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Giuseppe Sinopoli - 1946 - 2001


Few, if any, conductors of the post-war generation vexed the public and critics as much as Giuseppe Sinopoli and, as a result, he suffered the opprobrium few of his rivals had to accept. His predecessor at the Philharmonia, Riccardo Muti, was largely adored, yet Sinopoli, without Muti's Italianate good looks, and with a marked tendency towards reinventing the music he played, was tolerated - but never loved. Yet, Sinopoli brought with him to London a golden record contract with Deutsche Grammophon and lucrative overseas tours - notably to Japan where he was fêted with the same degree of fascination as Celibidache and Karajan had been before him. He stayed with the Philharmonia until 1994 - a career move for both.

Sinopoli's career was marked by fascinating contradictions. After his appointment as Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia many conductors who had worked closely with the orchestra refused to do so whilst Sinopoli was its chief conductor. Muti, Ashkenazy and Rattle were just three who believed, rightly or wrongly, that Sinopoli would destroy that 'special' cohesiveness', that 'special' sound that had become the orchestra's hallmark. In many ways his first recording, a glowing coupling of Schubert's Unfinished and Mendelssohn's Fourth, showed that the Germanic sound which Muti had inherited from Klemperer, and which he himself had started to replace with something warmer, was being taken to its Italianate conclusion. The recording was noticeable for a beauty of string texture few orchestras could match and a balance between woodwind and brass which suggested a mercurial hand at the helm. The reviews were good - but that proved a short-lived phenomenon. As soon as he touched Mahler the critics attacked him with a venom almost unheard of in London's music press. In another famous incident early on in his career, during a Vienna Philharmonic concert, the orchestra were certain Sinopoli had lost his way in the score. For many years they refused to work with him. Later, however, he returned to the Vienna Philharmonic - and one of Sinopoli's greatest recordings, Strauss' Elektra, shows both orchestra and conductor firing sparks off each other. Contradictions indeed. If great conductors stamp their authority on the orchestras they conduct by giving them identifiable sounds then Sinopoli was a great conductor. Hear the Philharmonia today and they still have that Sinopoli warmth. Read countless reviews of the orchestra in repertoire from Mahler to Vaughan Williams and it is the 'sound' of the orchestra, particularly the strings, which are most mentioned.

Sinopoli's reinterpretation of familiar scores owes much to his bilateral training, first as a doctor, and then as a composer. On the one hand he literally dissected the music so it achieved uniform transparency (his Mahler Das Lied von der Erde being a perfect example). On the other, he brought a composer's insight to a conductor's role, deconstructing here and reconstructing there. There was, however, always an intellectual rigour to a Sinopoli performance and if his Mahler did not always reveal this his Bruckner, which he turned to later in his career, definitely did. Recordings of the Fifth, Eighth and Ninth symphonies have towering strength and are amongst the finest of the last decade. Hear a Sinopoli Bruckner symphony and you hear textures and notes which are missed in other performances. Compare Sinopoli's Dresden Bruckner with Jochum's Dresden Bruckner and you hear the correct balance versus the obtuse balance. Sinopoli's brass were gloriously restrained, whereas Jochum's sabotaged the detail.

Sinopoli was, however, probably a finer opera conductor than he was a symphonic conductor. If there is a literal reason for this it probably harks back to his original training. Opera has much more to do with the psyche and character than many symphonies could ever hope to achieve in their short span and Sinopoli was probably able to extrapolate the theories of psycho-analysis and criminal anthropology, which formed the basis of his psychiatry dissertation, in many of his performances. Yet, far from being cool and calculating his performances on record achieved levels of sonority and sensuousness eschewed by conductors before and since. Take any one of his Philharmonia recordings of Puccini - whether it be Madama Butterfly, Tosca or Manon Lescaut - and the end result is of a conductor who knew how to attain the bel canto line. Miraculously, he even achieved this same level of beauty in Wagner - at a time when many incinerated the inherent beauties of the Wagnerian line. It is unfortunate we do not now have a Sinopoli Tristan - for I am sure he would have recorded one had he lived. In this most revolutionary of scores Sinopoli's ear for detail would have borne extraordinary dividends. In Strauss he was masterly - with probably the finest recordings in modern sound coming from Sinopoli (see my surveys of Elektra and Salome on record). His recording of Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten might have been a first choice for the work were it not cut.

In Mahler he will always remain controversial. The best of his Mahler - the Fifth, Seventh and Ninth symphonies, as well as a truly staggering Eighth - all benefit from meticulous detail and wonderful playing. Yet, I remember hearing a Sinopoli Mahler 5 soon before he left the Philharmonia which achieved extraordinary levels of spontaneity, decrying the element of over-preparedness which always haunted a Sinopoli performance. In the Ninth he was less emotional in the final movement than many expected, and in the Seventh he achieved an assimilated schizophrenia which still shocks. His Mahler may yet prove to be his lasting achievement - a way of looking at these over-familiar scores which will soon become the norm. Only now are we hearing Benjamin Zander's exacting performances of these scores. Zander's way with Mahler is closer to Sinopoli's than many critics like to admit.

Sinopoli was such a maligned conductor - even from within his own profession - it is difficult to be objective about him. Many were - still are - astonished by his early meteoric rise yet his move to Dresden after a short bout with the Berlin Deutsche Oper has proven the crown of his career. Here was an orchestra with over 450 years of history working with a conductor who demanded almost impossible, and reinventive, intellectual demands from his players. Yet, the results were not just plausible - they were symptomatic of an openness to compromise, a willingness to understand - something which Sinopoli had been unable to secure from the Philharmonia.

Sinopoli had the misfortune of being a conductor at the same time as the growth in authentic performance. Whilst that showed Sinopoli to be more unfashionable in Beethoven than many of his contemporaries - such as Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado who both drew on the authenticists for more modern interpretations of the 'masters' - it clouded Sinopoli's main achievement. That was to bring a freshness to music making which made those who were willing to listen challenge their own pre-conceptions of works they thought they knew. Hearing Sinopoli conduct a work, as you had a score in hand, was a sublime experience --you could tangibly understand why a conductor had written something this way when you often heard it played another. He was not a literalist in the Abendroth mould more a free thinking spiritualist in the Celibidache mould. Sinopoli's time will come, the incompleteness of his work fully understood.

His death, fittingly (or as fittingly as death can be), whilst conducting a performance of Aida in Berlin brings his career full circle: this was the very work he made his debut with in 1972. It brings a perverse symmetry to a career which was more asymmetrical than most. A great conductor? I think posterity will probably suggest this is the case.

Marc Bridle

Giuseppe Sinopoli, conductor and composer, born 2 November 1946; died 20 April 2001.

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