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Obituary: Lorin Maazel

Conductor Lorin Maazel on the cover of his Schubert collection
Conductor Lorin Maazel on the cover of his Schubert collection
courtesy of ClassicsOnline

I just finished reading Allan Kozinn’s obituary for conductor Lorin Maazel on the Web site for The New York Times, which was brought to my attention by my Vienna RSS reader shortly after the Web page was created. Maazel died earlier this morning at the age of 84 at his home in Castleton, Virginia. According to his spokeswoman Jenny Lawhorn, the cause of death was complications of pneumonia. I have to confess that I have a bit of envy for his keeping at his work almost to the very end, since he had been rehearsing for the Castleton Festival performances prior to the onset of illness.

Kozinn, with the assistance of a 1979 article by John Rockwell, gave a balanced account of the two sides of Maazel’s character. On the one hand he was deeply intellectual. This could lead to intense dissatisfaction with both individuals and circumstances that came his way. His reaction to such dissatisfaction was often detachment, which would then provoke hostility among his critics. On the other hand that intellect could lead him to some highly expressive interpretations. He could find approaches to familiar warhorses that never occurred to other conductors, and he could champion neglected compositions with intensely passionate readings.

I only really began to listen to Maazel’s recordings seriously after I had started writing about recordings on this site. My first article about him involved the Brilliant Classics reissue of a Deutsche Grammophon album he had made of Alexander Zemlinsky’s “Lyric Symphony, in Seven Songs after Poems by Rabindranath Tagore, for Orchestra, Soprano and Baritone” (to use the composer’s full title). The actual recording was made with the Berlin Philharmonic in March of 1981 at the Jesus-Christus Kirche in Berlin, where Deutsche Grammophon made most of their Berlin Philharmonic releases. The vocal soloists were the husband-and-wife team of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Júlia Várady.

Zemlinsky’s symphony tends to be far more talked about than performed. It is often dismissed as a “poor relation” of the compositions that probably influenced it. These include Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Alban Berg’s “Lyric Suite,” and Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. Zemlinsky had close personal relations with all three of those composers. His aesthetic showed a keen awareness of how music was changing and how those composers were advancing those changes. What impressed me about Maazel was that he was able to approach the score on its own merits, rather than getting unduly concerned about its standing among the works of other (and better-known) composers. I encountered the Brilliant Classics CD back in 2009. I value it today as much as I did when I first listened to it, and Maazel’s interpretation did much to inform my reception of the music the first time I had an opportunity to listen to it in performance.

Maazel was also one of the contributors to Decca’s Ravel: The Complete Works, this time conducting the French National Radio Orchestra. He was responsible for the recordings of Maurice Ravel’s two one-act operas, “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges” and “L’Heure espagnole.” I have always been impressed by the wit of these two operas, particularly since Ravel is often portrayed with an austere persona. Through these recordings I could appreciate that Maazel had a sense of humor buried within his massive intellect. The combination of his own capacity for wit and his unerring sense of control behind a baton made him the perfect choice to honor the delicate approach to comedy that Ravel brought into play in both of these operas.

My most recent account of Maazel came a little over a year ago, when BR-KLASSIK, the “house label” for the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischer Rundfunks (the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) release a collection of concert performances of all of the symphonies of Franz Schubert. What struck me about this set was that Maazel never gave any indication that even the earliest of these symphonies was too “lightweight” to receive serious attention. Rather, he appreciated how Schubert tried to deal with his pivotal position in which the traditions of the eighteenth century were giving way to new approaches to expressiveness.

Beyond his recording legacy, however, Maazel deserves to be remembered as the conductor who participated in the arrangements to bring the New York Philharmonic to North Korea. This was one of those rare occasions when I made it a point to watch the PBS broadcast of the concert given in Pyongyang. I was just too curious to miss it, and it was probably through that broadcast that I realized how much more there was to Maazel than the surface of his cold exterior.

He may have struck many in the United States as being too detached; but, standing in front of his Pyongyang audience, he conveyed a sense of loving warmth for the music he was performing. It was clear that he was committed to representing the United States to the North Koreans through both George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and the “overseas” impressions of Antonín Dvořák’ Opus 95 (“From the New World”) symphony in E minor. However, what stole the show was when he led a performance of the Korean folk song “Arirang” as an encore; and it became clear that he had found a way to touch the hearts of his audience.

Kozinn’s citation of Rockwell included the following punch line:

When he’s good, he’s so good that he simply has to be counted among the great conductors of the day. Yet, enigmatically, it’s extremely difficult to predict just when he is going to be good or in what repertory.

I cannot say whether or not that was a fair impression in 1979 because, quite frankly, I do not think I that I was properly equipped to listen to what Maazel was capable of doing in 1979. However, on the basis of how I have listened to him over the last decade, I would say that, as he grew older, he became more consistent in being able to tease the good out of whatever repertory he chose to pursue. The fact that he could do this with just the right balance of intellect and expressiveness made him a model that cannot be ignored by those aspiring to be future conductors.

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