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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

He might be smiling now... - Franz Welser-Möst Returns to Conduct the Proms


By Norman Lebrecht / August 16, 2000

WHEN Franz Welser-Möst last flew out of London in 1996, he was in no hurry ever to return. Installed as music director of the London Philharmonic at the tender age of 29, he found himself on a bucking horse that unseated three managing directors in his six years.

Welser-Möst made matters no easier by riding bareback. He opened the LPO's South Bank residency with a seven-work concert, more than it could afford to rehearse. He got rid of a popular chorus director and publicly sacked a front-desk violinist for not trying hard enough. Raised in Upper Austria, where a maestro's word is law, he was slow to acquire the transactional skills that a conductor needs to make headway with a musician-owned London orchestra.

They dubbed him "Frankly Worse than Most" and made his life a misery. When he quit, there were cheers at the bar. A pushy little foreigner with a promising career had been brought down by the honest grit of British artisans. Nice one, Cyril; another drink?

This Sunday, Frankly's back - as a star turn at the BBC Proms, performing a work that was long banned for its reputed Nazi associations. He still refuses to play safe, but he is now in a position to call the shots.

At 39, he is head of Zurich Opera, one of Europe's best opera houses, and is about to inherit America's most respected orchestra, the Cleveland. Franz Welser-Möst has made it in the major league, and is ready to bury his London past.

"It was," he says drily, "a situation where a lot of people thought that if I would go, all the problems would be resolved; I don't think so. I offered to resign in 1992, and again in 1994. The orchestra were divided. It reached a point where I knew that either I would get sick, or I would have to leave. I fulfilled my contract and left. Looking back, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

During his spell with the orchestra, the Arts Council almost stopped its funding and the South Bank played politics with its rivals. How, I wonder, did he carry on leading a band, half of whom could not look him in the eye? "You have to trust the music," he says. "They wanted to make good music, and so did I. That for me was the only way to make it work. It was tough on the players, too. I sympathised with them. It's a jungle."

He refuses to name and blame individuals, though the LPO were a noisome lot. Instead, he joins a chorus of top conductors who indict the London system which forces players to make decisions that are beyond their competence. "They are so worried about their personal financial survival, it's difficult to talk to them about music sometimes," he says. "They have to make foul compromises. I'll be intrigued to see how my successor, Kurt Masur, makes out. He's a tough cookie and I can't see how he will fit with that system."

No sooner had he left the LPO than the Philharmonia and LSO came a-courting. He shied off, unwilling to inflame local rivalries, and wrote London out of his diary.

Of his ability there was never a question. Eight years ago in Tokyo I saw him step in for Klaus Tennstedt and conduct, half-rehearsed, a tempestuous account of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony that kept players and listeners hanging on for dear life. "We risked everything," he grinned afterwards, "and I think we won."

Nothing about him was predictable, or conventional. The son of a national politician, he was adopted at the age of 26 by an eccentric German baron, Andreas von Bennigsen, changing his name from Möst to sound blue-bloodedly double-barrelled. Bennigsen moved him to his Schloss in Lichtenstein and masterminded his career. In 1992, Franz married the baron's young wife, Angelika, herself an heiress, and parted company with his mentor.

He continues to live in Lichtenstein, a short commute to the Zurich Opera where he conducts 70 nights a year, extending his repertoire in near-idyllic conditions. Run by Alexander Pereira, Zurich gives conductors an unchanged cast, chorus and orchestra throughout the life of a production. Its regulars include Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Christoph von Dohnányi, Riccardo Chailly and Nello Santi.

It was Dohnányi, a shrewd doyen, who commended him to Cleveland as his successor - an appointment that appears all the more enlightened as New York, Philadelphia and Boston search vainly for a credible music director.

"Christoph is not somebody who plays games," observes Welser-Möst. "The transition could not be handled in a smoother, more dignified way. He is in charge for another two years, but he talks to me a lot. He is handing over one of the world's great orchestras in a really grand way. It's difficult to imagine that it can work so well. I mean, Simon Rattle doesn't have the easiest handover in Berlin."

We are sipping coffee on the outskirts of Salzburg, where Welser-Möst once proclaimed himself "crown prince", but now keeps his distance. Pereira, who should have become the next festival boss, drew back on seeing the strings attached. Welser-Möst has refused to join the new directorate; he and Harnoncourt, Austria's foremost conductors, will play no part in Salzburg's future. "I'm fed up with musical politics," he shrugs, "I had six years of it in London."

Instead of summiteering in Salzburg, Welser-Möst is coming back to London to proselytise on behalf of a work that has become his warhorse. The Book With Seven Seals by Franz Schmidt, an oratorio on Gospel texts, has been tainted by its Vienna premiere in June 1938 where the sickly composer allegedly gave the Hitler salute. At his death eight months later, Schmidt was finishing a 50th-birthday cantata for the Führer, entitled German Resurrection; its score has been locked in a vault since 1945.

Welser-Möst argues that the Book stands apart from the composer's political naivety. "To me, this is a prediction of the Second World War, the apocalyse to come," he says. "This is the last great work of the German Catholic tradition. It's a powerful religious piece which ends not with the great Hallelujah but with a simple, unaccompanied Gregorian chant, a very strong suggestion that something is coming to an end."

Austrians of his privileged generation, he feels, have no right to judge their forebears. His own grandfather, a factory director, voted for the Anschluss; his grandmother's was one of three "Nein" votes in a town of 20,000. Both had pure motives; neither could foresee the outcome. As a musician, his duty is to vindicate a musical masterpiece, which Schmidt's Book assuredly is.

Recording it in Munich in 1997, where the work had not been heard in years, he was urged to make it an annual event. When the BBC asked him to bring it to the Proms, and agreed to six rehearsals, he felt a sense of mission and accepted.

London, where his emotional attachments run deep, is never far from his mind. He would like to see fresh thinking in the running and financing of musical life. As a survivor of its orchestral wars, he can speak with authority on the city's unresolved difficulties.

"If England would decide that the arts are worth investing in," says Franz Welser-Möst, "it could not only earn money from music, as Austria does, but it could create something unique, because the artistic resources are unequalled. I think it is the duty of the state to create the framework for a really vivid cultural life, removing the fear from musical life. It must do something. Things can't get worse."

30 June 1999: The future begins here [new era of conducting]

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999