Orchestra conductors have to be in charge – it's their job. Georg Tintner (1917 - 1999) took firm control not only of his ensembles but of his life, which he enfolded with two bold gestures that defined a man who accepted few compromises, both professionally and personally.
As a rising star in Vienna, the twenty-year old Tintner already was a noted composer and performer, and seemed destined to take his place among the elite of the musical establishment. But when confronted with Nazism, he didn't just slip over a border or even cross an ocean to America until the tempest passed, as so many others with wealth or connections were able to do. Rather, inured to anti-Semitism, he tried to hold his ground and even sued to retain his conducting contract at the Vienna Volksoper, but upon grasping the futility and danger ultimately got as far away as possible from the madness, relocating to New Zealand and completely and permanently severing his ties to his destined life.
Six decades later, Tintner was finally on the verge of recognition, but was battling incurable cancer. Unwilling to let his life just crumble away, he had completed the key phase of his first and only major recording project and then stepped off his eleventh floor balcony into eternity.
In between, Tintner reportedly led an exemplary life, but on his own terms. Perhaps stung by his wrenching dislocation and recognizing the irreparable changes wrought upon pre-war Viennese culture, he became reconciled to the improbability of recovering his promising destined career and instead became the very antithesis of the typical ego-driven, globe-trotting conductor – rather than trying to retrieve the life he had left behind, he devoted himself to seeking opportunities to share his enthusiasm, educate audiences, develop youth ensembles and bring great music to Australia, South Africa, Nova Scotia and other locales far removed from the usual cultural centers. On a personal level, too, Tintner stood outside the mainstream of vain, high-living, soul-searching artists – he was an ardent pacifist, vegetarian and socialist who refused the usual material perks that came with his position – he travelled on the same bus as his orchestra rather than in a limo and once insisted upon downgrading his airline ticket from first class to economy.
It would be gratifying to complete this tale on a note of high moral reward with a report that Tintner's ethical commitment and self-effacing character coalesced into a pure vision of unique and striking insight, now preserved on record to enlighten and stimulate all who might follow the example of his lifestyle and outlook. But rarely does art abide by such simple plots of cause and effect. (After all, some of the greatest musicians were scoundrels – Wagner was a vicious racist, Toscanini a philanderer, etc.) Tintner's few recordings suggest a man so humbled by the lessons of life that he grew to accept its challenges rather than fight them, worshipping so deeply before the altars of the masters that he felt unworthy of imposing his own interpretive stamp. While personally commendable, such reticence can leave a large artistic void, especially in nineteenth-century works that were written in expectation of performers' bold, assertive creative input.
Tintner's only widespread yet sadly belated critical notice arose from his complete set of the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, released on the budget Naxos label from 1997 through 2000. Initial reports sounded like a practical joke – here was an unknown octogenarian attempting credible performances of this most German of music with three equally obscure and seemingly woefully unsuitable ensembles – the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and the New Zealand Symphony. Yet, critics were generally ecstatic, lauding the excellence of the playing and the freshness of Tintner's approach.
Naxos is supplementing its Bruckner cycle with a Tintner Memorial Edition of twelve CDs in which Tintner applied his approach to other repertoire. Of the ten already available, the first seven comprise live performances and three are studio recordings of light pieces, all by the Symphony Nova Scotia between 1988 and 1994.
Although his Haydn is solid, Mozart classically balanced and Brahms superbly polished, at first Tintner's recordings of more demanding repertoire can seem disappointing, yet it's worth considering why. All are well-played but small-scaled, unfold patiently and are somewhat nondescript, without the individualistic touches to which decades of fine recordings have made us accustomed. Often such objectivity can be mistaken for a lack of inspiration or even laziness. But it can also signal a conscious choice to eliminate rhetoric and refine music down to its essential elements. Perhaps Tintner is trying to tell us something about the nature of music, as he came to view it. Here was a man who ultimately made strict personal choices of what really mattered to him. The most memorable conductors distilled their life experiences into unique attitudes that colored their art – Walter's warmth, Toscanini's steadfast drive, Celibidache's Zen. Tintner did, too, but his color turned out to be transparent.
