Lorin Maazel: A maestro of limitless possibilities

Lorin Maazel: A maestro of limitless possibilities


norman lebrecht

July 13, 2014

Lorin Maazel, who died today aged 84, was a brilliantly accomplished maestro who conquered almost all the summits of the musical world.

A childhood wizard with the baton, praised at nine years old by Toscanini, he acquired all the skills a musician could need to extract high performance from orchestras of every ability. No maestro was better at coaxing a tour-weary orchestra to play like the Vienna Philharmonic – especially if it was the Vienna Philharmonic. His technique gave players the ultimate security and his knowledge of human nature enabled them to feel cherished in difficult circumstances.

The first American, possibly the first Jew in modern times, to conduct at Bayreuth, he went to to head the radio orchestra in Berlin, to succeed Georg Szell at the Cleveland Orchestra and to become director of the Vienna Opera, a post once held by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.

Maazel’s ambition was insatiable. When Herbert von Karajan died in 1989, he confidently expected to inherit the Berlin Philharmonic. When the players voted for Claudio Abbado, he swore he would never conduct them again. He became music director of the New York Philharmonic – ‘at last, a real job,’ his father said – and then of the Munich Philharmonic. He was lionised in China, adulated in Japan. And still he wanted more.




We met and talked several times, often in unfriendly circumstances. Lorin mistrusted any media that he could not manipulate. Nevertheless, we found a point of mutual respect and our communications in recent years were cordial.

He could turn on an irresistible charm, but at its heart lay an iceberg. He despised sentiment. When he was director in Vienna he lived across a suburban road from the grave of Gustav Mahler and never went to pay respects until I physically took him there.

He would break off relations with individuals, orchestras and record labels at the slightest suspicion of disrespect. Yet he was also able to repair a shattered union with the Vienna Philharmonic into something approaching elysium. He could never project the spiritual qualities of Claudio Abbado or Colin Davis, but nobody got the work done with greater efficiency. A brilliant businessman, he dispensed with agents and commanded the highest fees in the podium – at one time exceeding $80,000 a night in Japan.


maazel tough

He was too gifted for his own good. Music came to him easily and he often gave the impression of being bored at work. I have seen him ask for silence in a short car ride while he studied the score of Lulu – and then enter the pit to conduct the complex three -act opera from memory.

The music he composed derivative, his opera 1984 a patchwork failure. He played the violin to concertmaster standard. He talked of writing a series of novels. He believed he could do anything.

His genius lay in the physical act of working with an orchestra, in the precision, in the creation of sound out of nothing. Among hundreds of recordings, he excelled at Gershwin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Ravel.

maazel young

The New York Philharmonic period was, after a glittering launch, largely unhappy. Munich provided balm for his wounded soul and his final years were, I think, contented. I carry his voice in my ear and cannot believe he is gone. Lorin Maazel was the master of many destinies, though never, ultimately, of his own.

(c) NL/Slippedisc


UPDATE: Read here for Maazel and the American orchestra.


  • David Pickett says:

    Surely, the first Jew to conduct at Bayreuth was Hermann Levy at the première of Parsifal.

  • MarieTherese says:

    RIP Maestro…

  • Jeffrey Levenson says:

    Beautiful and accurate tribute.

  • paul hess says:

    Apart from his musical prowess, he was a cultivated, responsible
    individual, it seemed to me, who was engaged in making the world a better place to live in.

  • Uffe Sveistrup says:

    What about Solti (not that it matters very much) ?

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Solti conducted at Bayreuth only for one season, in 1983, the Peter Hall Ring. Peter Schneider conducted the remaining seasons of the same production.

  • erik says:

    Some of his best work in his mid-late career is with the Bavarian Radio Symphony .

  • Eivind Gullberg Jensen says:

    Thanks for a very well written tribute, which gives a quite complete picture of the master mind!

  • John says:

    He was a master technician. He was a good conductor but I doubt that he will go down as one of the great ones. With saying that may he RIP.

  • Madeline says:

    My tenure on staff @ the NY Phil overlapped with his. I had occasion to work with this genius many times. He was always professional and easy to work with. This essay (I can’t bring myself to say obituary) is an accurate and beautiful summation of the too-short life of an amazing musician and wonderful “human.” (That is how he often referred to people.)

  • Manu says:

    Sorry Mr Lebrecht, but an obituary of such an outstanding figure that omits his most interesting, strong and prolific period that were his years as chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munic is uncomplete.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    I would take issue with the “iceberg” image. That may have been true in the years when Maazel was establishing his formidable reputation as someone who conquered all technical challenges, but in the last decade of his life – and I attended his concerts for 45 years – I noted an increasing humility and, yes, a spiritual depth which gave the lie to the clichés trotted out by critics too lazy to adjust their ears. Maazel was not the first conductor to suffer from highly subjective interpretations of his physiognomy. Karajan was frequently told he had “a cruel mouth” and now I read of Maazel’s “rictus of resentment” during his spell at the NYPO. What wonderful amateur psychologists we seem to have! I can only say that in the last few years in his appearances with the Philharmonia in London – an association that covered more than 50 years – he not only produced some of the most glorious playing which that orchestra has given us in the concert-hall but an insight into structure and emotional significance that were second to none. Chide him for his arrogance and ambition if you must, but to deny him the accolade of one of the greatest conductors of the past century is to overlook true musical greatness.

  • David Boxwell says:

    Anyone who can conduct a peerless recording of “L’Enfant et les Sortileges,” and make me verklempt every time I hear it, is AOK in my book.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Maazel lasted two seasons at the Vienna State Opera. 1982-1984. His contract was initially for 1982-86. Sometime during his second season he let it be known that he wouldn’t be interested in renewing his contract. Not long after that, it was announced that he would leave at the end of the season. His predecessor, Egon Seefehlner, came back from retirement to fill in for the remaining two seasons, 1984-86.

    I was a student in Vienna during those years and was struck at how hostile the Austrian media were towards Maazel, before he even formally took over his directorship of the Vienna State Opera. On the other hand, Maazel never shied from making bold, provocative statements. For instance, he was quoted saying that every night should be a gala. The media seemed happy to remind us of that anytime something went wrong, if not whenever those standards were not met…

    In the spring of 1984, a few weeks after his imminent departure from the Opera was announced, Maazel conducted a Vienna Philharmonic subscription concert that included Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. He left the podium before most, but not all, musicians had left. I remember a short laughter in the audience. The Farewell Symphony seemed so appropriate to the news of those weeks. Amuising coincidence or intentional? The program was announced no later than September 1983, when Maazel’s second (and final) season at the Vienna State Opera was just starting.