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Vienna’s favourite maestro dies, aged 92

January 4, 2017 by norman lebrecht

39 comments.


We regret to report the death of Georges Pretre, an elegant French conductor who was popular wherever he went – nowhere more so than Vienna, which adored him.

He died this afternoon, at home in France.

Raised in northern France, Georges was director of the Opéra-Comique in Paris from 1955 to 1959. He was a stalwart of Chicago’s Lyric Opera, 1959 to 1971, and was music director of the Paris Opéra for one season, 1970-71. He was principal conductor of the Wiener Symphoniker from 1986 to 1991. He was a regular at La Scala (see below).

Mostly he freelanced around the world’s leading opera houses, giving fun and having it. He was the acme of French style in all that he did, with an infallible sense of rhythm.

In terms of leaving a mark on music history, he gave the world premiere of Poulenc’s La Voix humaine.

His farewell performance:

From La Scala:

Georges Pretre, one of the greatest conductors of our time, had a fifty-year relationship with La Scala. He made his debute in 1966 conducting a legendary production of Gounod’s Faust with Mirella Freni, Nicolai Gedda and Nicolai Ghiaurov, directed by Jean-Louis Barrault. Two years later he led Turandot directed by Margherita Wallmann, and, a few days later, Die Walküre with Régine Crespin and James King. In 1969, Roméo et Juliette by Berlioz with Liliana Cosi in the choreography of George Skibine, in 1970 Sanson et Dalila in Saint-Saëns with Shirley Verrett and Pier Miranda Ferraro in 1972 with Carmen Fiorenza Cossotto, in 1973 and 1977 Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy directed by Gian Carlo Menotti in 1975 in Puccini’s La bohème, directed by Franco Zeffirelli with Luciano Pavarotti and Ileana Cotrubaş, in 1976 Massenet’s Werther with Alfredo Kraus and Elena Obraztsova, Madama Butterfly in 1978 and immediately after Manon Lescaut by Puccini with Sylvia Sass and Plácido Domingo in a direction of Piero Faggioni. In 1978 Ravel L’enfant et les sortileges and L’heure espagnole; back in 1981 for Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, directed by Zeffirelli with Domingo and Obraztsova and in 1982 for Les Troyens by Berlioz in the direction of Luca Ronconi. The last operatic commitments of Prêtre at La Scala were Turandot directed by Keita Asari in 2001 and Pelleas et Melisande directed by Pierre Médecin, but he continued to give countless concerts with the orchestra.

His last, triumphant concert took place on 22 February 2016. Georges Pretre was due to return to the podium for the Symphonic Season of the Teatro alla Scala on 13, 15 and 17 March 2017.


Comments (39)

  1. Ungeheuer says:

    Sad news

    1. Rgiarola says:

      Very sad

  2. Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Oh no. How sad, but not totally unexpected. At least he was in his home.

    Many years ago I remember him leading the members of the Boston Symphony in a rehearsal of the Berlioz “Fantastique” which was then recorded on the RCA label. He was very particular about what he wanted and kept the musicians overtime which peeved them. After all they felt that they had this music in their blood having recorded it three time previously under Monteux and Munch (twice).

  3. Mr Oakmountain says:

    He was one of those lovely conductors whose last worry it was to do something as mundane as beating time (musicians should keep time themselves) or give clear upbeats (that’s what the first desk violin / leader / concert master does, even when it’s something like the opening of “Also sprach Zarathustra”), but he was a magician with phrasing and colour.

    My favourite “Pretre Face” is when he would suddenly stop conducting, put one hand down, put the index finger of the other hand across his lips in a “hush” gesture, eyes wide open. If you’ve seen it once, it’ll stay with you. You can find it here if you click through the photos (number 5 of 10):

    http://wien.orf.at/news/stories/2818228/

    The effect was that the orchestra would have a tenth of a second’s shock, and then not only sound quieter, but play with a super-alert, intense and radient piano, that for me was his trade mark.

    Thank you for a couple of really enjoyable concerts!

    1. Mr Oakmountain says:

      Here is the VSO Beethoven 7th in better quality:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oETXN5Dvt64

      1. Max Grimm says:

        Here a YouTube clip with excerpts of Georges Prêtre’s last concert with the Wiener Symphoniker…not 4 months ago. RIP
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7ZoIKRW8Hw

  4. Jens Rossel says:

    Georges Prêtre introduced the Danish Strauss Hans Christian Lumbye’s Champagnegalop at the Vienna Philharmonic New Year concerts in 2010.

  5. Fernando says:

    Very sad news! I think there is no other musician who conducted Maria Callas and is still among us. He was probably the last Callas conductor still alive. Could anyone confirm that?

    1. elizabeth Kerr says:

      He was I think and here it is a wonderful example

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRhBY0X4sv8

  6. Marcell N. says:

    If I’m right, it is Herbert Blomstedt who came into being the oldest active conductor (at nearly 90).