In his unassuming way, Tintner reminds us that ultimately music is only an abstraction – an imaginative arrangement of audible frequencies that mystically triggers a personal emotional response – and that a mature listener shouldn't demand elucidation of its components and structure through performers' proactive interpretations. Great composers select and organize their material with care, instinct and genius. If their unadorned work sounds boring, it's less their fault than a sign of superficial listening. Indeed, Mrs. Tintner notes that her husband, himself a composer, felt it a matter of integrity to adhere to the written score as the inviolate conception of the composer himself and to scrupulously avoid one's own indulgence.
That said, there's a difference between live and recorded music. The mere opportunity to hear great music performed with empathy and skill validates the concerts in which Tintner presented it. But with a zillion decent recordings already of the great masterpieces, why bother to publish another unless it adds to our existing knowledge by illuminating untried paths of understanding? While the Tintner Memorial Edition documents and perpetuates the taste and devotion of this wonderful man who meant so much to those who knew him or heard him perform, in all candor the records themselves, while fine and honest representations of his talent and outlook, may seem redundant to all the others already available.
That's the ultimate irony – in music as in every endeavor, those who toot their horns the loudest get noticed and remembered while others with subtler messages remain in the shadows of anonymity. So I'm glad Naxos has issued the Tintner CDs – they're not only a worthy memorial to a fine man but an important reminder that sometimes quiet, dedicated integrity has a place. And perhaps that place should get recognized and honored far more than it often does.
It's a shame that Tintner was not provided an opportunity to explore more of the repertoire through recordings – aside from more Brahms, Schumann and early Beethoven, his way with Mendelssohn, Dvorak and perhaps even Bach must have been wonderful. But he did live long enough – although largely through sheer force of will during his lengthy final illness – to tape a full set of the Bruckner symphonies, a towering achievement upon which his fame undoubtedly will rest. Let's consider that first, and then the volumes of the Memorial Edition:
Bruckner: Symphonies # 00, 0, 1 - 9 (with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and the New Zealand Symphony). Naxos 8.501101 (11 CDs, also available singly).
Authentic Bruckner is generally ceded to the Austrian/German school of performance that emphasizes the weight, depth and solidity of the massive structural harmonic blocks. Tintner's pedigree within that tradition was solid – he sang for four years in the famed Vienna Boys Choir under Franz Schalk, Bruckner's foremost student and disciple, and studied under some of the greatest teachers in Vienna. Yet his performances, while remarkable in their own right, stood clearly apart from the conventions of his training.
In a way, Tintner's humility, so far removed from the forceful personalities of the most respected Bruckner interpreters, seems ideally suited to that composer, who was among the meekest of men. Yet, still waters often run deep – Bruckner used his music not as a projection of his unassuming persona but rather as a private realm to which he could escape from the women who spurned him, the students who mocked him and the cultural gatekeepers who barred him during his sad, discomfited life. While Tintner had more control over his own fate and undoubtedly derived satisfaction from his unusual professional achievements, perhaps he was able to identify with the composer to a greater degree than his affluent, outgoing peers and on a more fundamental, heartfelt and altogether meaningful level. The result is a fascinating balance of the heft and commitment demanded by the later Bruckner masterpieces, and lightened, carefully-balanced textures that equalize the instrumental lines and shine a penetrating light on the monolithic surfaces. The playing is remarkably solid, yet replaces the ultimate polish of the finest orchestras with a compelling sense of struggle and subtly shifting tension that effectively draws us into the composer's hidden world.
The sheer magnitude of any full Bruckner cycle is imposing enough, yet Tintner went further – he included not only the nine symphonies in the standard canon but two early ones which Bruckner disavowed (now designated as "00" and "0"), provided his own scholarly but accessible notes, and used early editions and alternate movements that place the familiar versions (which the composer often revised) in a new and fascinating light. Above all, he managed a near-miracle by coaxing persuasive performances out of his minor-league ensembles. The symphonies are available separately on Naxos budget CDs or together in an even thriftier box.
Interestingly, while it would seem that Tintner's Bruckner achievement was complete, apparently the project was far from finished, as he planned to add alternate versions as well as the orchestral religious music. I can only imagine Tintner's wondrously direct way of channeling the Masses, Psalms and Te Deum, the most deeply personal music Bruckner ever wrote, flowing directly from the soul of this supremely devout composer.
Mozart: Symphonies # 31 ("Paris"), 34, 35, 40 and 41. Naxos 8.557233 and 8.557239.
