Saturday, May 9, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians: 5/9/20 - Peter Maag

Music lovers of a certain age can be forgiven for wondering what happened to Peter Maag, the Swiss conductor who seemed earmarked for a star career, complete with a recommendation from Wilhelm Furtwangler himself, when he deliberately shot his career in the foot to retreat to a series of monasteries. The prestige of his career never truly recovered, and he seemed to want it that way. He spent the next forty years being a fine journeyman conductor, going from town to town, leading the Mozart and Mendelssohn which once made him famous. A New York Times profile from the 80s makes him out to be a true eccentric belonging to the 19th century, whom even as the 21st neared was constantly interrupting the interview to take another pinch of snuff.
But Maag was very, very good, and improving right up to the end. If you track down the Mozart, Mendelssohn, later recordings, made with such august orchestras (...) as the Orquestra Symphonica de Madrid, the Orchestra di Padova et Veneto, you hear a level of involvement in the details of phrasing, balance, and harmonic tension, that thinks so much more deeply about the music than most star conductors ever think about Mozart symphonies, works that repay enormous musical satisfaction, but never reward conductors with tumultuous ovations. The orchestral virtuosity isn't much, and yet they do everything Maag asks of them perfectly well.
The big problem for Maag's musical outlook seemed to be that the authentic performance brigade moved in on his core repertoire. Right up to his death in the mid-2000's, Maag was performing 'Dresden doll' Mozart on completely modern instruments with slow tempi and leaden minuets. And yet an approach that under Karajan and Giulini sounds like a boring ersatz imposition sounds riveting under Maag - performances that sound like no one else's, but at the same time, the concept is completely unimposed that merely draws out from the music what was already there.

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