I am swimming off a beach where a great conductor drowned

I am swimming off a beach where a great conductor drowned


norman lebrecht

October 29, 2013

The first time I swam in Herzliya, the translator of the only one of my books ever to appear in Hebrew warned me to be careful. ‘This is where Istvan Kertesz drowned, in April 1973,’ she said. ‘I was here. I saw it from the beach.’

Herzliya is subject to rip-tides. The only safe places to swim are beneath the eye of a lifeguard.

Kertesz was 43 when he died. The former principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, he was regarded as maestro in waiting for the next Big Five US orchestra to fall vacant. He had an open-ended contract with Decca and left, among other legacies, a set of Dvorak symphonies that has never been matched. I never visit this place without thinking of him.




  • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    His concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the late 60s and early 70s were remarkable, especially Dvorak Symphonies and tone poems. I know that many PO musicians were hoping that he would succeed Ormandy.

  • Tomo Sawado says:

    I’ve read a Japanese book written by Takao Okamura, a bass who was actually with him when Kertesz got drowned. Okamura described the detail of the incident. Lucia Popp was with them, too. According to Okamura, the ocean looked quite calm on the surface, and so Kertesz and Okamura started swimming happily. As soon as Okamura put his foot onto the water, he sensed the danger instantly, but the wave was so strong that he was taken away from the beach right away. He tried to call back Kertesz while he was struggling, but Kertesz was already far away from him. After fighting with wave, Okamura was almost drowned but managed to get back to the beach. Kertesz couldn’t.

    Okamura started the Istvan Kertesz Association in 2001 (they have Facebook account).

    • Ewert von Krusenstjern (Germany) says:

      A CD of the performance of Joseph Haydn’s Nelson-Mass, conducted by Istàn Kertesz 1973 in Israel with Takao Okamura as one of the soloists has the number 02-9652, published by Helikon Ltd.

  • k weiss says:

    heard him in Cleveland – magnificent! Great chemistry with members of CO

  • Nancy Shear says:

    I had worked in the library of the Philadelphia Orchestra for years, then became orchestra librarian at The Curtis Institute where Ormandy was head of that orchestra. I well remember Kertesz being spoken of as Ormandy’s successor to The Philadelphia Orchestra podium. His loss was a great tragedy and probably changed the history of the Orchestra.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    “…the translator of the only one of my books ever to appear in Hebrew…

    Which one is that?

  • paul myers says:

    It was not official, but he had an agreement to take over the Cleveland Orchestra, and had already met several times with Ray Minshull to make recording plans for the next five years.

    • Petros LInardos says:

      Take over the Cleveland when? Kertesz drowned in 1973. Maazel took over the Cleveland in 1972. Szell died in 1970.

      • paul myers says:

        Szell died in the summer of 1970, and Minshull’s discussions began in the autumn of 1970 and the spring of 1971. Kertesz had other commitments, and his plans with Minshull were set for a future date. Maazel was appointed by the Cleveland managment, and it took some time for the orchestra to accept his presence. He did, however, prove himself after a few months.

        I believe the general public does not realise the advance planning of record companies long-term planning of orchestras and record companies, especially if lucrative (to the players) contracts are involved, as well as the international publicity. RCA Red Seal was certainly involved with the appointment of Leinsdorf, in Boston,and I was cerainly approached (at CBS) when a major conductor moved on from another well-known orchestra..

  • tomeg says:

    An incalculable loss! Among many Kertesz recordings I have owned, a special place is reserved for his recording, with Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry, of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Several times during that performance I was transfixed by the other-side-ness the music impressed on me, and I got goosebumps each time. I know some of that eery magic was the production by the sound engineers. But then, without doubt Kertesz’ hand was involved there, too.

    • Ron says:

      @tomeg – Totally agree on Bluebeard’s Castle. I’ve never heard another recording so chilling. Big Kertesz fan here.

    • Antony Shelley says:

      I bought Kertesz’s Bluebeard in 1973 on London Records when I was in New York. 40 years later, despite some other wonderful recordings of this great piece, I still come back to it. Ludwig and Berry were wonderful, and my Hungarian friends tell me that their languages was most authentic, and IK’s conducting has never been surpassed. What a tragedy it was for him to die so soon in his life.