If, as so many critics and devotees through the ages have contended, Mozart is the perfect composer, then Tintner is his ideal guide. All of these performances are impeccably played, fully stylish without any hint of extrinsic personality, cleanly accented without any self-consciousness. The texture is full-blooded yet light, with a clear and silky acoustic. While the "Paris" Symphony is a bit thicker and more severe than is the custom, # 34 is properly rollicking and the "Haffner" is spirited yet thoughtful. But the grand prizes are the Symphonies 40 and 41. Naxos fills out many of the Memorial Edition volumes with the conductor's brief introductory remarks, apparently typical of those with which he charmed and informed his audiences. Here, he marvels at Mozart's last three symphonies, which he calls "miracles of music," with the 40th a true reflection of his soul at a time when Mozart was in debt and misunderstood and the 41st a marvel of wit and craft, yet full of feeling. With all the repeats they approach thirty-seven and forty minutes, yet seem all too brief. Indeed, it's hard to describe them in terms of performance, so fully does Tintner succeed in focusing our attention on the sublime music.
Haydn: Symphonies # 103 ("Drum Roll") and 104 ("London"). Naxos 8.557236.
As with Mozart, so with Haydn. In his introductory talk, Tintner praises the "Drum Roll" – the density of the introduction as the basses and celli play together, the alternating minor and major variations of the andante (which he finds reflected in Mahler), the Hungarian rhythms, echo effects and bold modulations of the scherzo and the happiness and good humor of the finale. Yet, despite using a reduced orchestra of only 37 players, the "feeling of open air" Tintner cites (and the peasant lust noted by many others) just doesn't seem to emerge as well as from the more characterful "authentic instrument" versions (especially Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music on L'Oiseau Lyre) or the big-band modern versions of Bernstein, Woldike or even Beecham, all of whom inject an appropriate dose of zest and verve. Tintner's objectivity permits us to focus on the music, but it takes a fair amount of imagination to come away from his Haydn with an appreciation for the composer's freedom and invention, as opposed to the formal structures he pioneered and developed.
Schubert: Symphonies # 8 ("Unfinished") and 9 ("Great"). Naxos 8.557234.
The benefits and drawbacks of Tintner's style are apparent in this volume, presenting the two most renowned Schubert symphonies. In the "Unfinished," Tintner emphasizes the accompanying harmonic figures, often overriding the exquisite melodies that seem so essential for Schubert. The result gives this overly-familiar work a fresh veneer by piquing with unsuspected detail, focusing attention upon aspects often ignored, and leaving an impression that's haunting and surreal. In the "Great," though, Tintner's reduced scale and literalism seem too subtle and diffuse to sustain interest throughout its considerable length and sprawling layout. Ironically, by refusing to highlight the usual structural signposts, Tintner's Ninth inadvertently seems to vindicate early critics who had dismissed the work as too long and repetitive. There's a surprise at the very end – not a sustained note of triumph, as is routinely heard, but rather a gentle fade-out of the final chord that drains the work of its customary powerful closing. Not only is this gesture fully consistent with the forzando (i.e.: a brief, sharp accent) and diminuendo (a gradual lessening of volume) markings in the score and thus fully authentic (although few other conductors observe it – not even alleged purists like Toscanini or historical performance specialists like the Hanover Band or the London Classical Players), but it creates a lovely bond between the composer's gentle lyricism and the conductor's own essential kindness.
Schumann: Symphony # 2; Beethoven: Symphony # 4. Naxos 8.557235.
In struggling to articulate why this performance didn't stir me, I realized that Tintner had done a highly effective job of educating this audience of one, albeit posthumously. Tintner made me appreciate that the Schumann Second is an achievement of rare complexity, one of those extraordinary works that can mean so many different things in diverse interpretive hands – romantic yearning, edgy energy, gnawing despair, playful anxiety. Few others can resist shaping the work to emphasize one or more of these aspects; yet, by highlighting one element, the others invariably get shorted. Tintner rises to none of this bait. As he says in his introduction, Schumann's romanticism isn't a means to an end but an end in itself. In the process, he permits, and indeed urges, each listener to draw from the symphony whatever he or she chooses, all while discouraging none of them – in a way, it's not only an important sign of sheer confidence in the musical muse but also respect for the maturity of his audience. The Beethoven Fourth makes a suitable companion for this volume, since Tintner cites it as Schumann's favorite among the Beethoven symphonies. The work itself carries less potential for interpretation than the Schumann, and receives from Tintner a typically careful and beautifully-balanced and -played reading, with nothing to either add to – or detract from – the music.
