He was an important conductor. Also a big one.

Opera song

There is precisely one famous story about Hans Rosbaud – although, like its subject, it is not as famous as it should be.

This Austrian conductor was sleeping at home in March 1954 when the telephone rang. On the other end of the line was a somewhat desperate Hamburg Radio producer. Could Rosbaud come and cover for the injured Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and oversee the premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron,” a gargantuan opera unseen since it was left unfinished in 1932?

Rosbaud had never seen the score. His mind probably drifted to the 1930s: at the time Schoenberg had told Rosbaud apprehensively that he had “imposed no reservations whatsoever regarding difficulties of execution” in writing the opera. He clearly assumed that no one would dare to execute him.

When was the premiere scheduled, Rosbaud asked the fearful radio producer? In exactly one week.

It was a difficult prospect, but not impossible as it would have been for almost anyone else. “One is almost compelled to apply the word genius to Hans Rosbaud’s masterful control of the work,” The New York Times later reported of the performance. Brilliant enough, indeed, for the show to hit record in 1957, the year Rosbaud directed the first staging of “Moses und Aron” in Zurich – surpassing “even himself,” as the wrote a reviewer.

The recording still holds, a fire gushing from his lucidity. Had Schoenberg lived to hear it, he might have repeated the thanks he had given Rosbaud in 1931 for a performance of his “Variations for Orchestra”, when he wrote in admiration of having heard his work performed “with clarity, with love, with purpose”. .”

No musician of Rosbaud’s generation did more to canonize his avant-garde. Igor Stravinsky offered a letter of recommendation for “this high-minded musician, this aristocrat among conductors”. Paul Hindemith was a lifelong classmate and friend. Anton Webern was a guest of the house.

“When a composer speaks of Rosbaud conductor”, wrote Pierre Boulez about the one to whom his masterpiece “Le Marteau sans maître” is dedicated, “he first speaks of a friend”.

Joan Evans, musicologist and biographer of Rosbaud, listed 173 creations he gave from 1923 until his death in 1962, recipients ranging from Fritz Adam and Bernd Alois Zimmermann to Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Gyorgy Ligeti and Luigi Nono . The Musical Times of London simply called him “contemporary music’s greatest conductor”.

But this “dream figure” who “would always give the benefit of the doubt in the future”, as Boulez wrote, chafed at his formidable reputation.

“I’m not a specialist in modern music,” Rosbaud told a German newspaper in 1956. “In Aix-en-Provence, I’m described as an expert on Mozart; in Munich, I am considered a Bruckner specialist. It is dangerous to classify musicians in this way.

Particularly for the fate of Rosbaud. His public stature never approached the private respect in which musicians held him, in part because of his advocacy of music that never really caught on. Quiet and erudite, this “dark, Lincolnesque” man, as one writer once described him, seemed the antithesis of a famous maestro. His main positions were not with big name symphonies, but lesser radio ensembles. He has made few commercial records, however superb they may be. He had no interest in fame.

Few conductors therefore have more to gain from opening the vaults. More than 700 Rosbaud performances languish in the archives, most of them at SWR, the successor to Southwest German Radio in Baden-Baden, his artistic home after 1948.

Since 2017, SWR has released 59 CDs of these tapes, in a project that spans Rosbaud’s work with composers from Mozart to Sibelius. There is still a lot to materialize, in particular what should be essential boxes of the music of the 20th century. But despite sounding variable, usually mono, what has already emerged is enough to prove he was so much more than his legend. Unquestionably one of the most important conductors of his century, Rosbaud was also one of the best.

He saw his task primarily as helping composers state their own case. But unlike others who have aimed for similar interpretive modesty, Rosbaud’s approach was never clinical or didactic. He always had in his heart that love which moved Schoenberg. His Bruckner had humanity as well as structure; he took Haydn seriously, sooner or later; his Schoenbergs, Bergs and Weberns were not only intelligible, but blazing with intensity.

Claudia Cassidy put her pen to the typical Rosbaud style in 1962. “Rosbaud gave us a plan,” wrote this ordinarily earthy critic of the Chicago Tribune after hearing him conduct Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” “Not the kind that lies inert on the drawing board, but the kind that soars skyscrapers, builds bridges in space, and sends imaginations spinning into orbit.”

Rosbaud had music in his blood. He was born in Graz, Austria, on July 22, 1895, to Anna Rosbaud, a piano teacher who had taken lessons from Clara Schumann. A single mother who died in 1913, Anna never told her four children who their father was; Arnold Kramish, the biographer of Hans’ brother Paul, traced their paternity to Franz Heinnisser, at one time the choirmaster of Graz Cathedral.

