Born in Vienna, Artur Bodanzky studied at the Vienna Conservatory, and then joined the orchestra of the Vienna Court Opera as a violinist. This was the period when Mahler was chief conductor, between 1897 and 1907, creating what has come to be recognised as a golden era in the Vienna Opera’s distinguished history. Bodanzky worked as Mahler’s assistant at the opera between 1902 and 1904 and remained close to Mahler (for instance attending the first performance of his Symphony No. 7 in Prague in 1908) while establishing a reputation for himself internationally. He held appointments at the Prague Opera between 1906 and 1909, and then between 1909 and 1912 at Mannheim, where he was succeeded as chief conductor by the young Wilhelm Furtwängler.
In 1914 he conducted the first English performances of Parsifal at Covent Garden and also led the first French performances of Die Fledermaus in Paris, indicating the breadth of his musical sympathies. In 1915 he took over the German repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in succession to Alfred Hertz, and remained in this position until his death from a heart attack in 1939. He conducted 1087 performances at the Met during these twenty four seasons, directing a repertoire that ranged from Orfeo to Elektra by way of The Bartered Bride, as well as all the established Wagner operas. In addition he had a busy career as a conductor of symphony orchestras in centres such as New York and Minneapolis.
Bodanzky’s commercial discography was restricted to the staple fare of the early gramophone: operatic overtures and excerpts, leavened with several short orchestral pieces, such as Mendelssohn’s overture The Hebrides and the Strauss waltz Wein, Weib, Gesang. Had these been the only sound documents left to us by him, his reputation would probably be far lower than it in fact currently is, but through the twin developments of broadcasting and transcription recording, many of the Metropolitan Opera’s performances from the mid 1930s were recorded. The survival of these recordings and their gradual dissemination now allows us to hear Bodanzky conducting the complete Ring cycle of Wagner, several other Wagner operas such as Tristan und Isolde and Lohengrin, Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Through a comparison of these performances with those also captured on disc by another Mahler disciple, Bruno Walter, it is possible to build up a picture, albeit imperfect, of how operatic performances of the legendary Mahler era at the Vienna State Opera House might have sounded.
Bodanzky’s conducting was highly energetic, which at times could produce inspiring results. However he was criticised for lack of compunction in making cuts, and Erich Leinsdorf, who took over much of his work after his unexpected death, suggested that he was ‘…fed up with his work, and only excited by his card games, skat and bridge’. Bodanzky pointed out in his defence that the cuts in question were often those made by his mentor and predecessor at the Metropolitan Opera, Gustav Mahler; and it can be said that throughout all his surviving recordings there is an energy that certainly makes for a thrilling operatic experience, and which continues to hold attention.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).