Tennstedt Bio Reveals Great Maestro At Odds With World and Himself

Klaus Tennstedt rehearsing in Zurich (Photo by Klaus Hennch)

Klaus Tennstedt: Possessed by Music. Georg Wübbolt. Brietlingen, Germany, 2023, self-published. 286 pages.

BOOK REVIEW — “His whole existence was a balancing act between devoting his life to music, and breaking down completely.” — Georg Wübbolt

It is now more than 25 years since German conductor Klaus Tennstedt died. He had the misfortune to be born and raised in East Germany. This meant that for much of his life he was cut off from having the international career his talent indicated he was destined to have. It was not until 1972, when he was 46, that Tennstedt was able to escape to the West and develop his career. For the next 20 years he was in great demand with American orchestras, became principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, and was invited by Herbert von Karajan to conduct concerts and record for EMI with the Berlin Philharmonic. In short, he became one of the most sought-after conductors in the world.

Unfortunately, he was also his own worst enemy. Throughout his life, he was wracked with self-doubt and extreme stage fright. He could be all but destroyed by a harsh word or a bad review and often canceled concerts at virtually the last minute. His already fragile hold on life suffered an all-but-fatal blow when his daughter committed suicide. In his last years, he was beset with one medical problem after another. First, it was laryngeal cancer, then a hip replacement, esophageal cancer, and more hip problems that made it almost impossible for him to walk or stand. Tennstedt’s story is a remarkable one, and finally it has been given a full-length documentation and analysis by Georg Wübbolt, who studied music and became a director at the Hamburg State Opera. He then devoted his career to making music films for German television. His self-published book, Klaus Tennstedt: Possessed by Music, is clearly a labor of love and a vivid portrait of a great conductor.

It was in the early 1970s that Walter Homburger, at that time general manager of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, “discovered” Tennstedt while searching for a successor to the late Karel Ančerl. Homburger heard Tennstedt conduct in Kiel and immediately engaged him for two concerts with the TSO in May 1974. From then on, all doors were open to Tennstedt in North America, and he had as many concerts as he could handle with the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and many others. I happened to be living in Toronto when Tennstedt made his first appearances with the TSO. There was no doubt in my mind that I was seeing an exceptional conductor with unique gifts to inspire an orchestra. For years to come, I went out of my way to see and hear Tennstedt, and I was seldom disappointed. Few conductors of his generation demonstrated such complete mastery of the Classical and Romantic repertoire from Beethoven to Mahler and Strauss, coupled with an intensity in live performance that was palpable.

There are numerous live recordings that capture what made Tennstedt so special. Try, for example, the audio recording of Tennstedt’s first concert with the Boston Symphony in Sept. 1974. It’s an all-Brahms program featuring the Academic Festival Overture and the Fourth Symphony. Tennstedt rarely personalized the music he was conducting in the manner of a Stokowski or a Furtwängler. But in this Brahms program, I often felt I was hearing the music for the first time. Tempos were traditional, for the most part, but the music had a forward motion that had one on the edge of one’s seat. It was the depth of tone in the playing, the long lines and unanimity in the phrasing, the careful preparation of climaxes, and the sheer dynamic power. Listen to the timpani in the Scherzo of the Fourth Symphony: crisp and compelling.

Another example of Tennstedt at his best is the concert given Oct. 18, 1988, while on tour with the London Philharmonic in Japan. It is an all-Wagner concert captured on film by NHK in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. Tennstedt is intense, every member of the orchestra seems to be giving everything he or she has, and the music-making is incredibly beautiful and unbearably thrilling by turns. Try it for yourself on YouTube. Wübbolt rightly cites this concert and its broadcast as something extraordinary.

In writing this book, Wübbolt has interviewed numerous musicians, family members, and friends who were in a position to observe and interact with Tennstedt at various stages of his career. Among them were conductor Kurt Masur, one of his closest friends; Peter Alward, head of EMI when he was making recordings with Tennstedt; John Willan, manager of the London Philharmonic when Tennstedt was its principal conductor; and his first wife, Anita Knoch. Wübbolt has put together a vivid portrait of Tennstedt the man and the musician.

Tennstedt’s father was leader of the second violins in the Halle Municipal Orchestra and taught his son both violin and piano. Hermann Tennstedt was a very strict teacher, to say the least, and insisted that his son practice hours each day, even at a very young age. But Klaus was clearly talented and eventually became concertmaster, first in Heidelberg and later back in Halle. A hand injury forced Klaus to abandon his career as a violinist, and he then turned to conducting.

As a conductor, he got wonderful results but was often short-tempered with his musicians and extremely thin-skinned when it came to criticism. These were problems that were to plague him all his life.

Tennstedt while serving as general music director in Kiel in 1971

Tennstedt was often described by friends and colleagues as childlike. He was barely competent in managing the mundane things in life and seemed only to live for music — and smoking and women. Away from the podium, he smoked up to 100 cigarettes a day, and his head was easily turned by pretty young women. At the age of 19, he eloped with pianist Anita Knoch, who became his first wife. Within a few years, he left Anita and married the singer Inge Kollmann, who turned out to be his salvation. She managed his affairs, indeed every aspect of his life, and provided endless support and comfort.

Even in his prime, Tennstedt was a deeply flawed man. Willan was his friend for many years yet has left a portrait of a very imperfect man:

“He hated critics. He wanted to be praised all the time, like a little boy. He expected the orchestra to love him, the audience to love him, everybody to love him. Quite quaint, and not very intelligent. I certainly think he was an insecure man. The impression most people got of him was that he was a brilliant conductor. He was a peasant. He came from nowhere, was not educated and dressed badly, although terribly expensively.

“He would always to go places in London like Harrods and spend a fortune on clothes, but they didn’t match. Awful. To me though, he was simply Klaus. We talked about sex a lot. He was a very sexual man. Not in a nasty way. For him sex was a very sophisticated art form. He was very reliant on Inge. I think he treated her very badly. He didn’t set out to be nasty, it was just his way. We spent a week together and went out for lunch on Saturday, and he made her sit in the car. And she did! I think she was desperately in love with him. He didn’t  have to do anything, she did it all for him.”

Klaus Tennstedt lives on in his recordings and videos. And thanks to Georg Wübbolt, we now know a lot more about this ill-fated and troubled man who could inspire orchestras to give revelatory performances.