Rhinegold Photo credit: Stephan Trierenber

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Georges Prêtre (14 August 1924 – 4 January 2017)

10:05, 5th January 2017

French conductor Georges Prêtre has died at his home in the South of France, aged 92.

Celebrated for his French repertoire including Poulenc, Massenet, Bizet and Saint-Saëns, Prêtre’s 70-year career saw him work closely with Maria Callas and foster long relationships with La Scala and the Vienna Symphony.

The news was announced by the orchestra, of which he was honorary conductor. He conducted the ensemble for the first time in 1962, served as the orchestra’s first invited leader from 1986 to 1991, and gave a farewell concert in October 2016.

‘Georges Prêtre was both a sound wizard and a musician with an unparalleled intensity,’ said Thomas Schindl, chair of the orchestra, in a statement on the Vienna Symphony’s Facebook page. ‘He combined concentration and individuality in a unique way and his daring and adventurous personality always spurned us on to perform at our very best – and sometimes beyond of what we believed to be capable of.’

Born in 1924, Prêtre entered the Paris Conservatoire aged 15, where he studied harmony with Maurice Duruflé and conducting with André Cluytens.

He made his conducting debut at the Opéra de Marseille in 1946 aged 22, appearing at a number of other French houses before making his Paris debut at the Opéra-Comique (where he would be music director from 1955 to 1959) with Strauss’s Capriccio. He made debuts at Covent Garden, the Met and La Scala during the 1960s, and held posts at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (1959-71), and the Opéra de Paris (1970-71).

In 1959, Prêtre conducted the premiere of Poulenc’s La voix humaine, with Denise Duval in the female role and scenery, costumes and direction by Cocteau; the same year he gave the premiere of Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante for organ and orchestra, with Virgil Fox and the Paris Opera Orchestra

He collaborated with Maria Callas on numerous occasions, most notably on a recording of Bizet’s Carmen (1964), and in 1982 conducted the La Scala Orchestra in Franco Zeffirelli’s film version of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, both starring Plácido Domingo.

Prêtre spent most of his career outside France, and was famous for his love of all things Viennese. He was once quoted as saying: ‘I am a Frenchman, but my heart belongs to Vienna.’ He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day Concert twice – the only Frenchman to do so.

In a message on its Facebook page, the Vienna Philharmonic paid tribute to its ‘charming and dear honorary member’.

‘His legendary “Ich liebe dich” encouraged us even more and we loved him in return! May he rest in peace.’

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