John Pritchard’s father was a professional violinist who gave him his first music lessons, for the violin. He went on to study the piano, and was a pupil at the Monoux Grammar School in Walthamstow, where he was active in the school orchestra as a violinist and violist and, more generally, as an accompanist. He also played in many amateur orchestras and was soon undertaking professional engagements, such as accompanying the tenor Heddle Nash; he also visited Italy to study opera. After a short period of military service, stationed in Derby, Pritchard conducted the semi-professional Derby String Orchestra from 1943 to 1945 as well as choral and orchestral concerts throughout the Midlands. Having been recommended to Glyndebourne as a répétiteur by the opera singer Roy Henderson, he joined the company in 1947 in time for its first performances at the Edinburgh Festival as well as its season in Sussex. He returned for the 1948 season and in 1949 was promoted to chorusmaster and assistant to Fritz Busch, who had a major influence upon his development as a musician and conductor. Between 1950 and 1952 Pritchard worked extensively with the Jacques Orchestra; but following Busch’s collapse in the middle of a performance of Don Giovanni in 1951 he was summoned from the Sussex beaches to replace him, which he did with distinction. Pritchard subsequently conducted at Glyndebourne for every season until he resigned in 1978, having been appointed music counsellor in 1963 and musical director in 1969. Many of the productions which he conducted at Glyndebourne, such as Mozart’s Così fan tutte, and Verdi’s Macbeth, were televised and have fortunately been preserved for later release on video and DVD.
Following his success at Glyndebourne Pritchard began to conduct both opera and concerts. He was engaged to conduct at the Vienna State Opera (the first English conductor to do so) for a three-month period during the 1951–1952 season, and in the autumn of 1952 he made the first of many appearances at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducting Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. As well as conducting a wide range of repertoire operas, including a brilliant account of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in 1966, he also led several important world premières there, notably Britten’s Gloriana (1953), and Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage (1955) and King Priam (1962). A six-year appointment as chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra began in 1957: at Liverpool, inspired by Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s work in Munich, Pritchard created the Musica Viva series of concerts of contemporary music which, preceded by spoken introductions, did much to develop audiences locally and to build a national profile for the Liverpool orchestra. Pritchard was appointed chief conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1962, leading the orchestra on tours of the Far East in 1962, 1969 and 1973, and to the USA in 1971, the year of his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York with Così fan tutte. Perhaps his most lasting legacy to the London Philharmonic Orchestra was arranging its engagement, in place of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, as the resident orchestra at Glyndebourne from 1964 onwards: this gave the orchestra an economic backbone which proved vital to its continuing existence. Ironically Pritchard was replaced as chief conductor in 1966 by Bernard Haitink who came with a recording contract with Philips, an asset Pritchard did not have, despite having been wooed by Philips during his Viennese period of the early 1950s.
One of the first English conductors to develop an acknowledged international career, Pritchard made his American debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1953. The later 1960s and 1970s saw him working frequently abroad and as a guest conductor in the United Kingdom: he made his debut at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in 1966; between 1966 and 1968 he was co-director of the Marseilles Opera; in 1969 he appeared for the first time with the Chicago Lyric Opera; and in 1970 with the San Francisco Opera, to which he returned frequently during the rest of his career, and of which he was chief conductor from 1986 to 1989. His great abilities as an opera conductor were recognised with both this and his appointment as chief conductor of the Cologne Opera, (1978–1988), and of the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels (1981–1986). He also returned to the New York Met regularly during the 1970s and 1980s. Pritchard’s final and perhaps most significant appointment was as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, from 1982 until his death. Here he was able, with the positive support of the director of Radio 3 John Drummond, to programme both symphonic and operatic repertoire; in addition many of his performances were recorded and so preserved. Among the many highlights of his period with this orchestra were fine realisations of Delius’s A Mass of Life at the Royal Festival Hall (1984) and of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the BBC Promenade Concerts (1988), both indicative of his range as an interpreter.
A man of immense charm and grace, Pritchard was a deeply knowledgeable and finished musician who could deliver effective and satisfying performances of a very wide range of repertoire in the concert hall and in the opera house although the latter was probably where he was most at home, conducting the operas of Mozart. Like his mentor Fritz Busch his sense of style was impeccable: his Verdi was as exciting as his Mozart was elegant. He recorded throughout his professional career as a conductor, but was not contracted to any one label for an extended period of time: as a result many of his recordings have slipped from the catalogue although a number of his live performances have been published on CD, video and DVD. His earliest recordings were made with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra for Philips; they included immaculate accounts of Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos 16, 18, 19 and 27 with the Dutch pianist and composer Hans Henkemans, and Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos 1 and 8. In the mid-1950s he conducted two important Glyndebourne productions for EMI: Mozart’s Idomeneo (on which he had earlier assisted Busch) and Busoni’s Arlecchino; and later conducted for the same label Raymond Leppard’s realisation for Glyndebourne of Moneteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.
Pritchard’s years with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra were marked with several significant first recordings of twentieth-century British music: Tippett’s A Child of Our Time and the Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage for Argo, and Peter Racine Fricker’s Symphony No. 2 for EMI. With the advent of stereo he was invited to lead two important recordings for Decca. These were the first complete opera recordings to have Joan Sutherland in leading roles: Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Verdi’s La traviata. Both recordings featured strong casts and the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome; engineered to Decca’s usual faultless standards, they have well stood the test of time. Pritchard’s period with the London Philharmonic Orchestra was marked by a limited number of recordings, for several different labels. For Pye he recorded Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2; and led the accompaniment to Bálint Vázsonyi’s powerful reading of Dohnányi’s Piano Concerto No. 1. A great admirer of Rachmaninov, Pritchard conducted the accompaniment to two accounts of his Piano Concerto No. 2: the first, and most famous, with John Ogdon for EMI, and the second with Colin Horsley for Miller-International. Sadly marred by a faulty balance, this latter recording was released in the USA on the Somerset label.
During the 1970s Pritchard embarked with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on an extensive programme of recordings for the English budget label Classics for Pleasure. Using a wider than usual range of retail outlets, these records sold in vast quantities and certainly helped to make Pritchard’s name very widely known. The works recorded included Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra; and Schubert’s Symphonies Nos 5, 8 ‘Unfinished’ and 9 ‘Great C major’. During this period Pritchard also conducted the forces of the Royal Opera House in a scintillating reading of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore for CBS-Columbia and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a second recording of Idomeneo with Luciano Pavarotti for Decca.
Many of Pritchard’s broadcast performances with the BBC Symphony Orchestra were released in the mid-1990s on the BBC Radio Classics label. Among these should be noted his accounts of Brahms’s Symphony No. 2; Elgar’s Concert Overture, In the South and Symphony No. 1; Mozart’s Symphony No. 40; Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 ‘The Year 1905’, and Richard Strauss’s Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung. Among the other live performances released by different labels on CD, video and DVD those of his Covent Garden Benvenuto Cellini, and of the Glyndebourne Così fan tutte and Macbeth, are especially memorable. He also conducted several distinguished recital discs, featuring for instance the sopranos Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Kiri Te Kanawa. A major English conductor who commanded greater respect and admiration abroad than he did in his home country, Pritchard was a musician to his fingertips whose recordings stand as eloquent testimony to his great skill and understanding as a conductor.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).