Alas, I never got to hear him live on his appearances with the LPO from 1977, busy as I was doing concerts rather than attending them. In my Mahler series I feature his performances of the 2nd and 5th symphonies—and his live concert of the 1st with the Chicago Symphony gives an impression of his fragile intensity.
a living affront to the modern conducting machine, a musician whose nervous intensity sears all around him. […] Each event was both an undreamed privilege and an act of desperation, the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition and a confrontation with naked fear.
According to wiki, he avoided military service under Hitler by joining a baroque orchestra—surely the best possible reason to do so. In his 1991 Desert island discs Tennstedt recalled being moved by listening to Tchaik 6 with his father while Russian music was banned by the Nazis. Under the GDR, taking up conducting after his career as a violinist leading the Halle orchestra was curtailed by a finger injury, he found modest posts in Leipzig and Schwerin. But keen as the regime was to exploit its cultural capital internationally, Tennstedt, not a Party member, was not among the select group of artists trusted to tour in the West. So his career only took off after he defected to Sweden in 1971. At first he was almost unnoticed;
“I thought maybe one day I’d get asked to conduct in Mannheim or Wiesbaden, but never to Hamburg or Munich”.
However, once he was “discovered” he soon gained a cult following through his appearances with orchestras in London and the USA. When the Boston management asked Tennstedt what he would like to conduct, he replied: “You mean I get to choose?”
It was only quite late that he came to Mahler, whose works soon became a trademark for him, a matter of life and death. His choice for Desert island discs was the 6th symphony. On a lighter note, I would have loved to see his agitated demonstration of the cowbells in the 7th.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the second movement of Mahler 5 with the LPO in 1988:
His last years were beset by ill health. Lebrecht’s summary:
Tennstedt survives, in Simon Rattle’s accurate assessment, as “the world’s great guest conductor”, gracing one podium after the next [sic], never able to settle or find his place in a musical economy that tolerates nothing less than bankable dependability.
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In the GDR, the WAM scene continued without him, headed by the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Gewandhaus and St Thomas choir in Leipzig, and conductors like Kurt Masur and Kurt Sanderling—see e.g. Kyle Frackman and Larson Powell (eds), Classical music in the German Democratic Republic: production and reception (2015).
For more documentaries on the GDR, see here. As the regime was crumbling in 1989, Kurt Masur (1927–2015) took an active political role in support of the protesters in Leipzig. See also under Life behind the Iron Curtain.
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Many of the world’s great musicians are illiterate or semi-literate. In the rarefied WAM scene, rank-and-file musos are hardly expected to be more than artisans, but composers, conductors, and soloists are admired for their broad cultural erudition, like Brendel or Gardiner. I have read somewhere (where, I wonder?) that when visiting Tennstedt at his home, Esa-Pekka Salonen was intrigued to find that he had hardly any books. This, I think, is neither here nor there; but it makes a good pretext to remind you of this wonderful story about Salonen.
See also The art of conducting: a roundup.