Slippedisc comfort zone (7): Baton breaks

Slippedisc comfort zone (7): Baton breaks


norman lebrecht

April 20, 2021

The Italian maestro Giuseppe Sinopoli died 20 years ago tomorrow while conducting Aida in Berlin. He was 54, a scientist and a heavy smoker. His musical contribution is still the stuff of heated debate but he was a thoroughly decent man and his loss is still felt.


  • Edoardo says:

    I have been lucky to hear him several times in Florence: a Mahler 3rd and 5th, Beethoven 9th, Pelleas and some other things. Never banal, often very interesting, always discussed. Like it or not you left his concerts that something was done, not just another performance. Of course the results were often debatable, but for sure he was not a routiner or pleaser.
    His operatic recordings speak for him.

    He was made honorary conductor in Florence till the day he had a row with the theater and left before a much waited new production of Lohengrin (he was replaced by Julia Jones).

    His death was really a great loss

  • John Borstlap says:

    His recording of Salome is one of the very best (with Cheril Studer).

    But, alas, science and heavy smoking never go together very well.

  • A.L. says:

    Sinopoli’s death was quite the shock. He is missed. Here are some favorites.

    Schumann Symphony No. 2:
    Schumann Manfred Overture:
    Strauss Salome Final Scene:
    Wagner Fliegende Holländer Dutchman-Senta Duet:–yRZg8
    Bruckner Symphony No. 3:
    Berg Sieben Frühe Lieder: +

    • Novagerio says:

      I’d add the Mahler 5th & 7th to the list, and some of the Bruckner symphonies.
      A visionary conductor, with a great sense of sonority and structure (very evidently in the recordings mentioned above)
      – and pretty unrivalled in the younger Verdi.

  • Rob Keeley says:

    IMO Sinopoli’s Mahler 8 is truly marvellous. And there’s an extraordinary Elgar 2. He probably recorded too much, but his performances seem to have ‘settled in’ and now they sound superb. Thanks for bringing him into the conversation.

  • Mock Mahler says:

    I was bemused at critical reactions when Sinopoli conducted at the Kennedy Center. After Mahler 1 with the National Symphony in 1988, the Washington Post raved: ‘stunning’, ‘revelation’, etc. In 2001, he brought the Dresden orchestra in Mahler 6–and the Post called it “a fine orchestra in the hands of a dangerous man”. (Different critics.)

    • Alank says:

      I was at the M6 concert which I thought was very good. And yes if I recall correctly, the interpretation was a bit quirky. The critic, however, being quite a nasty fellow wrote that he laughed out loud at one point. Never heard someone laugh in M6! Just cant please everyone!

      • David Spence says:

        There’s the Ben Zander recording of Mahler 6. It is a party CD, vastly more worthy of being one than Sinopoli with Philharmonia on DGG, though as off-center as it is, and very slow (but getting all the spellings in the finale and avoiding, unlike Karajan or Tennstedt, getting maudlin in the Andante) I enjoy, though I would not want to hear this work this way every time I might. Worse, I have laughed all the way through the Adagio of the Dudamel Mahler 9 (with the LA Phil on douchebag ….. ).

    • David Spence says:

      The review of the Mahler 6 likely was by Philip Kennicott. Is there any way to pull that out of archive and repost it? Some comparison between how Sinopoli approached Mahler 6 that time – his approach would vary sometimes and in enigmatic ways – and ‘rough sex.’ Something close to that. What could somebody so into science, philosophy, and heavy smoking know about ‘rough sex?’ ;-), 😉

  • Petros Linardos says:

    I am torn between what my ears tell me and some other people’s expert opinions. At his best, primarily in opera, Sinopoli could turn out irresistibly exciting, revelatory performances. At the Vienna State Opera, I heard the VPO under Sinopoli play Attila and Macbeth with rare vitality, beauty of singing line and sonority, sense of drama. They sounded far better than under many other famous conductors. But there were other unremarkable occasions in the concert hall.

    Then again, I have heard orchestral musicians’ abysmal opinions of Sinopoli.

    Is it possible that he lacked technique and was not always able to realize his vision?

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Sinopoli conducting Attila Prelude:

      If this is mediocre, I don’t know what a good performance sounds like.

    • BRUCEB says:

      I have often had two thoughts about this:

      (a) Sometimes the conductor is just better suited to opera — a matter of temperament, maybe — and, no matter how much symphonic repertoire they do, it never matches what they can do in opera.

      (b) Often, an opera orchestra can follow a non-metronomic conductor more easily than a symphony orchestra can. Opera orchestras consider it a point of pride to be able to stay with the most wayward artistically creative singer, and they don’t expect anything to stay the same, even in the same work from one night to the next. In symphonic repertoire, the musicians usually expect the tempo to stay the same unless a change is marked in the music, and if the conductor tries anything different, the group falls apart (maybe on purpose) and somebody asks “what exactly are you doing there?” — and then we have to rehearse that “spontaneous” spot until everyone onstage feels completely secure and comfortable with it; in other words, until it is no longer remotely spontaneous. (And then God help the conductor if he ever tries anything different there.)