    1. Pedro says:

      Szkrowaczewski?

      1. Marcell N. says:

        Yes, indeed!

        1. Pedro says:

          And at nearly 88 we still have Haitink, von Dóhnanyi and Previn.

          1. Daniel F. says:

            I thought Previn had retired. Last I saw of him, he could barely walk. Well, I guess that didn’t stop Klemperer and it hasn’t stopped Levine but, alas, not being ambulatory is the only thing AP has in common with them.

          2. Gustav says:

            Previn is still conducting, he cancelled an LSO concert last November. He’s still composing too.

        2. Pedro says:

          I think Gielen ( born in 1927 ) and Zedda ( born in 1928 ) are still active.

          1. Ruben Greenberg says:

            Gielen is retired.

          2. Pedro says:

            Any news from Louis Frémaux ( born in 1921 )? According to Wikipedia ge is still alive.

      2. EmmKay says:

        Skrowaczewski sadly had a stroke in November. Not sure if he will return to active conducting.

  7. Michael Morgan says:

    I saw him give life changing performances in Vienna. This man was the genuine article in a field with all too few of these. Sad day.

  8. Dennis says:

    Odd that of many premier conductors of the last 50 or so years, I have never heard of him until he died.

  9. Gustav says:

    Prêtre was overrated. More of a personality than a technician.

    1. bebop says:

      Exactly the reason for what he was underrated, we don’t need technicians, we have all the Dudamel and Nelsons we need. I am sure some of his concerts were not perfect, but probably never boring, the Cherkassky type. His first New year concert was a beauty of style and inspiration, I think he was not in a good day for second one.

    2. Dirk Fischer says:

      I am always puzzled by such replies on this blog when someone passed away. Even if you did not think highly of him as an artist in his field, would you not consider it decent to keep quiet?

      1. Patrick says:

        No, “Gustav” is being a jerk. He’s still living so we can say that.

        1. Jaybuyer says:

          No, ‘Gustav’ recently gave his expert opinion on Mahler’s conducting – so perhaps he too has passed to the other side (talking out of his fundament).

    3. John says:

      Oh gosh, thanks for sharing that Gustav. Whattaguy!

    4. Bruce says:

      It’s also possible that he was really that good but you couldn’t hear it. Just sayin.

    5. John says:

      Actually if you talk to the singers who worked with him when he was still conducting opera they will tell you that his technical ability was profound and that singing with him in the pit was a much more rewarding experience than with quite a few more publically and critically revered conductors.

      Pretre was a fine conductor who had a wonderful career. RIP

    6. Gustav says:

      It’s true! There have only been a handful of conductors you can call great from the last century. Mahler, Nikisch, Strauss, Mengleberg, Szell, Karajan, C.kleiber and (Sir) Edward Downes.

  10. Tom Gillett says:

    One night, about 30 years ago, my then-wife and I were lucky to hear Pretre conduct at Carnegie Hall. There was such a rapport among musicians, the audience, and conductor that Pretre went on and on with encore after encore, lengthening the concert by nearly an hour. The house was wild with delight.

  11. Vengerov Maxim says:

    Maestro was one of the greatest humanist and greatest conductor ever. He was a true inspiration for me. The love joy and the drama he projected thru his gestures and thru his eye contact with the orchestra members were truly exceptional. His divine energy may only be compared with the one of Mstislav Rostropovich. May he rest in piece. Maxim Vengerov

    1. Ruben Greenberg says:

      A fine tribute from one great artist to another great artist.

  12. Cubs Fan says:

    One of the most under-rated conductors of the past 50 years. Maybe he didn’t want the limelight and celebrity that other more famous maestros sought, but he had a way with music that was magical. We’re fortunate he left great recordings of Roussel, D’Indy, Debussy, Bizet, Poulenc and other French composers. I wish young up and coming conductors would study his legacy and learn. RIP.

  13. Cellohio says:

    Very sad news–as a boy I happened upon his Poulenc recordings, which are bursting with his trademark (maybe a little impish) electricity. That, and the great clip of him conducting Pines of Rome in Stuttgart…

  14. Patrick says:

    Best Hansel and Gretel ever!

  15. Mark Mortimer says:

    Sad news indeed.

    I suppose that he was unlucky to be in an era of truly great conductors & perhaps didn’t stand out as he should. But in his Indian Summer, particularly those charming New Years Day concerts, he demonstrated what a charming maestro he was. It would have been quite something to hear him live in the French repertoire- which he did with elan.

  16. barry guerrero says:

    Pretre’s Vienna New Year’s Concert with the Wiener Philharmoniker was the best one in many, many years. I also enjoy his EMI set of Poulenc recordings very much. A friend of mine was blown away by a radio broadcast Pretre gave of Mahler’s 8th symphony from Vienna’s Konzerthaus in the middle 1980’s (I didn’t hear it, but that it gets issued someday).


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