Obituary: Gerd Albrecht, conductor

Gerd Albrecht. Picture: Contributed
Gerd Albrecht. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 19 July, 1935, in Essen, Germany. Died: 2 February, 2014, in Berlin, aged 78

GERD Albrecht was a German conductor who directed many international orchestras and was devoted to bringing contemporary music to a wider public – particularly championing the music of Krzysztof Penderecki and György Ligeti.

Albrecht served as general music director at the Hamburg State Opera (1988-97) and became embroiled in a controversy when he was appointed the first foreign principal conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. He led the Czech orchestra from 1993 until he resigned in 1996, blaming “political narrow-mindedness” after a dispute that, perhaps, had more to do with internal political tensions.

Albrecht made two important appearances at the Edinburgh Festival. In 1975 he conducted a historic Wieland Wagner production of Richard Strauss’s Salome in the King’s Theatre. It was an imaginative choice and one of the great successes of the John Drummond regime. The role of Herodias was taken with immense dignity by the renowned soprano Astrid Varnay.

Wieland Wagner concentrated most of his directing work in the theatre at Bayreuth so it was a considerable achievement for Edinburgh to secure this celebrated Berlin staging of the tempestuous biblical story.

Albrecht brought a huge sense of urgency and drama to the score and the title role was sung by Ursula Schröder-Feinen, who went on to have a major career on the continent. The Scotsman commented that Albrecht, “conducts with relish and the music makes a great impact”.

In 1983 Albrecht returned to conduct two unknown operas which were widely welcomed for their novelty and darling. The composer, Alexander von Zemlinsky, was unknown and the two operas that came to the Festival had never been performed in this country. Eine florentinische Tragödie (The Florentine Tragedy) and Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) were hailed under the headline, “Masterpieces Rediscovered.” It was Drummond’s last year as director and he had chosen to title the festival Vienna 1900. It proved a most rewarding and exciting festival and the official history comments, “The 1983 festival brought to light some of the works of the hitherto unknown Zemlinsky … the operas were amongst the highlights of the festival.”

Albrecht’s intense and committed conducting of the unfamiliar music proved essential and both works were warmly welcomed: indeed The Scotsman critic praised Albrecht in particular mentioning, “the sumptuous orchestral accompaniment provided by the Hamburg Philharmonic under Albrecht”.

Gerd Albrecht came from a musical family and studied the piano and conducting in Essen. He joined the music staff at Stuttgart Opera and was to work, in various capacities, with orchestras in Denmark, Germany and Japan.

In 1972 Albrecht was appointed principal conductor of the Berlin Deutsche Opera, West Berlin’s leading opera house, succeeding Lorin Maazel. While there Albrecht began to have special concerts for children. Throughout his career he presented TV programmes to introduce classical music to the young and old: he proved an excellent presenter in front of the camera and was at ease with his viewers and his subject. Albrecht also much enjoyed speaking from a bus as it toured the outskirts of German cities playing extracts from classical works.

He came to international notice when he became musical director of the Hamburg Opera in 1988. There he conducted the world premiere of the hugely complex opera Lear by Aribert Reimann and then gave its US premiere in New York. It was such demanding challenges to which Albrecht responded. He seldom conducted the standard repertory but had a great desire to explore new music and new composers.

In 1991 the Czech Philharmonic chose Albrecht as its musical director and the orchestra expected he would bring some lucrative recording contracts when appointed. In fact Albrecht started with the orchestra early as the previous conductor, a Czech, resigned. The orchestra had a proud and independent history and had a strong national identity having played a prominent part in protesting against the Soviet domination of their country.

After an incident involving an invitation for the orchestra to perform for the Pope at the Vatican it transpired the orchestra had decided that they should be conducted by a Czech. Albrecht was deeply affronted and the then Czech president, Vacláv Havel, became involved. Matters were smoothed over but the atmosphere worsened after another disagreement in 1996 when Albrecht was forced to share the podium at the centenary concert and he resigned.

But he was much in demand in the leading opera houses of the world and twice conducted at Covent Garden. In 1986 he was in charge of a new production of Der fliegende Holländer and two years later a revival of Strauss’s Elektra starring Gwyneth Jones and Helga Dernesch.

He has left an extensive discography – including many lesser known composers as well as more mainstream composers such as Brahms, Mendelssohn and, of course, Wagner.

Alasdair Steven