After initially studying philology, in 1913 Karl Elmendorff entered the Cologne Conservatory, where he became a conducting pupil of Fritz Steinbach and Hermann Abendroth. He made his professional conducting debut in 1916 at Düsseldorf, subsequently holding conducting posts as chief conductor at Mainz (1920–1923), Hagen (1923–1925) and Aachen (1924–1925); from 1925 to 1932 he was first conductor at the Munich State Opera as well as the Berlin State Opera. He made his debut at the Bayreuth Festival in 1927 conducting Tristan und Isolde, recording substantial extracts from this production for the Columbia company in the following year. At the Bayreuth Festival he conducted Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1930, 1931, 1933 and 1934, taking over the direction of the Columbia recording of Tannhäuser in 1930 when the contractual commitments of the production’s original conductor, Toscanini, prevented him making this recording; he appeared annually at the Bayreuth Festival between 1938 and 1942. Elmendorff moved to Kassel and Wiesbaden as chief conductor (1932–1935), then on to Mannheim (1935–1942), and also to Berlin, where he was chief conductor at the State Opera from 1939 to 1942.
With Karl Böhm’s elevation to the directorship of the Vienna State Opera in 1942, Elmendorff took over Böhm’s previous position as head of the Dresden State Opera. The two years he spent in Dresden represented the peak of his career. Here he conducted an outstanding production of Hermann Goetz’s Der Widerspänstigen Zähmung (The Taming of the Shrew). This, along with productions of Wolf’s Der Corregidor, Auber’s Fra Diavolo, Verdi’s Luisa Miller, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Weber’s Der Freischütz were recorded by the Reichs Rundfunk (German State Radio Organisation) for use as radio broadcasts and were subsequently issued after the war as commercial recordings by several different labels. However, having been an active member of the Nazi party, Elmendorff played out his post-war career in the shadows of the German operatic world. He returned to Kassel and Wiesbaden in 1948, retaining the post of chief conductor until his death. During his final years he appeared in Florence at the Maggio Musicale conducting Wagner, and introduced less well-known Italian operas to Germany, leading the premières of Wolf-Ferrari’s La dama boba in Berlin and of Malipiero’s Torneo notturno in Munich.
Elmendorff’s recordings fall neatly into two categories. The first consists of his two Bayreuth Festival recordings for Columbia (Tristan und Isolde, 1928, and Tannhäuser 1930). Because Toscanini conducted the latter at the Festival itself, Elmendorff has often been credited with simply reproducing Toscanini’s interpretation, much as an assistant conductor might have done. This idea has devalued his own powers as a conductor and interpreter of Wagner, which are thus more accurately seen for this period in the Tristan recording, a performance notable for its command of atmosphere and drive (when required), qualities also shared by one of Elmendorff’s teachers, Abendroth.
The second category of recordings consists of his Reichs Rundfunk recordings (known as Magnetophon concerts, or concerts for broadcast, recorded by Magnetophon, the first German tape recorder) of operas performed by the Dresden State Opera during the closing years of World War II, before the destruction of the Semper Opera by Allied bombing in 1944. In these recordings it is possible to hear Elmendorff at his peak: his reading of Don Giovanni maintains an admirable balance between virility and delicacy, while his accounts of two rarely-heard works, Wolf’s Der Corregidor (with the veteran German tenor Karl Erb), and Goetz’s Der Widerspänstigen Zähmung (The Taming of the Shrew) are considerably more than historical curiosities. If the humour of his conception of Fra Diavolo may seem to be excessively Teutonic, the same cultural characteristics capture powerfully the doom-laden atmosphere of Luisa Miller, itself based on a play by the German dramatist Friedrich Schiller. In all these performances the singing is of a very high standard, with outstanding performances from artists such as Hans Hotter (as Don Giovanni), Mathieu Ahlersmeyer (in Der Widerspänstigen Zähmung), Maria Cebotari (as Luisa Miller) and Gottlob Frick (in Fra Diavolo). In addition the playing of the Dresden Staatskapelle, the orchestra of the Dresden State Opera, is most distinguished.
A number of other live recordings with Elmendorff conducting have also survived, the most notable of which is his reading of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung from the 1942 Bayreuth Festival. Here his contribution has been aptly described by the British critic Alan Blyth: ‘He evinces a grand overview of the Ring’s overwhelming conclusion, also a mastery in the important Wagnerian attribute of managing transformations, and he never lingers unnecessarily in the manner of some Wagner conductors today.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).