January 05, 2017

Maestro Georges Prêtre has died at the age of 92

The French conductor worked with Maria Callas, the Vienna Philharmonic, the orchestra of La Scala and more.

Legendary conductor Georges Prêtre has passed away at his home in Southern France, at the age of 92. News of his death comes exactly one year after the passing of another great French maestro of his generation, Pierre Boulez. Among his iconic recordings available on Warner Classics are the 1964 Carmen with Maria Callas as well as her 1963 Paris recital. Warner Classics paid tribute to the maestro last year with the release of a 17-CD 'Icon' boxed set gathering his symphonic recordings, featuring rarities never before released on CD.

Alain Lanceron, President of Warner Classics and Erato, worked extensively with Prêtre from the early 1980s. "Georges Prêtre recorded for EMI Classics a great deal in the 1960s at the Salle Wagram in Paris, notably the legendary recordings with Maria Callas - and continued to record with us throughout his long career," he said. "Georges had a charming, sun-filled personality. He was fit and eternally young, a young man even in old age. If he loved someone, he loved them for life, with an almost naive side which doesn't square with his formidable reputation as demanding and bad-tempered in rehearsal. If there was a hard edge to his character, it was always in the service of going more deeply into the music. He hated musicians arriving rehearsal late. He hated singers who didn't sing at full voice in the rehearsals, unlike Maria Callas who gave everything. He hated mediocrity.

"He made music with a sensual approach, not just an intellectual approach, always reaching for what was beyond the notes and in between the notes in a profoundly original, personal way."

The career of French musician Georges Prêtre led him from his studies at the Douai Conservatoire in northern France in the 1930s to invitations to conduct the legendary New Year’s Concert at the Vienna Musikverein in both 2008 and 2010. Born on 14 August 1924 in the mining town of Waziers (Département du Nord), in 1939 he moved on from the Douai music school to the Paris Conservatoire. There he was taught by Maurice Duruflé, Olivier Messiaen, Henri Challan and Norbert Dufourcq, winning First Prize in trumpet in 1944.

He then began to earn a living by playing wherever he could, including in music halls such as the Olympia and Bobino theatres, as well as receiving some financial support from the Straram Foundation for young conductors. His very first concert as conductor (1945) was followed by his debut at the Marseille Opera, conducting Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila (1946). He went on to conduct in the opera houses of Lille, Casablanca, Toulouse and Lyon, before making his debut at the Opéra-Comique in 1956 (with the French premiere of Strauss’s Capriccio, sung in French), and then at the Paris Opéra in 1959 (Gounod’s Faust).

At every step along the way, Prêtre learned more about his chosen trade, soon becoming one of the most visible members of the younger generation of French music. His early success also led to invitations to appear at venues around the world: Chicago Lyric Opera (Massenet’s Thaïs in1959), Covent Garden (1961), the Vienna Staatsoper (Capriccio, this time in German,1962) the Metropolitan Opera, New York (Samson et Dalila, 1964), La Scala, Milan (Faust, 1966), and the opera houses of Rome and Florence – Italy was to become his second home.

In the concert hall, he conducted the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire (1957) and the Orchestre National de la RTF (1960), and again soon began to receive invitations to appear internationally, at the helm of some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras. In London, he conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (at the request of Sir Thomas Beecham – he made his first appearance with the orchestra in 1962 and subsequently served as its associate conductor). He also performed in Vienna and Berlin, then in Bamberg and, somewhat belatedly, with the Staatskapelle in Dresden, as well as in Salzburg and Prague, and with the leading orchestras of the US, Argentina and Israel.

Musicians the world over came to know and admire him for his energy and quintessential Frenchness. From 1986 to 1991 he was principal guest conductor of the Wiener Symphoniker, of which he remained Ehrendirigent (conductor laureate, a title he also held with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra), reflecting a decision he made in the mid-1980s to focus primarily on orchestral music.

The great masters of the French repertoire are well represented in his catalogue. First among them is Berlioz, a composer very close to Prêtre’s heart, and one whose music he has conducted many times (for example, a concert performance of Benvenuto Cellini to mark the reopening of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1987, La Marseillaise and the Te Deum for the inauguration of theOpéra-Bastille in 1989). Also Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Satie, Dukas, Ravel and Roussel, as well as the slightly lesser-known Vincent d’Indy and Alexis de Castillon. His recorded output reveals an admiration for certain of his contemporaries: Francis Poulenc and Henri Dutilleux, Darius Milhaud and Marcel Landowski (Olivier Messiaen, Jean Rivier and Jean Françaix could all equally well have been included here). Speaking to radio station France-Musique in 1981, Prêtre talked about his love of Poulenc’s music, and about how an understanding of the French sense of humour played a key role in terms of doing his works full justice. Prêtre’s friendship with Poulenc was sealed in 1959 when, as music director of the Opéra-Comique (a post he held between 1957 and 1963), he conducted the world premiere of La Voix humaine, starring the peerless soprano Denise Duval. To recall Poulenc’s own words to him: “I know I shall never forget the compliment he paid me one day, when he said, ‘My dear Prêtre, you are the conductor I’ve been looking for all these years’.”

His conducting was energetic and enthusiastic, vibrant and passionate, dynamic (thanks in part to his practice of judo), but also compelling, informed by a meticulous attention to detail and animated by a subtle use of rubato. As noted by composer Paul Le Flem, “Precision, breadth, generosity – these are the essential characteristics of Georges Prêtre’s conducting style”. That style also often conveyed a sense of urgency – those who have watched and heard him live will be aware of his fieriness and his spontaneous instinct for drama. His feeling for colour was well suited to both the Russian repertoire – in which he has conducted the great London orchestras – and the French – in which he has always endeavoured to bring out the distinctive soundworlds of different composers (that of Poulenc being very different from that of Milhaud, and even further removed from that of d’Indy).

The recordings he made in Paris in the 60s also reveal the idiosyncratic sound of French orchestras (for example, the “New World” Symphony with the then recently formed Orchestre de Paris), and he and his persuasive baton revived it again in the recordings he made in the 80s with the Orchestre National de France (Roussel) and the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic (Milhaud, d’Indy). Similarly, in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, he inspired the Wiener Symphoniker to play with the élan and lyrical phrasing which, in this work, often distinguish French conductors from those of other nationalities.

With the passing of the years, Prêtre cultivated a longer line, an expansiveness, even, free from all constraint, audible in his more recent concerts – in Paris with the ONF at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 2004 (his eightieth birthday celebration), with the Wiener Philharmoniker in 2006 and 2013, and with the Dresden Staatskapelle in 2010. But he remained an entirely unique “interprêtre” – a term affectionately used by the Wiener Symphoniker, but possibly coined by the man himself, who knows?! An artist whose strength of character won him the admiration of so many audiences around the world: Georges Prêtre, a French musician through and through.

Essay by Rémy Louis, translation: Susannah Howe

The Icon collection Georges Prêtre: The Symphonic Recordings is available now.