Rhinegold Photo credit: CBSO

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Louis Frémaux (13 August 1921 – 20 March 2017)

9:03, 29th March 2017

French conductor Louis Frémaux has died aged 95.

The predecessor of Sir Simon Rattle at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), Frémaux raised the CBSO’s profile and produced a number of acclaimed recordings of French repertoire with the orchestra for EMI.

Frémaux’s studies at the Valenciennes Conservatoire were interrupted by WWII, during which he fought as a member of the French Resistance; he was then posted to Vietnam as a Foreign Legion Captain (1945-46).

After graduating in 1952, he spent his early career with the Opéra de Monte-Carlo (an appointment supported by Prince Rainier). He was subsequently appointed as the first musical director of the Orchestre Philharmonique Rhone-Alpes (now the Orchestre National de Lyon), a position he held from 1968 to 1971.

Frémaux was principal conductor of the CBSO between 1969 and 1978. As well as making a number of esteemed EMI recordings, he established the CBSO Chorus (appointing baritone Gordon Clinton, principal of the Birmingham School of Music, as chorus master) and championed new music, giving the British premieres of symphonies by John McCabe and Henri Dutilleux, and the first broadcast performance of Humphrey Searle’s Labyrinth. However, his tenure ended on a low note, with the departure of general manager Arthur Baker and disagreements with the players.

On leaving the CBSO (where he was replaced by the 25-year-old Simon Rattle), he was appointed as chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a position he held from 1979 to 1982.

He was made a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur in 1969.

Of his tenure at CBSO, Christopher Morley writes:

‘Louis Fremaux made the possibly naive mistake of appointing Arthur Baker, already general Manager of the CBSO, as his own manager, and the situation inevitably led to conflicts over the engagement and placement of players.

‘In 1978 an EMI recording of Britten’s War Requiem was in the planning when a disastrous explosion of these internal politics within the CBSO led to Fremaux’s abrupt departure, leaving wounds which regrettably have still not healed with some. A planned Beethoven symphony cycle was rescued that summer by the veteran Swiss conductor Erich Schmid, who basically held the orchestra together  (as did long-term associate conductor Harold Gray) for the next two years until the arrival of the 25-year-old Simon Rattle.

‘Touchingly, Louis Fremaux continued to maintain an apartment in Birmingham, where he lived with his eventual wife, Cecily Hake, once a CBSO cellist. When he at last made his debut in the late 1990s at Symphony Hall, conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in Shostakovich’s Symphony No 12, the ovation was ear-splitting.’

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