LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search
The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Conductors who score

By Norman Lebrecht / June 15, 2004

Successful stage directors do not, on the whole, want to be playwrights. Orchestral conductors, on the other hand, overwhelmingly aspire to write music. From the 1870s piano plinkings of Hans von Bülow to the sabbaticals of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who takes long leaves from his Los Angeles Philharmonic job to exhale broody modernisms, inside just about every maestro lurks a rather small composer squeaking for attention.

Most give up as soon as their eye turns critical. Those who persist do so against mighty odds. Only three maestros in history – Mahler, Boulez and Bernstein – have achieved commensurate recognition as composers, and all three were composers before they began to conduct. It is not uncommon for great composers - Wagner, Strauss, Hindemith, Britten – to excel as conductors, but the cloth seldom cuts both ways.

Wilhelm Furtwängler, the most inspired orchestral director of his century, laboured long and hard over three large symphonies and conducted them with passionate dedication. Yet neither his recorded performances, nor Daniel Barenboim’s Chicago exhumation of the second symphony, can convince the innocent ear that Furtwängler was anything more than a Sunday composer with an unrequited debt to the towering Anton Bruckner.

Not that this disappointment has stayed the hands of his successors. Out front with the scribbling pad is the unaccountably jolly Leif Segerstam, chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic. This hirsute Finn marked his 60th birthday some weeks back with the completion of his 106th symphony. He has also turned out 15 concertos and 30 string quartets. Few have been performed, so far as I can tell. But so long as paper is pulped from Finnish forests, we can be sure that Segerstam will be covering it with crotchets and quavers.

Fathom, if you can, the driving ambitions of Andre Previn and Lorin Maazel. Both in charge of good orchestras - Previn in Oslo, Maazel in New York - they yearn to change the world with one clinching composition. Previn made an opera six years ago out of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. It reception is best described as polite. A musician as well read as Previn must surely know that only Verdi and Janacek have written a blockbuster in their 70s but Andre is undeterred. At 75 he is now writing a second opera, based on Alessandro Baricco’s erotic novel, Silk.

Or go figure Lorin Maazel. At the peak of a career which has taken him to the helm of the Vienna Opera and America’s richest orchestra, Maazel will next year at Covent Garden present his first opera, a setting of Orwell’s 1984. Maazel has previously written a pleasant violin concerto and an orchestral triptych. He is unafraid of melody and uncommitted to any compositional dogma. But why the Royal Opera House, in its infinite wisdom, should entrust invaluable production time to a maiden opera by an international conductor who has no profound connection with the institution is a matter beyond mortal comprehension. Maazel's opera had better be good. Anything half baked and the administrators of the ROH will find themselves in Room 101.

Which is not to say that conductors cannot compose. Every now and then, and twice in the past month, a maestro work turns up - and turns out to be a masterpiece. Usually the maestro is long forgotten by the time this occurs. Not many non-Balts will recognise the name of Robert Kajanus (1865-1933), the favoured domestic interpreter and drinking partner of Jean Sibelius. The moment he put his friend on the map, Kajanus kissed goodbye to his own prospects. Sibelius did not have the courtesy to attend the premiere of a 50th-birthday Sinfonietta which Kajanus composed in his honour in 1915. He simply trumped it six days later with his incontestably magnificent fifth symphony.

Listening to debut recordings of music by Kajanus on the enterprising Bis label, one is inclined to dismiss it at first blush as second-rate Sibelius. But then much of what Sibelius wrote was alcoholically fourth-rate, seldom achieving the numinous moments of the Kajanus Sinfonietta. Sympathetically performed by Osmo Vanskaa and his Lahti orchestra, this is music that clings to the ear like ivy to a wall. You know it’s structurally unsafe and full of aphids but it provides a degree of atmosphere which eluded Sibelius in much of his work and entirely in his last 30 years. Kajanus could have been a famous composer, had he invested more in his own music and less in his best friend.

Another contender, also on Bis, is the modest Paul Kletzki, who died in 1973 and is remembered, if at all, as a Beethoven and Mahler specialist. Kletzki, born in Lodz in 1900, was a student and lodger of Furtwängler’s until he fled Germany in 1933, first to Italy, then to Russia and finally to Swiss safety. Rejected by his teacher – ‘stabbed in the back’, he said – Kletzki lost his composing urge. ‘The shock of all that Hitlerism meant destroyed in me the spirit and will to compose,’ he said, echoing Adorno’s famous dictum that after Auschwitz there could be no poetry.

Kletzki wrote his third symphony in 1939 and left the manuscript in the basement of a building near La Scala, which was hit by a bomb. When his chest was finally dug out in 1965, Kletzki refused to open it, unwilling to look behind a creative door that he had firmly shut. There is no indication that he wanted the work to be performed.

But now it has been, and most evocatively, by Thomas Sanderling and the Norrk*oping orchestra in Sweden. Kletzki's symphony is an unsettling work, written in German fugal modes and sonata form that stretch back to Bach and Haydn yet rippling with refugee jitters, the rhythms of dispossession. This cultural ambiguity gives the score an urgency and tension that make it difficult to ignore. Kletzki is as mean as Hindemith with melody, but scary as Shostakovich when the pain burns through the thicknesses of his orchestral textures.

So what was Kletzki – conductor first, or true composer? That’s tricky. Kletzi was an orchestral director of the kind we used to take for granted before jetting about and earning a fortune took precedence over grit and graft. He lacked the glow of charisma and might well have reached his creative limit with the third symphony; a newly recorded flute concerto, by comparison, sounds vapid. But the quality of this symphony is unmistakable. Kletzki was clearly not just a big stick who dabbled in composition, but a serious composer who chose to conduct for a living - and they, as we have seen, are few and far between.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001