Lorin Maazel 1930-2014

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

It has not been a good year for followers of major maestros. First to fall in January was Claudio Abbado, 80, whose performances were growing deeper and more soul-satisfying with each passing year. Then in June, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, 80, who in his last decade had arrived at the threshold of greatness, nearly everyone’s favorite guest conductor, heard and seen annually in cities like Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Soon thereafter, Julius Rudel, 93, the light that guided the late New York City Opera during its peak years. And now, Lorin Maazel, 84. Not a good year.

Lorin Maazel (Chris Lee)
Lorin Maazel (Chris Lee)

In reading the obituaries, it is interesting and telling that many are going out of their ways to deliver “balanced” portraits of Maazel – particularly those newspapers in cities where he was the music director of the local orchestra. Although I saw him perform something like a half-dozen times in Southern California, I never met Maazel and was never privy to any unpleasantness. About all I can report is an intermission conversation with a violinist in the Cleveland Orchestra more than three decades ago; he thought that Maazel was both “a spoiled brat” and “a genius.”

One thing Maazel certainly had was a beautiful stick technique – every move specifically pointing out something so that a player could not be in any doubt of what the conductor wanted. He could transform the sound of an orchestra at will. I saw a graphic demonstration of this in 2007 when the Israel Philharmonic came to Disney Hall with two conductors in tow, first Zubin Mehta and then Maazel. Under Mehta, the IPO produced a thick-set, homogenous, lush sound, whereas the very next evening, Maazel made the Israelis deliver a richer, more polished, transparently scintillating sound with a more solid bass, better able to take advantage of Disney Hall’s highly-detailed acoustics. It was truly like hearing two different orchestras. A “spy” in the rear orchestra seats reported to me that Maazel was smiling and laughing as he conducted Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, as if he was playing with a new toy (it was his first time in the hall).

Maazel left a lot of recordings – multiple symphony cycles (one each of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, two of Sibelius, three of Mahler), many complete operas (including all of the Puccinis except Edgar and curiously, La Boheme), not much contemporary music. The second Sibelius cycle in Pittsburgh is particularly good; it’s super-smooth in texture but he gets the remoteness of the later symphonies. He had very good luck with his engineers in Cleveland – his Decca pairing of Respighi’s Feste Romane and The Pines of Rome is a real stunner, especially in its coveted Mobile Fidelity half-speed-mastered LP edition – and he happened to be in command of the hometown orchestra when Cleveland-based Telarc was getting started with its Soundstream digital series (check out the great sound on Maazel’s Telarc The Rite of Spring and Tchaikovsky 4). Overall, though, Maazel’s recordings rarely made Best of the Pack lists; for me, one reason is that his sometimes odd, willful tempo idiosyncrasies get in the way of otherwise brilliantly-played performances.

The last time I saw Maazel was just this past March with the Vienna Philharmonic – https://classicalvoiceamerica.org/2014/03/05/a-tale-of-three-orchestras/ . He walked so, so slowly to and from the podium, and his tempos were likewise, yet his pinpoint baton control, though reduced in range, was still there. Though famous for his photographic memory, he used a score in Mahler 4. There was a stool waiting for him onstage, but he stoically put it aside and managed to conduct standing throughout the evening. Maazel may yet be seen in a heroic light in his last year; filling in for an indisposed colleague, he pushed himself until he could push no more.