The conductor who was lost to the sea

The conductor who was lost to the sea


norman lebrecht

April 16, 2019

Had he not gone for a swim on this day in 1973, István Kertész would have been due to turn ninety this year.

After a brilliant spell with the London Symphony Orchestra, Kertesz was the favourite to succeed George Szell at Cleveland when he went for a swim on an April day in Herzliya, Israel, and got carried off by a rip-tide.

Pointless to speculate what might have been had he stayed on shore.

His Decca recordings of the Dvorak symphonies remain the benchmark performances.


  • fflambeau says:

    I was once caught in a rip tide in Hawaii and it was the devil getting out of it (I was young and fit but exhausted when I got to shore).

    Sad, he was a great conductor. What also strikes me is how many Hungarians became great conductors. For a small country, it has certainly turned out many fine ones, including one of my favorites, Eugene Ormandy.

    • Barry says:

      Cleveland was mentioned, but I also recall reading – I don’t remember where – that Ormandy considered stepping down in the late 60s and that he spoke with Kertesz about replacing him in Philadelphia.

      • Yossel says:

        Your comment reminds me of a wonderful Philadelphia/Kertesz concert I attended at Saratoga one Saturday night in 1969: Mozart’s Symphony #33, Kodaly ‘Hary Janos’ Suite and the Brahms Violin Concerto with Szeryng. It was a tough choice. The same night at Tanglewood, Boulez was making his debut with the Boston Symphony. Those were the days……..

    • Alexander Tarak says:

      Same thing happened to me as a teenager.
      Had I not been as fit as I was then the outcome might have been very different.

  • “His Decca recordings of the Dvořák symphonies [with the LSO when it was tops] remain the benchmark performances.”


    And Chalabala for the tone poems. And Talich for the piano (Maxián) and cello (Slava) concertos.

  • Tim Gill says:

    Oh yes, and his Bluebeard Castle with C. Ludwig, Berry and LSO.

  • Robert von Bahr says:

    István Kertész, please. That makes a very big difference in Hungarian.

    • The View from America says:

      “István Kertész, please. That makes a very big difference in Hungarian.”

      Or perhaps Kertész István?

  • John Modell says:

    I still listen to and enjoy the Dvorak set. Thanks for remembering him.

  • Pedro says:

    Szell died in 1970 and Maazel was already in Cleveland in 1972, an year before Kertész death.

    • István Lorin says:

      I have read – source not verified – that the Cleveland musicians wanted Kertesz but the management chose Maazel.

      • Amos says:

        Supposedly the musicians of the CO voted 97 to 2 in favor of Kertesz over LM. Although I slightly prefer the Szell/CO recordings of the Dvorak 7-9 to IK/LSO Kertesz’s recordings, the recording of the 6th is for me seminal and I suspect largely responsible for it’s inclusion in “mainstream” repertoire. The Dvorak 6th and Brahms Serenade No.1 with the LSO combine the very best qualities of orchestral playing that include virtuosity, a sense of spontaneity and pure joy. There appears to be a live 1968 recording of the Mahler 2nd with IK and the Cleveland Orchestra which appears to offer a hint of what might have been. I clearly wish he had succeeded George Szell!

        • Clevelander says:

          Actually, the musicians voted for Fruhbeck de Burgos instead of Maazel in 1971, and Szell had been deceased for 18 months.

          Great Dvorak set, though!

          • NYMike says:

            My late friend on the Cleveland conductor search committee told me that IK was their 1st choice. They were completely shocked when management announced to them over champagne that LM had been selected. BTW, my 2 favorite Dvorak 7-9 sets: Szell/Cleveland and Sawallisch/Philadelphia. Ormandy also did a fine job over the years with the 9th.

        • Tom Varley says:

          I remember reading somewhere (prior to Kertesz’s death) that the Cleveland musicians had voted for him 98-2 and some wag had suggested that Maazel’s first act should be to fire the two who’d voted for him, so the orchestra would be unanimous.

  • Been Here Before says:

    I am surprised nobody mentioned his Schubert cycle yet – still one of the best recording of all Schubert’s symphonies on the market. Certainly a great conductor!

  • mathias broucek says:

    I recently found in Tokyo a nice live set of him with the LSO doing DSCH5, Introduction & Allegro and the Egmont overture.

    Good performance in decent sound for 1960s live material, albeit with some fallible playing

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Two very great Hungarian conductors left us tragically early: István Kertész and Ferenc Fricsay. Had they had long productive lives, how much difference could they have made, what orchestras could they have led, what recordings could they have made? My mind goes numb when I think about it. Once could have similar thoughts about Dinu Lipatti and Ginette Neveu. The list can easily get longer. (Let’s not get started about Schubert.)