  • Michael Antrobus says:

    Istvan Kertesz’s complete recordings of the Brahms Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra have, for me, no equal. Controversial with some, but a breath of fresh air, and not only in the performance with this superb band, but with refreshing and (un)traditional insight into these masterworks following the partitur to, almost, the letter. These Decca recordings will follow me to the after-life 😀

  • Tom Chambers says:

    In a poll on the music director search the members of the Cleveland Orchestra overwhelmingly favored Kertesz. But the management ignored it. The Maazel appointment was announced some months later. All this was 1971 (I think).

  • John Birge says:

    per New York Times 15 Sept 2002: “Maazel was named George Szell’s successor in Cleveland in 1972, but not before the players had voted overwhelmingly in an unofficial poll for Mr. Maazel’s chief rival for the position, Istvan Kertesz (76 votes, compared to 2 for Mr. Maazel, and 20 for others). The incident unleashed enough chaos to ensure its place in American orchestral lore as a permanent warning to boards to consult the players and consider their wishes.”

  • I can see his amazing blue eyes and warm smile, I treasure hearing him conduct Dvorak with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in early 70s.

  • Sinead Hayes says:

    Kertesz’s Mozart symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic border on perfection for me, just the right balance of excitement and unforced musicianship, and such clarity of texture in the inner parts – the opening of the A major No. 29 is revelatory. He was such a loss to music, and to the generations of conductors he might have influenced.

  • Robin Mitchell-Boyask says:

    I grew up in Cleveland during those years. Several people with knowledge of the orchestra told me that there was reason to believe that Kertesz’s death was not an accident, but suicide because he was in such despair about losing that appointment. If, as reported above, things had advanced to the point where there was serious long-term planning in Cleveland, then the Maazel thing could have really been huge blow.

    He’d already had his heart broken by Ormandy’s reluctance to retire, after Ormandy had told him he should be his successor (this is reported in several published accounts).

    This is, I stress, hearsay, but…

  • Tomo Sawado says:


    According to Takao Okamura’s recollection (Okamura was swimming with Kertesz on that day), it is highly unlikely that Kertesz committed to suicide. In his last days Kertesz was optimistic (probably too optimistic), talking about future, and purely enjoying his holidays with his friends.

    Just a day or few days before the incident, Kertesz and Okamura discussed about a big car accident that kills many Israeli soldiers. Kertesz said “a brilliant career could be ended like this. We must be careful!”. Kertesz also talked about his vacation plan in Africa– “I’m gonna spend the half of a year for just hunting in Africa”.

    On the day of the accident, Kertesz, Okamura, Lucia Popp, and Ilse Gramatzki were enjoying sunshine at the hotel pool, but Kertesz encouraged them to go down to the beach to swim. Okamura was initially hesitant, but decided to join Kertesz because Kertesz, who was “confident about his swimming skills”, jokingly said to Okamura “You’re chicken! Join me!”. Popp and Gramatzki stayed on the beach because “they were afraid of messing up their hair”. Kertesz jumped into the water “like a high school boy”, and Okamura followed him. And then the accident occurred.

    The following link includes pictures of Kertesz’s final days. According to Kertesz’s widow, the top one is the last picture of Kertesz (with Okamura).


  • RGiarola says:

    On 1973, he was a brilliant conductor with some records considered never been matched, even 40 year later. He was 43 years old and waiting for a vacancy at a US Big one. On 2013 We got people on this position that weren’t ever born yet, and we are already talking about their next obviously giant step even before they are 40 years old. Does Kertesz was really brilliant or We got the ultimate generation of genius conductors ever? (Or genius Marketing management?)

  • Ewert von Krusenstjern (in Cologne/Germany) says:

    István Kertesz conducted just before his dead a performance of Joseph Haydn’s Helson-Mass in Israel. A CD of the performance was published by Helicon Ltd. The CD has the number 029652. Among the soloists is Takao Okamura. There are also Gustav Mahler’s Kindentotenlieder with Maureen Forrester of a performance from 1971 on this CD.

  • Andrew Thorpe says:

    Kertesz was agreat conductor. I was lucky to see him direct the LSO in Haydn,Kodaly and Bartok in December 1970 at the Royal Festival Hall.

  • William Gallagher says:

    Please delete my above comment, since it contains errors. The recording that had not been completed was the Haydn Variations.