Robert Heger’s father was a member of the Strasbourg Municipal Orchestra, and his son was a pupil of Franz Stockhausen at the Strasbourg Conservatory between 1900 and 1902 before he moved on to continue his studies, firstly with Lothar Kempter in Zürich until 1905, and then with the famous German conductor and composer Max von Schillings in Munich until 1908. Heger began his conducting career in his home city in 1907, before accepting appointments at Ulm (1908), Barmen (1909) and Vienna where he conducted at the Volksoper from 1911; between 1913 and 1920 he also conducted at the Nuremberg Opera. After acting as an assistant to Bruno Walter at the Munich State Opera from 1920 to 1925 Heger returned to Vienna to be a conductor at the State Opera until 1933; during this period in Vienna he also was director of the concerts of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.
In the year of Hitler’s accession to power, 1933, Heger moved to Germany to take up appointments as a conductor at the Berlin State Opera (Staatsoper), as general music director at Kassel, and at the Waldoper at Zoppot, a summer festival at which Wagner’s operas were performed in the open air, explaining its nick-name ‘the Bayreuth of the North’. He was also a frequent guest at the international opera seasons at Covent Garden in London between 1925 and 1935, conducting Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal there in 1928, as well as a wider repertoire during the early 1930s. Heger was active in Berlin throughout World War II, making several radio recordings with the Berlin Staatskapelle that have survived, and remaining there after the cessation of hostilities, conducting at the municipal Städtische Oper.
In 1950 Heger moved to Munich to become president of the High School for Music, a post he held until 1954, and also to conduct once again at the Munich State Opera. Based in Munich, he remained active as a conductor in the opera house, concert hall and recording studio almost to the end of his life. He made his last appearance at Covent Garden in 1953, when he conducted the company in Richard Strauss’s final opera Capriccio. Heger was also an accomplished if not highly distinctive composer, writing in a conservative idiom derived from Reger, Pfitzner and Richard Strauss. His Verdi Variations, first performed in 1933, were often played during the 1930s, and he orchestrated several of Richard Strauss’s songs. He wrote five operas, two of which, Der verlorene Sohn and Lady Hamilton, were composed to commissions from the Dresden and Berlin State Operas, awarded during the period of the Third Reich. The subject matter of Lady Hamilton, the love affair between the English Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton, militated against its performance in Germany during World War II and it was not heard until 1951. Another opera, Der Bettler Namenlos, was more successful, being performed in several different productions in Germany including a staging conducted by Heger in Munich as late as 1967.
Heger was a highly respected conductor throughout his lifetime, and was an outstanding example of the German Kapellmeister tradition at its best, able to take on another’s musical conception with fidelity. He conducted EMI’s recording of substantial excerpts from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, made in Vienna in 1933 with a stellar cast after the composer’s financial requirements had been rejected by EMI as excessive. The result was very distinguished and has consistently featured in the catalogues in different recording formats. His conducting of excerpts from Wagner’s Siegfried from this period, with Lauritz Melchior, is another recording which has stood the test of time. In addition, before World War II Heger recorded a wide selection of short pieces with the premier orchestras of the period, such as the Vienna and Berlin Phiharmonics, the Berlin Staatskapelle and the London Symphony. Many of the radio recordings which he made during the war, predominantly of operas and of vocal music, have been republished: notable among these recordings are a distinctive account of Max von Schillings’s rarely heard Glockenlieder with the tenor Peter Anders and the Berlin Staatskapelle, and a fiery realisation of Rigoletto which goes a long way towards explaining the esteem in which Heger was held.
After the war his recording career was initially more haphazard and included Vienna-based work for the budget-priced American label Remington, as well as an account of Tannhäuser, recorded at the 1951 Munich Festival and first published on the American Urania label, which has been widely reissued. Several recordings of outstanding live performances from this period have appeared such as Pfitzner’s Palestrina and Richard Strauss’s Josephs-Legende. Towards the end of his life Heger made a significant number of recordings, once again for EMI, of German repertoire such as Flotow’s Martha; Lortzing’s operas Der Wildschütz and Undine; Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor; Schubert’s incidental music for Rosamunde; and Weber’s Der Freischütz. Among the several outstanding live performances from his last years is a peerless realisation of Capriccio. All these late recordings display his sterling qualities of good taste and a highly musical sense of style.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).