A Karajan protégé has died

A Karajan protégé has died


norman lebrecht

March 01, 2014

Karl Anton Rickenbacher, the Swiss conductor who studied in Berlin with Herbert von Karajan and made may recordings, died in Montreux yesterday, aged 73.

He held chief conductor posts in Westphalia, Scotland and Belgium, but was best known for outstanding recordings with Bavarian Radio, the London Philharmonic and Budapest Symphony orchestras.


Our sympathies to his family and many friends




Press Release 28 Feb 2014

Swiss conductor Karl Anton Rickenbacher

20 May 1940 (Basel) – 28 Feb 2014 (Montreux)

While sitting at his piano at home this morning studying the score of Mahler Totenfeier,

the celebrated Swiss conductor, Karl Anton Rickenbacher, suffered a heart attack and died

suddenly. Beloved husband of the former ballerina, Gaye Fulton, and devoted step father to

her two sons and three grand children, this energetic, life and soul of the party personality, is

suddenly gone. As a conductor, Karl Anton was part of the continuum of the grand German

tradition; a former student of Karajan and Boulez and assistant to Klemperer, he spent his

life delving and researching in depth into every piece he conducted. It seems fitting that he

passed away surrounded by his scores and books in his study at home, while thinking deeply

about the Mahler score at his piano.

Karl Anton Rickenbacher was born in Basel in 1940 and studied with Herbert

Ahlendorf at the Berlin conservatory and privately with Herbert von Karajan and Pierre

Boulez. He began his career as a répétiteur and staff conductor at the Opernhaus Zürich

(1967–69) and the Städtische Bühnen Freiburg (1969–75), during which time his development

was decisively influenced by another great conductor, Otto Klemperer, who described him as

‘one of the most talented conductors of the younger generation’. Subsequently he shifted his

activities to the concert hall and was appointed general music director of the Westphalian

Symphony Orchestra in Recklinghausen (1976–85) and principal conductor of the BBC

Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow (1978–80). He famously campaigned to save the

BBCSSO during the time of attempted cut backs to BBC orchestras in 1980. At the same

time, he began appearing regularly in Europe, North America, and Japan as a guest

conductor. In 1987 he was appointed principal guest conductor of the Belgian BRT

Philharmonic Orchestra.

His large discography—chiefly in collaboration with the Bamberg, Bavarian Radio,

Berlin Radio, London Philharmonic and Budapest Symphony orchestras—includes a number

of first recordings of works by Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner, Liszt, and Mahler, as well as

Humperdinck, Hindemith, Milhaud (awarded the Grand Prix du Disque), Zemlinsky, and

Hartmann (Cannes Classical Award). In 1999 his recording of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme

(with a text by Sir Peter Ustinov) won the German Echo Preis as Best Classical Recording of

the Year. He won an Echo Prize again the following year for his recording of Messiaen’s

oratorio La Transfiguration, and another in 2001 for a CD in the Unknown Richard Strauss

After Karl Anton Rickenbacher’s American debut in 1989, Musical America wrote:

‘… Rickenbacher has Klemperer’s musical depth and probing insight, Boulez’s eye for

detail, and the zest and energy that have characterised Karajan at his best.’

Olivier Messiaen spoke of Rickenbacher as ‘a great conductor of our time, who discerns

precisely the relevant aesthetics of each work’.

The programme of Richard Strauss, Metamorphosen, Olivier Messiaen, Offrandes

oubliées and Gustav Mahler Mouvement symphonique (Totenfeier) which Karl Anton was to

conduct with the Orchestre de la Haute Ecole de Musique de Genève on the 16th of March

is a quintessential Rickenbacher programme. This concert at the Espace Ville de Genève will

now be dedicated to the memory of Karl Anton Rickenbacher.

Paul McGrath

(Conductor and step son of Karl Anton Rickenbacher)


  • MacroV says:

    He appeared at least once in Seattle, maybe 25-30 years ago. Memories of the concert are not strong, though IIRC he led a wonderful Death and Transfiguration. 73 is still pretty young for a conductor these days,.

  • Gerhard says:

    I had the pleasure to play a few times under Mr. Rickenbacher in the nineties, and I have still fond memories of these concerts. The most unforgettable one was a performance of Mozart’s Gran Partita in Munich, with a young chinese Tai Chi master improvising to the music in full view of us players. RIP.