  • David Hyslop says:

    Worked with him once during my early years on the Minnesota Orchestra staff. Great musician, fine man and a terrible loss to the music world at an early age.

    • Larry W says:

      Indeed he was, David. He conducted Dvorak (Symphony No. 7, wasn’t it?). As I recall, he got such fine playing from the orchestra without a hint of bossiness or ego.

  • ASteven says:

    He did not often come to the RO…but was mentioned around as a possible successor to Solti, I seem to remember. He did a fine Falstaff there in the late 1960s.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    From John Georgiadis: “The Dvorak symphonies in particular we thought were truly great records, although listening to them again some 20 years later I was a bit disappointed that they weren’t as good as I had remembered. I had to agree with the musicians who had not been involved personally in the Kertesz mystique, that they were really not accurate enough to be good records, there being too many technical errors, while the essential musicianship of the man just wasn’t, as is mostly the case, transmitted through the vinyl. In reality, it seems he was a man for the moment and not for the record.”

    That’s how that set sounded to me, too. The Rowicki/LSO set is far more exciting. There are several funny Kertesz stories in the Georgiadis book.

    • Robert Roy says:

      I waiting for the Georgiadis book to arrive and wondered if he might have anything to say about Kertesz. I wonder what he means by ‘technical errors’.

    • John Kelly says:

      There are many funny stories in that book as well as many wildly inaccurate ones. For example the story about Stokowki’s “half empty” concert in Croydon. Not only was it a sell out (all 3 of Stoki’s LSO programs were sell outs there) but JG recalls all kind of rehearsal details. In fact, John Brown was leader for those concerts and the story(s) around it have clearly suffered from being passed around a bit before reaching JG. The book is full of this kind of thing (e.g. Dorati’s tempo changes in Tchaikovsky Symphony recordings were effective chiefly because of the Mercury team’s editing skills). And so on. I believe JG was the leader Szell said he would like to see replaced – after which he would gladly come back to the LSO and conduct without fee…

  • Nancy Shear says:

    I was on the library staff of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the late ’60s and remember Eugene Ormandy’s admiration for Kertész. I think there were many reasons for that. Had he lived, Kertész probably would have been the orchestra’s next music director.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Dear Nancy,
      I had the good fortune to hear Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra on three different occasions in the 1970s at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.
      I have always believed that those occasions blessed me with the most beautiful musical sounds I have ever heard.
      Any more memories you might care to share about Ormandy would be most welcome.
      Cheers and best wishes, Greg

  • Karl says:

    In addition to his recordings of the Dvorak Symphonies, I have the Dvorak and Mozart Requiems conducted by him. He would have been a perfect successor to Szell in Cleveland.

    I just checked and see that Guido Cantelli’s 99th birthday is coming in less than 2 weeks. Another tragic loss…

  • Robert Levin says:

    I believe he had also been named music director of the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL. James Levine was invited to guest conduct the CSO as a replacement and later became music director of Ravinia.

  • Curious says:

    Meanwhile, there’s been no mention of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music. Why not?

  • Sharon says:

    I remember when I heard a recording of his Miraculous Mandarin with the Chicago Symphony from 1967. It became and still is a favorite.

  • Tom Sudholt says:

    I had read (perhaps from you Norman?) that Antal Dorati expressed an opinion that Kertesz may have taken his life due to the despondency he felt at his not succeeding Szell in Cleveland. Though impossible to verify at this point it, nevertheless, was tragic foreshortening of a brilliant talent’s life and career. His initial Decca recording of Dvorak’s “New World” symphony (1961) with the V.P.O. is still an electrifying knockout of a performance

    • Amos says:

      Everyone is entitled to share their opinion(s) regarding the merits of IK’s conducting career. Speculating in this space, without meaningful corroborating evidence, about the circumstances of his passing is reckless, irresponsible and cruel. His wife has passed away but I assume his 3 children are still living and don’t deserve to happen upon your post.

    • Ilio says:

      Richard Morrison has written in the past that there was a scandal involving an underaged girl and the British Embassy having to spirit him out of the U.S. I wonder if that may have led to his death.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    As great as Kertesz’s Dvorak symphonies recordings are (and I especially like his rendition of the Sixth) I would not dismiss Rafael Kubelik’s Berlin Philharmonic cycle.

  • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

    Istvan Kertesz? Here you go:

  • M McAlpine says:

    I know John Culshaw called Kertesz’s death a ‘ridiculous drowning accident’ adding that ‘he was a strong swimmer but too confident.’ Having been caught in a rip tide myself, however, I can only think of the terror the conductor must have suffered. Thankfully there was someone in a boat who noticed I was in difficulties and came and rescued me. I have never felt so helpless! I was absolutely exhausted when my rescuer planked me back on dry land.