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.
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.
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.
UPDATE: Read here for Maazel and the American orchestra.