Born in New Zealand, Warwick Braithwaite entered the Royal Academy of Music in London when he was twenty. Three years later in 1919 he joined the O’Mara Opera Company as a conductor: henceforth opera was to be the principal focus of his professional career. The O’Mara Company had been formed by the Irish tenor Joseph O’Mara and was active touring the United Kingdom between 1912 and 1924; Braithwaite moved on from it in 1922 when he joined the British National Opera Company as a répétiteur and conductor. He spent a year at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where he came into contact with Bruno Walter; and after returning to the United Kingdom took up the post of music director for the BBC’s new radio station in Cardiff, remaining with the corporation until 1932. While in Wales he was also conductor of the Cardiff Musical Society and of the National Orchestra of Wales from 1928 to 1931. In 1932 he returned to London as a conductor of the Vic-Wells (later Sadler’s Wells) Opera Company where he worked closely with Lawrance Collingwood, the company’s chief conductor. With Sadler’s Wells Braithwaite conducted new productions of Fra Diavolo, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Don Carlos.
Braithwaite moved from the world of opera to that of symphonic music in 1940 when he took up the appointment of conductor of the Scottish Orchestra, staying with it until 1946. Two years later, in 1948, he was appointed principal conductor of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in succession to Constant Lambert. While with this company, which shared the Royal Opera House Covent Garden with the newly established Covent Garden Opera Company, he also conducted opera for the latter. Here he proved himself to be a masterful interpreter of the works of Puccini amongst others, leading successful performances of Madama Butterfly and Tosca.
Braithwaite returned to his native country as chief conductor of the National Orchestra of New Zealand during 1953 and 1954, before acting as artistic director of the Australian National Opera for its 1954 and 1955 seasons. He then returned to the United Kingdom to become chief conductor of the Welsh National Opera Company between 1956 and 1960. Here he expanded the repertoire with productions of lesser-known works such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night and Boito’s Mefistofele. After leaving Wales he returned to the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, where he once again demonstrated his mastery of the operatic repertoire in works such as Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. He retired from the podium in 1968.
Warwick Braithwaite was a greatly under-valued conductor: to quote the historian of the Welsh National Opera, Richard Fawkes, ‘In the opinion of many knowledgeable people, he was an operatic conductor to be mentioned in the same breath as Giulini and Beecham.’ His recording career was relatively restricted, with much of his work in the studio taking place in the last years of the 78rpm format, from about 1945 to 1952, although he also made several recordings before World War II. He was a frequent accompanist to many EMI-produced operatic recordings, working with such international artists as Kirsten Flagstad, Tito Gobbi, Joan Hammond, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, and the young Sena Jurinac and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, as well as established English favourites like Isobel Baillie, Gwen Catley, Norman Walker and Webster Booth. He also conducted for the short-lived but outstanding New Zealand bass Oscar Natzka.
In the early days of the LP Braithwaite recorded an extensive amount of ballet music with the Covent Garden Orchestra for the Parlophone label, which was released in the USA on MGM. Sadly no complete opera recordings with Braithwaite conducting were ever made, although the National Sound Archive at the British Library in London holds broadcast recordings of certain complete performances. As a conductor he had an instinctive feel for dramatic structure and was a master of subtle transitions, nowhere better demonstrated than in his interpretations of the music of Puccini. He was also active as a composer, completing operatic, orchestral and chamber works, and publishing a book, The Conductor’s Art.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).