      To a musician (or an orchestra) with a symphonic mindset, an operatic approach to symphonic repertoire might seem to be lacking in rigor and discipline, and basically “this conductor has no sense of rhythm or tempo” … leading to uninspired performances: they’re only doing this because it’s their job.

      My viewpoint varies on how much the conductor is to blame (for thinking an orchestra is just there to do whatever he wants) and how much is due to the orchestra (for being recalcitrant). It probably varies with each relationship.

  • J Barcelo says:

    20 years! Seems like yesterday. I caught him live in concert once for a Schumann 2nd I’ll never forget. The Mahler 5th on DG is one of the best – I use it to demonstrate what great headphones can sound like. Then there’s that Elgar 2nd…he died much too soon. RIP

  • Herr Doktor says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned Sinopoli’s Philharmonia recording of Schubert’s 8th (“Unfinished”). Everyone I know who has heard it is completely blown away by it. It’s an absolutely devastating performance, and really, words do not do it justice. If the Penguin Guide were still around, it would have three rosettes, not just one.

    I heard him live just once, in Boston as a guest conductor performing Schumann’s 2nd Symphony. I love the work, but overall I thought the performance was too mannered. Still, I’m glad I heard it.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Hm, Herr Dr., I was at that BSO concert too – fall of 1990. I didn’t like the Schumann either. But I found the Meistersinger Prelude and Strauss Don Juan memorable.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      By the way, Sinopoli has 2 recordings of Schubert’s 8th: the one with the Philharmonia referenced above, and a second recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden. They are very different. The Dresden recording is routine and in no way special. The Philharmonia recording, however, is in my opinion the single finest performance of this masterpiece.

  • Pedro says:

    I attended a wonderful concert by the Dresden Staatskapelle and Sinopoli at the Tonhalle in Zurich. Don Juan, Verklärte Nacht and Zarathoustra. Everything was in place and the playing flowed beautifully. Nothing “strange” in that performance.

  • Kourosh says:

    I haven’t explored most of his recordings but i find his Tannhauser and Bruckner 7th dull and lifeless.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Giuseppe Sinopoli was some kind of genius. He had degrees in medicine (surgery and psychiatry) and archaeology, and had completed a dissertation on criminal anthropology.
    I considered him a marvelous conductor of the orchestral repertoire – his Mahler and Bruckner are quite special. Of opera: not so much.
    But his sudden death at the age of 54 was certainly a great loss to music and to his other fields of endeavor.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    I think Sinopoli offers a lot of evidence to my point that it’s much more difficult (elusive) to evaluate the musical worth of conductors, than it is performers or vocalists. He sounded like an entirely different conductor in front of the Dresden Staatskapelle.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Sinapoli was famously called the best psychoanalyst among conductors. and the best conductor among psychoanalysts.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    I admire his recording of the Schumann 2 and his Bruckner 5.

  • David S says:

    Somebody commented on here that he found Sinopoli’s Tannhauser – I hope he meant the one on DGG – dull. So did I, but I am happy to own the Bayreuth one on dvd from several years earlier. Mahler 8 is no favorite of mine, but Sinopoli’s quasi-operatic approach worked for me much better than either the quasi-Wunderhorn approach of Abbado, which turns insipid, or the snail crawl of Lorin Maazel, or Chailly, that is, if I have to listen to Mahler 8. Sinopoli’s Mahler 9 is clearly an underrated one, just on the verge of being worthy of taking its place among my half a dozen favorites, including Abbado/BPO, but not Abbado/Lucerne. I was so anxious to hear Sinopoli’s second summer to do Wagner’s Ring from Bayreuth and was in a Borders Books after getting off work at a travel agency, looking at the Wagner issue of Opera News, then to eventually make it home, turn on the newsgroups, to read ‘Sinopoli is dead.’ I should put on Siegfried from year 2000 this evening, as I skipped out on it when we got delayed broadcast of it on a Friday night here. I did not enjoy Waltruad Meier or Domingo in Act One of Walkure as it is obvious – Domingo did the same thing in London with Pappano – Domingo leaned on Sinopoli to clip all the rhythms, so he could get through, vocally sustain Act One. Violeta Urmana and Robert Dean Smith got to sing it instead with Adam Fischer the following summer, which proved to be the one positively memorable part of Adam Fischer conducting the Ring, taking Sinopoli’s place.

    Is there any broadcast around – I have heard rumors – of Sinopoli doing Bruckner 6? I enjoy very much the Stk Dresden disc of Schubert 8 and 9, but I will have to give the Philharmonia one a spin quite soon. Sinopoli certainly had ideas, some of them at times did not work, he kicked up a whole lot of dust, but is this not preferable to a Paavo Jarvi, a Zinman, half the time a Rattle, or a Thielemann (how dreadful some recent Beethoven from him has been – and his Bayreuth Tristan – phew!), Welser-Most, or the race by Andris Nelsons or Valery Gergiev through the Bruckner symphonies? (What is the hurry?)

  • David Spence says:

    Giuseppe Sinopoli, simply put, got taken us too soon, way too soon. We’ll never know …..

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    I also admire very much his recording of the Bruckner 8 with the Dresden orchestra as was his fine recording of Bruckner 5.