Magazine article The Spectator

Ten Men Went to Mow

Magazine article The Spectator

Ten Men Went to Mow

Article excerpt

THE VIRTUOSO CONDUCTORS : THE CENTRAL EUROPEAN TRADITION FROM WAGNER TO KARAJAN by Raymond Holden Yale, £22.50, pp. 370, ISBN 0300093268 . £18 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Sitting at Stamford Bridge at the weekend, Chelsea trailing Bolton 0-1, I reflected on the nature of 11 brilliant players and their manager.

After Mourinho's half-time talk, Chelsea scored four goals in 10 minutes. There are inspiring and uninspiring gaffers. If he were a conductor, José Mourinho would be a virtuoso, but what does this imply?

Passion, charisma, sensitivity, psychological insight and a spiritual dimension are all vital, but perhaps Otto Klemperer, one of the subjects of this impressive book, succeeded in subsuming all this into a simple phrase, 'the power of suggestion', in a 1969 interview: 'The art of conducting lies, in my opinion, in the power of suggestion that the conductor exerts -- on the audience as well as on the orchestra.' The book comprises chapters on nine conductors plus an introduction on the way Wagner influenced their art, making it in effect ten. Holden's choice, three of them famous composers, might seem arbitrary (the absence of Toscanini), but is fully justified by his subtitle, 'The Central European Tradition from Wagner to Karajan'. He gives us a profound quote from perhaps the greatest conductor of the 20th century, in his chapter 'The Transcendental Furtwängler':

Great composers are seldom completely satisfactory performers ... Their coolness, or mistrust, towards their own passion which has so ruined their concepts ... gives them that suspicious coolness, that objectively standoffish attitude that we can see in Strauss, Pfitzner, Reger, etc.

Holden might have applied this to omit Richard Strauss from the line-up.

It is refreshing to learn as early as page six that The Spectator critic in 1855 was unimpressed by Wagner both as composer and conductor.

We are inclined to assume the inevitability, in terms of vertiginous ascent, of these famous figures. Holden is good on the pitfalls and setbacks that beleaguered them.

After Furtwängler brought a performance of The Merry Widow to a standstill in Zurich, he was sacked and had to return to Munich to a minor non-conducting position. Klemperer's bipolar condition frequently landed him in trouble; and even for Karajan the prospects looked grim until he was rescued by Walter Legge of EMI. Holden informs us that, when Furtwängler died in his mid-sixties, the Berlin Philharmonic approached Karajan to replace him for their US tour. …

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