The bilateral loneliness of Lorin Maazel

The bilateral loneliness of Lorin Maazel


norman lebrecht

July 15, 2014

In an appreciation for, I mention in passing a profound dichotomy that I always sensed at the heart of the late conductor:

He was American in his reverence for business and initiative, European in his fluent command of six languages, his immersion in musical tradition and his respect for ranks and titles.

Lorin belonged everywhere and nowhere. He was never embraced as an American marvel,  as Bernstein and Previn were, nor was he ever allowed to feel wholly at home in Berlin, Vienna or Munich, his three European bases. In Vienna, he faced an onslaught of xenophobia that was part anti-American, part anti-semitic. Lorin never acknowledged these currents (to me), but his isolation was, in 1984 Vienna, absolute.

Munich may have been a little warmer, Berlin a little worse.

After being voted down by the players as Karajan’s successor, he swore he would never conduct the Philharmonic again. He relented, once. It went badly and he vanished again.

The orchestra is now trying to put a positive spin on their fractious relationship. The tone of its statement illustrates the distance that prevailed between Lorin Maazel and many of his musicians, between his reality and theirs. Statement follows:

maazel tough


The Berliner Philharmoniker mourn the loss of Lorin Maazel. In the past 55 years he conducted the orchestra regularly(!), especially in the early years of his career. The many high points of this collaboration include outstanding performances of the works of Beethoven and the Russian repertoire, among others. The press wrote of the conductor’s debut in January 1959, when he was just 28 years old: “Maazel charges up the Berlin Philharmonic in a highly explosive way, the musicians play like the devil – and it sounds magnificent.” After a break (!) of almost 14 years, it was intended that Maazel conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker once again this June, and other joint performances were being planned. General Manager Martin Hoffmann: “We are very sad that this reunion is no longer possible. We will remember Lorin Maazel as a great conductor, and we have grateful, lively memories of him as a master of energetic music making with a timbral sensuality.”



Away from these cultural misapprehensions, he found a warm, uncomplicated reception in China and Japan. The Tokyo Symphony writes:

Maestro Maazel first conducted the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra in November 7, 1963. Forty-eight years later, he led the Tokyo Symphony in performances of Beethoven’s 1st symphony and Mahler’s 1stSymphony in a special concert commemorating the TSO’s 65th anniversary. This concert took place after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March, 2011, which severely damaged our home concert hall, so his appearance gave us great encouragement. TSO musicians still describe that concert performed under his baton as an unforgettable experience.

We remember Maestro Maazel expressing his love of Japanese culture including Kabuki and Noh and Japanese cuisine. He enjoyed drinking Japanese green tea during rehearsals and backstage.


  • mr oakmount says:

    I’d be interested to hear Norman’s thoughts on Maazel’s Mahler. While admiring many things in his 1st, 4th, 5th and 9th, I was very puzzled and frustrated by many of his artistic choices. The VPO also seems to have a hard time making sense of things. Did he dislike the 3rd and 8th smphony? Did his isolation in Vienna play a part in this?

    However, I vividly remember the former principal VPO trumpeter, Mr Pomberger, telling me that the best the VPO had ever played anything was Mahler 1 in the Berliner Philharmonie. They probably had something to prove to the BPO …

    • norman lebrecht says:

      I discuss the Vienna cycle in ‘Why Mahler?’ His later, London cycles were more fulfilling.

    • sdReader says:

      Oh, what does it matter? Anyone can make an impression in Mahler.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        sdReader says:
        July 15, 2014 at 11:59 am

        “Oh, what does it matter? Anyone can make an impression in Mahler.”

        Where can I find your recordings of Mahler symphonies? Since you know so much more about music than so many actual musicians, those must be fabulous. I can’t wait to hear them!

  • sdReader says:

    Previn still is!

  • Rob van der Hilst says:

    I have met LM 3 or 4 times, professionally and privately and all this in Paris. I enjoyed his personality, his brilliance, intelligence, his authentic smell of music very much.
    The way upon which he acted as The Unreachable Maestro in the public domain was quite funny. If he really liked this? I am not quite sure, but ‘the job has to be done this way’, as he once said to me. Self-protection? I think so, yes.
    R.I.P. Maestro!

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Anybody who is still in any doubt about the standards of orchestral playing Maazel achieved in Berlin whould listen to his recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade with the BPO. There may be versions as good but there certainly is none better.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    “After being voted down by the players as Karajan’s successor, he swore he would never conduct the Philharmonic again. He relented, once. It went badly and he vanished again.”

    Maazel actually came back to Berlin a number of times in the late 90s, maybe 5 or 6 times or so. He also re-recorded his orchestral collage of music from The Ring with them.
    But it is true that he apparently never came back after 2000 or so. Did something happen there that caused him to stay away for the second time?
    A concert with him was planned for next season though.