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Hermann Tennstedt, father of Klaus, was leader of the second violins in the orchestra of the Halle Municipal Theatre, and introduced his son to the violin as well as to the world of symphonic music through recordings of Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in Brahms, an experience which Tennstedt later gratefully recalled when he himself conducted the same orchestra. He studied violin and piano at the Leipzig Conservatory, and in 1948 became leader of the same orchestra in which his father had played. It was this experience as an orchestral player that, he later maintained, gave him such an excellent insight into the minds of the musicians with whom he worked. Problems with his left hand forced him to give up the violin, and he turned to the piano and to coaching at the Halle Theatre instead.

Tennstedt made his conducting debut in the time-honoured fashion of substituting for a sick colleague, in this case at a performance of Wagner-Régeny’s opera Der Günstling in 1953. Following this success he gradually worked his way up the conducting ladder in East Germany, holding a succession of appointments in local opera houses: first conductor at the opera in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz) from 1954 to 1957; then general music director, firstly at the Dresden Landesoper from 1958 to 1962, and then at the Mecklenburg State Theatre in Schwerin from 1962 to 1971.  During the mid-1960s he began to conduct the Dresden Philharmonic and the Mecklenburg State Orchestras regularly in the symphonic repertoire. In March 1971 Tennstedt and his wife, Ingeborg, left East Germany for Sweden where he conducted in Gothenburg, as well as in the North German port of Kiel. Soon afterwards he was appointed general music director of the Kiel Opera and the associated Kiel Philharmonic Orchestra. At Kiel he conducted a wide range of operatic and orchestral repertoire from 1972 to 1976, and also appeared during this time at the Bavarian State Opera and the Berlin Deutsche Oper.

May 1974 saw Tennstedt’s international breakthrough. This came when he was invited to replace an ailing Karel Ančerl by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s manager Walter Homburger, who had heard him conduct Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in Kiel the previous year. On the basis of the resulting excellent reviews, Tennstedt was invited to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra during December 1974 in two sets of concerts featuring works by Brahms and Bruckner. The critical reaction was extraordinary, one newspaper capturing the feeling of many with the headline ‘Once in a lifetime!’ Tennstedt was immediately placed under contract by Columbia Artists and, at the relatively late age of forty-eight, was effectively launched on an international career: it was to last no more than twenty years.

Henceforth Tennstedt conducted all the major American symphony orchestras regularly. A similar pattern was repeated in Europe where, following a sensational debut with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1976, he was immediately launched into a relationship with all the major orchestras: Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam. In 1979 Tennstedt became principal conductor of the North German Radio Orchestra in Hamburg, as well as principal guest conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra; and following a period as its principal guest conductor, he was appointed music director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1983, in succession to Sir Georg Solti. However, Tennstedt’s punishing schedule of concerts and recordings, two hip-replacement operations and a deeply ingrained smoking habit—one cigarette every ten minutes—all had a price. In December 1985 he was diagnosed as suffering from throat cancer. Following treatment he returned to the podium in March 1986 in a blistering reading of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 with the LPO, but his health had been seriously compromised. Cancelled appearances became more frequent and after collapsing at a rehearsal with the LPO in 1987 he immediately resigned from his permanent position with the orchestra. He continued to conduct, mainly in England and America, and maintained links with the LPO as its conductor laureate, but by mid-1992 his career had effectively ceased. His last appearance was in 1994 when, having been awarded an honorary doctorate of music by the University of Oxford, he rehearsed the University Orchestra at the Sheldonian Theatre in the overture to Weber’s opera Oberon, a classic work of German Romanticism; he died in January 1998.

Tennstedt constantly sought great intensity of expression from the musicians with whom he worked, often exclaiming, ‘I must have more!’ He certainly gave of himself whole-heartedly. The extraordinary physical intensity of his own conducting gestures, when combined with his great height and thin frame, could in extremis and especially before his medical operations, give the impression of a maddened bird. He was more concerned with achieving intensity of expression (‘no tomorrow intensity’ to quote one perceptive critic) than with instrumental exactitude, and so his beat could be suggestive rather than precise. But he was always concerned to achieve an effective balance between symphonic weight and lyrical warmth, especially in the performance of Romantic music such as that of Brahms and Schubert; and similarly he viewed vocal participants, be they soloists, chorus or both, as part of the instrumental texture. Along with his constant search for intensity went a preference for extremes of dynamics and tempi, which frequently gave his readings an epic character. These characteristics combined to make Tennstedt, a conductor with a powerful and immediate personal vision of the music which he was directing, one who also had the ability to convey this directly and vividly to his audiences. When recording, his priority being always the line of both the phrase and of the performance, he preferred to record in long takes, or, towards the end of his career, from concert performances.

Interviewed in 1993, admittedly when his career was under stress, Tennstedt commented in relation to conducting Mahler, ‘I live now. This is today! I must seek to interpret Mahler for our time.’ Repeatedly he referred to the need to achieve integration in performance, both of expressive contrasts and of instrumental timbres. ‘Integration. That’s very important,’ he stated in an interview of 1987. A key result of the realisation of these factors—all focused upon the integration of extremes of expression, timbre, dynamics and tempo—was that Tennstedt, like his great predecessors on the podium, had the ability to convince listeners at the moment of performance that the music could sound no other way. As Peter Alward, the head of Artists and Repertoire at EMI at the time of Tennstedt’s commercial recordings, put it, ‘What those at EMI lucky enough to work with him got was the impression that they were in the presence of a natural channel from composer to audience.’

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

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