Monday, July 14, 2014

Lorin Maazel: 1930 - 2014

Lorin Maazel, principle conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1972-1982, died on Sunday, July 13th, at the age of 84. 

Sadly, I never saw Maazel conduct in person.  He was scheduled to conduct in Cleveland several years ago, but he cancelled.  I saw him on television numerous times and took note of his unshowy, natural baton technique.  Not for him the marionette on strings approach of Furtwangler or orgasmic histrionics of Bernstein.  Maazel was a born conductor, and probably the most prominent example of a prodigy conductor in history.  He was also, according to those who heard him, a damned fine violinist – and was fluent in at least six languages.  The man was off the charts brilliant.

I also have many of his recordings – most with the Cleveland Orchestra.  It cannot have been easy for Maazel to take over the orchestra, which had been without a regular conductor for two years after George Szell’s death in 1970.  His selection, made by the board without consulting the orchestra, was controversial.  
Maazel maintained the technical quality of the orchestra (first raised to top five in America status by Artur Rodzinski, then elevated to top five in the world by Szell), while broadening its sound and diversifying its repertoire.  With a few exceptions like the Barber Piano Concerto and selected works by Dutilleux, Szell left most newer music to guest conductors like Pierre Boulez – while he concentrated on the core 18th and 19th Century Austro-Germanic repertoire.   Thus, when Maazel started programming showpieces like Respighi’s Pines of Rome and championed Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the more conservative types in Cleveland’s music scene brought their knives out.  One critic even took to referring to Maazel as “childe Lorin” – a snide reference to his prodigy years.  The truth is, Maazel was magnificent in these works, and his recordings of them - along with his Shostakovich 5th Symphony, Tchaikovsky 4th and Romeo & Juliet, and Scriabin Poem of Ecstasy - remain well-nigh definitive.  But there were other instances where he seemed to be going through the motions, such as the 1970s Beethoven Symphony cycle and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.  Further, some interpretations were downright wayward, including Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Everything was, of course, fabulously played.  While it may be fashionable to give all credit to the Cleveland Orchestra, it’s also worth pointing out I heard numerous fluffed brass notes and splattery entrances under Maazel’s successor, Christoph von Dohnányi.  As an NBC Symphony player once remarked about Toscanini, “He spoke with the stick, and you just couldn't miss with that stick”.  The same could have been said of Maazel.  The New York Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony seldom played for anyone else as well as they played for Maazel.    Most conductors bust their behinds to memorize scores and arrive at an interpretation.  Not so for Maazel.  In a way, it could be said that Maazel’s incredible facility – the ease with which he memorized scores, his perfect rhythmic sense, his unerring ear for balance – came at a cost.  Without the struggle inherent in the work of most musicians, his music making sometimes lacked the last sense of depth in the music that most required it.  But when he was “on”, it was an astonishing experience.

I am including here reviews which I wrote for three of Maazel’s Telarc CDs.  They provide an interesting glimpse of his Cleveland years.

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