Beethoven: Symphony # 3 ("Eroica"); Sibelius: Symphony # 7. Naxos 8.557238.
The first two chords (and the final three) of the allegro con brio of this Eroicaare sharp and arresting, but the entire remainder of the first movement lapses into a well-manicured, patient unfolding, so well-behaved that it's utterly devoid of any sense of the revolutionary ardor that seems such an essential part of this work. Tintner's separation of first and second violin choirs produces some nice spatial clarity and his refusal to dramatize does focus attention on the sprawling structure. One curious effect – citing Beethoven's pupil Karl Czerny, Tintner repeats two measures at the end of the exposition (which itself is repeated in its entirety). But overall, the opening movement seems more a lapse in communication between composer and conductor (and hence between conductor and audience) than a meaningful presentation of this extraordinary work. In the funeral march the careful unfolding better serves the looming fatalism; even though Beethoven's deep anguish is sorely missed, in its place is a sense of shocked grief and stunned mourning that just could be fitting. The scherzo andfinale, too, aren't hindered by Tintner's literalism; rather, it fosters appreciation for the ingenious means by which Beethoven manipulates his motivic building blocks. The Sibelius emerges as penetrating and clear, with the absence of emotional markers helping to integrate the episodes into a single unified movement tinged with fantasy. Although here, too, one might wish for some of the seething tension and passion of the famous 1934 Koussevitszky/BBC reading and all its progeny, the Sibelius at least seems to tolerate, if not benefit, from the Tintner treatment.
Brahms: Serenade # 2; Symphony # 3. Naxos 8.557237.
In his spoken introduction, Tintner recalls how Brahms, despite habitual modesty, loved his Second Serenade. Clearly, Tintner does too, citing its sunny, happy nature and "miraculous treatment of the woodwinds." Artists as disparate as Toscanini and Bernstein fell for its considerable charms, but their recordings sound bland in comparison to Tintner's, whose buoyancy and gentle exuberance are wholly appropriate to the composer's youthfulness and who manages to craft a breezy texture that's meltingly lovely without ever becoming gooey. While the pastoral Brahms Second Symphony would seem more suited to Tintner's temperament, he brings off the Third wonderfully; it's gentle without becoming effete, careful but not fussy, moderated without slighting the exquisite dynamic gradations. The recordings themselves add a silken sheen. Only the finale sounds a bit undernourished, its inherent drama suppressed but still seeming anxious to emerge.
Delius: Violin Concerto (with Philippe Djokic, violin), Prelude to "Irmelin," La Calinda, The Walk to the Paradise Garden, Intermezzo from "Femminore and Gerda," On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Summer Night on the River, Sleigh Ride. Naxos 8.557242
This and the next two discs reveal a fascinating side of Tintner's art – the extraordinary care he lavished on works that most fans would rank as of far lesser import than any of the acknowledged masterpieces in the other volumes. His Delius, in particular, is wondrous, but best taken in small doses – like a rich mousse, the first taste can be exquisite but becomes bloating as the portion increases. As Mrs. Tintner's liner notes aptly observe, this is gentle and subtle stuff that has passed largely out of fashion; even the Violin Concerto is rhapsodic and restrained throughout, with barely a hint of the contrast and interplay between solo and orchestra that typifies the genre. The orchestra of 37 plays with wonderful precision and keeps the texture light and of nearly chamber proportions, every bit as accomplished as Beecham's acclaimed versions but with a transparency that belies Tintner's generally more leisurely tempos.
Mozart: "Les Petits Riens" Ballet Music, K. 299b, Three German Dances, K. 605, Five Contradanses, K.609, ThreeMarches, K. 408, Four Minuets, K. 601, Five Dances. Naxos 8.557243.
This, too, is undoubtely minor Mozart, written for royal balls as part of his duties as court composer. They may have been, as the notes observe, an appalling waste of his talent, yet nearly all of these casual dances and marches are utterly charming and finely wrought (and, as denoted by the late Kochel numbers, these were not works of youth, but rather of maturity). To Tintner they merited the same degree of attention as the great symphonies in the earlier volumes of this series. His orchestra plays precisely yet tenderly, managing the difficult feat of integrating warmth with an invigorating rhythmic thrust. The Petits Riens pieces have a somewhat wider scope but slighter inspiration, as several, while brief, lapse into trite formula, even though Tintner omitted yet others he considered spurious. Yet, there's a certain sameness to the rest of these works and so, unless it's to be used as background music, this collection is best heard in small doses, rather than the 75 minute block the CD permits.