Growing up in a musical, albeit destitute, family, Hans played at least four instruments. He attended Frankfurt’s Hoch Conservatory, and his first appointment as a conductor was in 1921. He later recalled becoming accustomed to the “hissing, diatribe and rage” with which audiences would greet his Hindemiths, Stravinsky and Schoenberg with the Mainz Symphony Orchestra in Germany. .

Rosbaud’s main task at Mainz was to run its music school, and he continued this educational approach in his career after 1929, as conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. Rosbaud lectured on orchestral instruments, writing pieces such as a fughetta for three bassoons as illustrations, and he lectured on Wagner before giving act-by-act broadcasts of the “Ring”. Bartok, Stravinsky and other composers came to play; Schoenberg spoke of his “Variations”, Rosbaud giving examples, and also sent thoughts on “Brahms the progressive”.

Even before Hitler took power in 1933, the likes of Rosbaud drew attention to what he told Stravinsky was a “chauvinist movement”. Forced to enlist a family friend in Graz as a fake father to demonstrate his Aryan ancestry, Rosbaud found his once praised backing for a certain stream of new music that now got him into trouble, notably when a disgruntled subordinate reported it to the Gestapo in 1936. to view the music “in a Jewish sense”. He reassures the banished composers that he remains by their side and tries, without success, to find a job in the United States. He left Frankfurt in 1937 for Münster.

Rosbaud despised Nazism and he probably knew that Paul, his brother, was spying on the German nuclear program for Britain. Still, Hans put his abilities to work for the Nazis, coming to terms with that service with small acts of resistance. In Berlin, he seemed solid enough to be appointed general musical director of occupied Strasbourg, a city which the Nazis sought to transform into a colony for their idea of ​​German art, in 1941. But Rosbaud endeared himself to Alsatians, speaking French, protecting the musicians and acting with enough decency that even Charles Munch, a staunchly anti-fascist Strasbourg conductor, deemed him beyond reproach.

Despite Rosbaud’s work in occupied territory, the US military hastened to exonerate him as part of denazification proceedings. Rid of any unfortunate ideological association in his politics or aesthetics, he was general director of music in Munich before the end of 1945: a brief and frenetic tenure that saw him give Beethoven and Bruckner cycles in bombarded halls, and reconnect the German musical life. to its international context, with Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Stravinsky in the spotlight.

This work would continue, but not primarily in Munich. An offer in 1948 from Baden-Baden could not be refused, as it offered the opportunity to dream up an ensemble from scratch and fulfill a special mandate for new music, which after 1950 included the Donaueschingen Festival, a focus of the vanguard. keep. An energetic Beethoven Violin Concerto with Ginette Neveu from 1949, as well as a lacerating Second by Hartmann and a courageous “Turangalîla” by Messiaen soon after, show that Rosbaud quickly took the orchestra to a high level.

But it never aspired to the ensemble virtuosity of the more commercial orchestras of the time. His vivid 1957 account of Haydn’s “London” Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic may be more accurate than his 1952 and 1962 efforts in Baden-Baden, but what matters about them is the how their warmth and dynamism enliven Haydn’s structures, without drawing attention to themselves.

The joys of what SWR has discovered are subtle, not sensational. Those who need big statements in their Beethoven might be disappointed, however gratingly insistent his Fifth Symphony, the liquid flow of his Sixth, the effervescence of his Eighth. Those who want bombast in their Tchaikovsky will doubt his inescapable Fifth, so full of dark psychological darkness that it almost evokes Mahler. And in Mahler, Rosbaud’s first plea for who was characteristic of a conductor so often half a time ahead of his time, he approaches the ideal.

“Mr. Rosbaud does not cut it to pieces or disguise it with ‘interpretation,'” Cassidy wrote of a Mahler Ninth in Chicago in December 1962, in terms that also apply to the recording of Rosbaud in Baden-Baden in 1954. “It gives it clarity, precision and understanding, which is to enlighten it without blinding its mysteries.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where Rosbaud was guest conductor for a long time between 1959 and 1962, considered him the successor to Fritz Reiner as musical director. This offered for the first time American recognition and a chance to develop a craft honed not only in Baden-Baden, but also in Zurich, where he held positions with the Orchester de la Tonhalle, and in Aix-en-Provence. . He conducted the annual 1948 summer festival there, conducting the opera Mozart that Virgil Thomson once called “perfection” in its “liveliness and orchestral delicacy”, and venturing into Gluck and Rameau.

But Chicago was not to be. Rosbaud had been weakened since kidney surgery several years before, and after this Mahler Ninth and a brief stop in Baden-Baden, where he said his serene farewell with Brahms’s Second, he died on December 29, 1962, near Lugano, Switzerland. . He was 67 years old.