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(1900 - 1995)

Efrem Kurtz studied with Glazunov, Tcherepnin and Vitol at the St Petersburg Conservatory, and subsequently at the University of Riga and the Stern Conservatory in Berlin. He made his conducting debut when he substituted at short notice for Nikisch in a performance featuring the dancer Isadora Duncan: as a result he was engaged to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as other German orchestras. Between 1924 and 1933 he was chief conductor of the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra, and supervised music broadcasting in southern Germany. He conducted at the Salzburg Festival in 1930 and 1931, and undertook tours with another dancer, Anna Pavlova, throughout Europe (including England), South America and Australia between 1928 and 1931, the year of her death.

Following the accession to power of the National Socialist government in 1933, Kurtz was forced to leave Germany as a result of its racial policies. He worked as chief conductor of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (as Diaghilev’s company was known when it continued after his death) between 1933 and 1941, travelling widely with it across Europe and North America, where he settled, taking American citizenship in 1944. Kurtz was chief conductor of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra between 1943 and 1947, followed by a period (1948–1954) in the same position with the Houston Symphony Orchestra; he significantly developed the playing standards of both orchestras. After a period as joint music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra with John Pritchard between 1955 and 1957, Kurtz pursued his career entirely as a guest conductor. He visited Russia in 1966, when he conducted the Leningrad and Moscow Philharmonic Orchestras, and also conducted opera in Italy, in Milan and Rome. He married the flautist Elaine Shaffer in 1955; she pre-deceased him in 1973.

Kurtz made relatively few recordings, but this small corpus nonetheless contains several extremely fine interpretations. Not surprisingly ballet music is well represented, with idiomatic accounts of suites from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, excerpts from Respighi’s arrangement of music by Rossini for the ballet La Boutique fantasque and Stravinsky’s Petrushka, all recorded for EMI. For the same company he made an outstanding early recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, scintillating accounts of excerpts from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel, and both Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1. Kurtz accompanied Yehudi Menuhin in a best-selling performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and his wife Elaine Shaffer in the two Mozart flute concertos. While working in the USA he also recorded with considerable success for the American Columbia company: repertoire here included the first recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 and another popular ballet score, Gaîté Parisienne, arranged from the music of Offenbach. Kurtz was a fine conductor of Russian music, and an excellent interpreter of the Diaghilev ballet repertoire.

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

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