Colonial Diversions – Grainger Rustic Dance, Eastern Intermezzo, Colonial Song, Gay But Wistful, The Gum-Suckers' March; Douglas Lilburn Diversions for Strings; George Dreyfus: Serenade for Small Orchestra; Arthur Benjamin North American Square Dance; Jean Coulthard: Excursion Ballet Suite. Naxos 8.557244.
This is the most intriguing of all the Tintner Edition volumes – all but the Grainger pieces receive their premiere recordings and Dreyfuss and Lilburn don't even otherwise appear in the record catalogues. Yet, although rare, they're not unfamiliar – even if not overtly derivative, all are conservative and solidly tonal with barely a touch of dissonance or even chromaticism, and give little hint of their 20th century genesis. The title of this collection refers to the English colonies, and specifically those with which Tintner had a professional and personal connection – Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Tintner's favorite among these composers was Lilburn, but mine is Coulthard (a protege of Benjamin); her ballet is evocative and bittersweet yet winningly light-hearted, and especially welcome coming from that extreme rarity, a female composer. All the works receive magnificent, spirited readings but, like the Mozart set, are best savored individually rather than in a marathon listening session.
The final two volumes of the Tintner Memorial Edition are to comprise Mahler's First Symphony and the Adagio of his Tenth, Schoenberg's Transfigured Night and Strauss (Richard, not Johann). I eagerly await them and will post notices just as soon as I can. Unfortunately, that may be a while – Naxos advises that the tapes were of inadequate quality and that issuance awaits a better source. That's disappointing – these live concerts with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada should combine Titner's devotion to education with that special spark of enthusiasm that only an amateur group can muster. And that in itself should serve as the most enduring and momentous tribute to the legacy and splendor of Georg Tintner.
October 2007 Update: Tintner the Composer – There’s still no sign of the two missing volumes of the Memorial Edition that promised to have been the most interesting of all. Yet Naxos has made partial amends by releasing a CD of Tintner compositions, all played with fine enthusiasm by 23-year old Helen Huang, joined in the Violin Sonata by Cho-Liang Lin. Like his conducting, it’s suffused with an air of regret over missed opportunities and what might have been. Many of the pieces are juvenilia, steeped in the late Romanticism of Scriabin, including a stylistically-secure Variations on a Theme of Chopin (based on the A Major Prelude), a somewhat meandering one-movement Sonata in F minor and a contemplative Auf den Tod eines Freundes (On the Death of a Friend), all written in his teens (when the cover photo was taken) yet heralding a precocious and formidable talent. As recounted in Mrs. Tintner’s liner notes, the rest were written during his exile and hint at a fertile maturity – fugues that reach back to an earlier age of rules to which Tintner might have turned for comfort as a bulwark against the uncertainty of his times, a grief-tinged Trauermusik (Tragic Music) “indicative of his state of mind as a penniless refugee in a strange land,” that flirts with serialism and thus oversteps the present to seek a new start, and above all his 25-minute 1941-44 Violin Sonata, in which he asserts a bold, even rebellious personality and begins to veer away from his professed goal of writing "beautiful music." The Sonata’s four movements are meant to evoke love, defiance, sorrow and triumph, and indeed they cover a wide emotional spectrum with vibrant, searching energy. According to Mrs. Tintner, only one more major work would follow, a 1959 quartet for strings and soprano (not included here), after which he fell silent, “owing to a combination of personal tragedies, the loss of his culture and transplantation into alien lands where he was little understood,” and he was further stymied by the stylistic confusion of the time. Sadly, she notes that “his inability to express himself was a matter of enduring grief to him” during the remaining four decades of his life. Perhaps his diminished activity as a composer led him to devote even more of his energy to conducting and teaching, where his legacy now rests. Yet, this intriguing CD leaves us to ponder an even more enduring legacy had Tintner continued to develop as a composer after such a promising start.
Copyright 2004 by Peter Gutmann
copyright © 1998-2004 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.