical repertoire, there is so little to choose between them. This is a tribute both to Klaus Tennstedt’s skills as a music director but also – and this may surprise some people  – to the consistency and integrity of his interpretative approach. In the main, the most obvious difference is between the familiar brightness of the Berlin Philharmonie and the always troublesome acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall and the pre-refurbishment Royal Festival Hall.

The most direct comparison comes in the works of Bruckner. In both the Symphony No 4 and the Symphony No 8, the LPO (LPO Live) and the BPO (Testament) really are hard to distinguish from one another. One the whole I feel the Fourth works better than the Eighth, where a combination of the truncated Nowak edition and rather brisk tempi does serve to dilute the work’s spiritual intensity. On LPO Live, however, the Symphony No 7 makes a very welcome addition to the Tennstedt catalogue in a broad, dramatic reading. Dvorák’s Symphony No 8 also offers a comparison between the Berliners on Testament and the LPO on BBC Legends. In both readings of this symphony and also in a Berlin concert of the Symphony No 9, Tennstedt shows an elegant, effortless mastery of the lilting rhythms of Bohemia. The latter leaves the contemporary EMI studio recording, recorded on the same visit to Berlin, standing.

Monumental Mahler

All of which brings us to Mahler. This was always a “special relationship” and one that worked in the concert hall with an intensity that any conductor would have struggled to replicate in a recording studio. The Symphony No 1 appears in two guises – LPO concerts from 1985 (LPO Live) and 1989 (BBC Legends). I attended both and memory is borne out by the recordings. The conductor’s life-threatening illness in 1986-87 really had darkened his interpretations and gave them extra knife-edge drama. The earlier recording is vernal and fresh; the latter full of contrasts and overt drama. Frankly, lovers of the work need to hear both.

The sole live recording from Tennstedt of Symphony No 2 comes from 1989 and enjoys a number of advantages. Both orchestra and chorus are in superlative form and the soloists (Jard van Nes and Yvonne Kenny) are as good as any in this work. The recording was also made (for a private sound archive in the Barbican Centre) using state-of-the-art technology. It shows. This is perhaps the pick of the entire bunch – by turns muscular, sublime and terrifying. There is no Symphony No.3 in the catalogue, but an LPO performance with Waltraud Meier on 5 October 1988 was broadcast on Radio 3 and perhaps that will find an outlet one day. It deserves to. Hänssler Profil offers a bright, suitably classical, reading of Symphony No 4 from 1976 (again, a studio recording I think). You would never guess this was Tennstedt at the helm: what he lost in physical well-being over the years, he made up for in intensity and Angst.

There is then a legendary LPO performance of Symphony No 5 on EMI, recorded at a single concert at the Festival Hall in December 1988. Along with the later Bernstein, this remains my favourite recording of this much-traversed piece, despite Barbirolli, Rattle and Chailly. At the very end of Tennstedt’s career, EMI caught his by now devastatingly powerful readings of Mahler’s symphonies 6 and 7 on the wing (as part of complete set), again taming the Festival Hall’s tricky acoustic with real skill. The former is perhaps the true acme of Tennstedt’s art, contrasting with a somewhat brisker Prom recording from 1983 (on LPO Live) that, while hardly sunny, cannot quite compare in emotional intensity. In No 7, the comparison is with a BBC Legends recording from over a decade earlier. The conductor had evidently reconsidered the work in its entirety. This is a tricky work to bring off at the best of times and Tennstedt’s earlier approach was almost “gung ho”, whereas in his last recorded concert, in 1993, he seems determined to make this sound like the great piece it isn’t. Not for the first time, it’s worth investing in both.

Symphony No 8 appears only on an EMI DVD, paired with a fine Chicago performance of Symphony No 1, all in excellent sound at a very reasonable price. This live No 8 followed on from the award-winning studio recording and equals or outshines it in almost every respect. Sadly, there is no live performance available of Symphony No 9.

That is really where Klaus Tennstedt’s musical journey ends, on CD at least, though there is a sprightly reading of the Strauss Bourgeois Gentilhomme suite available, paired with Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass. Tennstedt excelled in music from the Czech lands and both the Mass and the Sinfonietta (paired with Dvorák’s symphony No 8 on BBC Legends – see above) receive excellent readings – both idiomatic and deeply felt.

The only other Twentieth Century master to feature in this discography is Prokofiev. At the end of my lengthy traversal of recordings by a man I so admired, I cannot think of any single disc that gave me greater pleasure than this unexpected pairing of Prokofiev's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies on Hänssler Profil. The orchestra is the Bavarian Radio Symphony and the year 1977. This was Tennstedt as a relatively young man. Ahead of him lay fame, his battles with self-doubt and physical ailments, yet all the hallmarks are here – vigour, clarity, power, the music springing off the page as though freshly minted.

Klaus Tennstedt was a tempestuous man and his methods and techniques were far from orthodox, but those of us who had the privilege to share his music-making were changed by it. His studio recordings never did him justice but now, over a decade after his death, perhaps his live recordings do. It is quite some legacy.


Most of the links above take you to the disc on Amazon.co.uk

Testament's Tennstedt sets will available soon - see Testament's homepage for details

Earlier this year, Michael McManus visited 11 of the world's leading conductors to talk about Mahler's Symphonies and Das Lied von der Erde. Read the article here: Mahler by the world's greatest conductors

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