Artist Profile: Clemens Krauss

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Clemens Krauss (1893-1954) was a man of many faces. A brilliant and celebrated conductor, a careerist who collaborated with the Nazis, and also a humanitarian who helped save the lives of many Jews during the Second World War. I have long been fascinated by his way of interpreting music and now, thanks to Decca Eloquence’s newly released box set of all his recordings on the label, we can enjoy his music in better sound than ever before.

Perhaps he was born with the need to assert himself, born as he was as a result of an extramarital affair between a 15-year-old dancer at the Vienna Opera, Clementine Krauss, and Chevalier Hector Baltazzi, who came from a wealthy banking family. Born and raised in Vienna, the young Krauss sang with the Wiener Sängerknaben and also studied at the city’s conservatory. After making his conducting debut in Brno in 1913, his career followed a similar pattern to that of many of his contemporaries. He learnt his craft at smaller opera houses in Riga, Nürnberg and Szczecin before being approached by the more famous opera houses and orchestras. Early on, he forged close links with the Vienna Philharmonic, that city’s opera house and the Salzburg Festival, as well as leading the Frankfurt Opera for a few years in the late 1920s and conducting several of the major American orchestras.

His career in Germany took off after the Nazi seizure of power, first as director of the Berlin Staatsoper for a short period between 1935-1936, and then as director of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich (1937-1944). Krauss himself was not a member of the Nazi party, but he achieved an almost unique position of power in the Third Reich, second only to Wilhelm Furtwängler. What makes Krauss Janus-faced is that, parallel to this collaboration with the Nazi regime, he privately participated with his wife, the soprano Viorica Ursuleac, in the secret operation by Englishmen Ida and Mary Cook to rescue German Jews from the Holocaust.

It was not until 1947 that Krauss was allowed to conduct again by the Allies, but then his career continued as usual, concentrating on the musical centres of Vienna, Salzburg and Munich, although he also made welcome guest appearances in London. He is best known to posterity as an interpreter of the music of Richard Strauss and the Strauß waltz family, which is somewhat misleading given his otherwise very broad repertoire, which included not only Germanic music but also French and Italian music by Debussy, Ravel, Verdi, Puccini and Respighi. Krauss also conducted contemporary operas such as Hindemith’s Cardillac and Berg’s Wozzeck, as well as several of Mahler’s symphonies.

Over the years he developed a close association with Richard Strauss, frequently conducting his operas and symphonic poems. He also made a famous series of recordings for Decca of several of Strauss’s orchestral works and the opera Salome with soprano Christel Goltz. Their personal friendship also led Strauss, dissatisfied with subsequent librettists after the death of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, to commission Krauss to write the text for his final opera, Capriccio, which the Austrian conductor also premiered in Munich in 1942.

Opera was Krauss’ main focus throughout his career. Although he regularly conducted concerts, he never conducted his own symphony orchestra. Of course, he also conducted Wagner in the opera houses, but his debut in Bayreuth in 1953 was still something of a sensation and a milestone in his life. That year he gave the Ring and Parsifal, interpretations of extraordinary brilliance and finesse. Then there is the added bonus of the golden age of incomparable Wagner singers such as Varnay, Hotter, Resnik, Neidlinger, Vinay, Windgassen and others. That Ring (reissued on Orfeo) is one of the most musically convincing recordings of the work, although there are, of course, technically better ones.

1954 was to be Krauss’ greatest year as a conductor. After his acclaimed performances in Bayreuth, the Wagner brothers, Wieland and Wolfgang, were about to make him the leading conductor of the festival. He was a celebrated star at the Vienna State Opera and in Salzburg. With the Vienna Philharmonic, he resumed the New Year’s concerts he had begun during the Second World War. However, Krauss’ heart problems worsened and on 16 May 1954, in Mexico City, he died of a heart attack during a tour with the Vienna Philharmonic at the age of 61.

More than 70 years later, he is a name in music history that is usually brought up when it is time for the New Year’s Concert on television, but for us more historically minded music lovers, he is something much more important. You only have to listen to his recording of Johann Strauß’ Die Fledermaus on Decca to realise what an accomplished conductor he was. As one of his greatest admirers, Carlos Kleiber, has said, no one performs this music with such a mixture of almost nonchalant charm combined with exquisite finesse.

Notable Recordings

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