It doesn’t do to speak ill of the dead, and half-hearted praise falls into much the same category. But I’m having difficulty finding sufficiently laudatory things to say about Lorin Maazel, who has just died at the age of 84.
He was highly polished, a remarkable technician, a supreme sophisticate, with an accumulated life-experience on the podium like no one else – largely because he was one of those questionable things for a conductor, a child prodigy, let loose on major orchestras from the age of nine (though what a child of nine can be expected to give an orchestra, major or otherwise, don’t ask me).
He was also possibly the most expensive conductor on the planet, charging eye-watering fees for single appearances. And that he got away with it suggests that people thought him worth the cost.
But I can only say I’ve never been a fan – apart from a passing fondness for his old, 1979 soundtrack to the Joseph Losey Don Giovanni film. His readings were, in my experience, cultivated, grand, but un-illuminating. They were also egocentric: he was big game in the music jungle and he let you know it. When von Karajan left Berlin, he assumed himself to be the natural successor. When Abbado got the job instead, he wasn’t pleased. And his displeasure could be awesome. Hence his difficult relationships with the Vienna Staatsoper and Cleveland Orchestra.
Worse still, he had a high opinion of himself as a composer which was far from justified. In 2005 his opera 1984 was done at Covent Garden, and the general critical response was Why? It had no obvious merit, and had anybody else’s name been on the score it wouldn’t have got further than a workshop.
In his last years I avoided his performances – they simply didn’t interest me. But I did go to a bizarre night when the Sultan of Qatar hired the Albert Hall as a platform for his new symphony orchestra. For what were presumably reasons of extreme financial reward (there can’t have been any other) Maazel conducted. And it was one of the most spectacularly second-rate events I’ve ever been to. So unworthy, cynical and vacuous it was unbearable.
That, I’m afraid, will be how I remember Lorin Maazel. Not the best of memories.