Klaus Tennstedt, who became the London Philharmonic Orchestra's music director in 1983, recorded the complete Mahler symphonies with the orchestra between 1977 and 1986. A recording of the First Symphony in 1977 left critics underwhelmed, but recordings of the Fifth and Ninth won considerable plaudits. The Fifth was granted three stars in the authoritative Penguin Guide, which rightly praised an "outstanding performance, thoughtful on the one hand, warm and expressive on the other."
The Klaus Tennstedt of a decade later was an entirely different person, however, as the remarkable concert on this programme demonstrates. A heavy smoker, in 1986 he was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and began a firce course of radiotherapy. Having seemingly conquered the disease, he attempted a comeback at the 1987 Proms, but collapsed during a rehearsal and had to be replaced. He resigned at once as music director of the orchestra and did not conduct it again until May 1988.
In defiance of Tennstedt's ailing health after the first diagnosis of cancer, his interpretations of Mahler just got better and better. Indeed, many believed his ever-deepening readings were the direct consequence of his ongoing dalliance with serious illness and thoughts of mortality. When Tennstedt returned to Mahler's Fifth for the last time in London after his first bout of cancer, the Mahler was preceded by a highly dramatic rendition of Schoenberg's short, dramatic A Survivor from Warsaw, which, sadly, has not been preserved. By now, every Tennstedt concert was a Major event and a predictable sell-out. Until he was on the podium, furthermore, no one knew if he would conduct at all. It is a wonderful thing to listen again, after all these years, to a Tennstedt concert, but to see it too offers a far more profound appreciation of the physical travails the man overcame – and the love he inspired in musicians and the concert-going public alike. There will never be another Klaus Tennstedt, and here is a vivid reminder of just how special this self-proclaimed "Romantic conductor" really was.
London Philharmonic Orchestra
London Philharmonic Orchestra - Orchestre Philharmonique de l’ORTF