Hans As a child Schmidt-Isserstedt learnt to play the violin, and went on to study at the Berlin High School for Music and Berlin University, where the subject of his doctoral dissertation was the Italian influence upon instrumentation in Mozart’s youthful operas. As was the case with many other significant figures in twentieth-century music, he decided to become a conductor after hearing Nikisch in concert. He began his musical career as a répétiteur at Wuppertal from 1923 to 1928, where he also played in the orchestra as a violinist and where his opera Hassan gewinnt received its first performance in 1928. This period was followed by a typical series of appointments as he worked his way up the musical ladder in Germany: conductor at Rostock from 1928 to 1931, and at Darmstadt from 1931 to 1933; first conductor at Hamburg from 1935 to 1942; and finally chief conductor at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin from 1943 to 1944.
Having remained politically neutral throughout the period of the Nazi regime, Schmidt-Isserstedt was invited by Hugh Carlton Greene of the British occupying authorities in Germany (brother of the writer Graham Greene and a future Chairman of the BBC) to found the Symphony Orchestra of North German Radio (NDRSO) based in Hamburg, and he served as chief conductor of this orchestra from 1945 to 1971, when he became its honorary conductor. With the NDRSO Schmidt-Isserstedt toured extensively, visiting England, France, the USSR and the USA. From 1955 to 1964 he was also chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and worked extensively as a guest conductor throughout Europe, appearing with more than one hundred different orchestras: his concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra were major events in Vienna for both orchestra and audience. Schmidt-Isserstedt’s British operatic appearances were regrettably few but most memorable: they included Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne in 1958 and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Der fliegende Holländer at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1962 and 1972. In his later years he also often appeared in London with the New Philharmonia Orchestra.
Together with Karajan, Klemperer and Rosbaud, Schmidt-Issterstedt was a distinguished representative of the Austro-German reaction against the subjectivity of interpretation epitomised by Furtwängler and Abendroth. His baton technique was exemplary, always clear in both phrasing and rhythm, with a wide dynamic sweep. His performances were notable for their acute sense of appropriate tempo, lyrical phrasing, rhythmic firmness and sustained tension. A completely dependable musician, he made numerous commercial studio recordings throughout his career and left a notable recorded legacy. For Decca he recorded a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; this contained especially fine accounts of the Symphonies Nos 7 and 9 ‘Choral’. For Mercury he made notable recordings of symphonies by Mozart and Schubert with the London Symphony Orchestra and for Tono of two symphonies by Berwald with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Undoubtedly his richest legacy of recordings lies with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra: commercially-released issues included, for Decca, excellent accounts of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. More recently North German Radio has released many radio recordings which include the complete Brahms symphonies and piano concertos with Claudio Arrau, Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies Nos 4, 5, and 6 ‘Pathètique’, and Dvořák’s Symphonies Nos 8 and 9 ‘From the New World’, as well as works by Stravinsky, Bartók, and Hindemith, for all of whom Schmidt-Isserstedt was a most sympathetic interpreter. His strengths as an opera conductor are fully revealed in several post-war radio recordings made in Hamburg: these include operas by Beethoven (Fidelio – excerpts), Verdi (Aida and La forza del destino), Wagner (Tristan und Isolde) and Mozart (La finta giardinera and Idomeneo), all of which admirably amplify his limited commercially-made operatic repertoire, and completely justify the verdict of Ande Anderson, resident producer at Covent Garden during the 1960s and 1970s, that Schmidt-Isserstedt was ‘the real thing’.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).