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Having started to learn to play the violin when he was five years old, René Leibowitz developed quickly as a performer and between the ages of nine and thirteen he gave violin recitals in Warsaw, Prague, Vienna and Berlin. Although his father brought these activities to an end, wanting his son to lead a relatively normal life, Leibowitz had begun to study conducting while in Berlin, in addition to maintaining his skills as a violinist. After moving to Paris with his family in 1929 or 1930, he came into contact with several musicians who were close to Schoenberg, including the violinist Rudolf Kolisch and the composer Paul Dessau, and made his debut as a conductor in 1937 with the Chamber Orchestra of French Radio.

During World War II Leibowitz was based in Vichy France and was a member of the French Resistance. Throughout the 1930s and during the war he undertook an intensive study of the music of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, coming into personal contact with Schoenberg in 1945 and with the philosopher and writer Theodor Adorno in 1946. After the end of the war Leibowitz was a central figure in the dissemination of the music of the Second Viennese School, following its earlier suppression by the German National Socialist administration. From 1944 onwards he taught composition privately in Paris, where his pupils included Boulez, Henze and the conductor Diego Masson. He organised a festival in Paris in 1947 entitled Hommage à Schoenberg, during which he conducted the first performances in France of several works of the Second Viennese School. Between 1947 and 1949 he published three books on twelve-tone music, and he taught at the Darmstadt summer school in 1948 and 1949, and later in 1954 and 1955. At the same time he was active as a composer, his works combining French colour with Germanic expression. Adorno was highly enthusiastic about his music, writing: ‘There can be no doubt that your works represent the highest compositional standards that can be found anywhere today—so pure, unerring and uncompromising, and with such a consummate mastery of technical means in all their dimensions that one would like to hold them up as mandatory paradigms for anyone who wants to compose today.’

In addition to all this activity, Leibowitz developed a successful career as a conductor. He was well placed to take advantage of the burst of international recording activity stimulated by the advent of the long-playing record, and during the early 1950s his recordings were notable for their highly iconoclastic repertoire. This ranged from Schoenberg’s massive Gurrelieder to the operettas of Offenbach. Later, during the early 1960s, he made a considerable number of recordings for the RCA, Reader’s Digest and Westminster labels, including one of the first Beethoven cycles to be recorded in stereo, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He died at the relatively early age of fifty-nine.

Leibowitz is one of the most interesting conductors of the early LP era. The violinist Eugene Fellin, who played for him as a member of the Wisconsin Festival Orchestra when Leibowitz programmed the Schoenberg Violin Concerto with Rudolf Kolisch, described his style thus: ‘He was very professional, sophisticated, mild mannered and low key. One always felt very comfortable in his presence.’ Leibowitz’s performances were always stylish and understanding whatever the repertoire, and were often extremely vigorous, his Beethoven cycle in particular being noted for the intensity of the performances which it contained. He was equally at ease with the French repertoire, for instance in the music of Ravel and Roussel. Roussel’s widow wrote to him after the recording of her husband’s Le Marchand de sable qui passe and Le Festin de l’araignée: ‘To you, dear Maestro, I express a conscious and very sincere gratitude, for, beyond the prestige of the musician, you have discovered the poet.’ Other areas of repertoire explored by Leibowitz included Lélio, the sequel to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (which he recorded separately for Westminster); Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles; Brahms’s cantata Rinaldo; Gluck’s Alceste; Satie’s cantata Socrate; and Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, in addition to the music of the Second Viennese School, including Berg’s Chamber Concerto; Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and Pierrot Lunaire; and Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments and his Symphony Op. 21.

Leibowitz’s large RCA, Reader’s Digest and Westminster repertoire includes powerful readings of Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 and Overture, Manfred; Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, Grieg’s Piano Concerto (with Earl Wild), and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 ‘Great C major’. His biographer, Sabine Meine, has well summarised the reason for Leibowitz’s success as a conductor: ‘His achievements as a conductor were unique because of the uncompromising way in which he expressed the modernity of the classical composers as well as the roots of modern composers in the traditions of the past.’

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).

Albums featuring this artist are available for download from ClassicsOnline.com
View by Role: Classical Composer | Conductor
Role: Classical Composer 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
Choral - Secular
LEIBOWITZ, R.: Chamber Works / Violin Concerto (Schola Heidelberg, Reichow, Ensemble Aisthesis, Nussbaum) Divox
Chamber Music, Vocal, Chamber Music, Instrumental, Vocal, Chamber Music, Instrumental, Choral - Secular, Instrumental, Vocal, Chamber Music, Instrumental, Vocal, Chamber Music, Vocal, Choral - Secular, Concertos, Chamber Music
LEIBOWITZ: Suite / Serenade / Flute Sonata / 3 Pieces for Piano / Motifs Divox
Chamber Music, Instrumental, Chamber Music, Vocal, Instrumental, Chamber Music, Vocal, Chamber Music, Instrumental

Role: Conductor 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 

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