Edo de Waart

Edo de Waart (born in Amsterdam in 1941) began his career as an oboist. As a student at the Amsterdam Conservatory he had lessons from Kees van der Kraan and Haakon Stotijn, both oboists in the Concertgebouw Orchestra. After graduating, in 1963 he gained a position in the Concertgebouw Orchestra, alongside his former teachers. However, De Waart’s true passion was for conducting. Encouraged by Bernard Haitink, in 1964 he took part in the Dimitri Mitropoulos Competition for orchestral conducting in New York and won first prize. As a result he was given a position as assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein. When he returned to the Netherlands, De Waart became assistant conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bernard Haitink. From 1967 onwards he led the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, with which he made recordings for Philips, including Mozart’s music for wind ensemble.

De Waart made an impression as a conductor, and in the late 1960s his career rapidly gained momentum. In 1968 the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra appointed him as conductor alongside Jean Fournet. From 1973 to 1979 he was sole chief conductor of the Rotterdam orchestra. In 1975 he made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, of which he was to become music director a few years later. He was invited by the Bayreuth Festival to conduct a series of performances of Lohengrin in 1979. After the success of the LPs with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, Philips had him make records with orchestras including the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Royal Philharmonic, the New Philharmonia and the English Chamber Orchestra. He also made recordings with the orchestra of Monte Carlo, which turned out to be a rather problematic experience. This was one of the reasons why De Waart decided to make recordings in Rotterdam. He talked about this in an interview, saying, ‘That was such a disaster. […] When I came back I told Philips, “I can do that in less time and for a third of the price with Rotterdam.” “Show us,” they said.’

De Waart’s eleven years in Rotterdam coincided with the flourishing era of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra which had begun with the opening of De Doelen – a concert hall of architectural significance – in 1966. No less a figure than Herbert von Karajan praised the new hall shortly after its opening. Recording director Jaap van Ginneken – the man behind the Bruckner and Mahler cycles with Bernard Haitink – was much less enthusiastic; he even thought the hall was unsuitable for recordings. However, Van Ginneken died before De Waart was to make recordings in Rotterdam and recording director Wilhelm Hellweg was actually keen to try recording in De Doelen. In 1973 De Waart’s first LP with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra was recorded there, with a selection from Prokofiev’s ballet music for Romeo and Juliet. Many LPs were to follow, including a much-lauded recording of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, music by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns, and of course the prestigious Rachmaninov cycle, included in this collection, which was completed shortly before De Waart left Rotterdam.

The Second Symphony, of which De Waart gives a sumptuous performance, was written in Dresden in 1907, is by far the longest of the three. For a long time its sheer length was a problem. Several conductors suggested Rachmaninov should make some cuts. He accepted the omission of no fewer than 300 bars, but he was not happy about this, as he told Eugene Ormandy just before his death: ‘You don’t know what cuts do to me. It is like cutting a piece out of my heart’. At the time De Waart’s recording was made, appreciation for this well-constructed and brilliantly orchestrated symphony was growing. Some conductors even observed the repeat of the opening movement – but De Waart did not opt to do this. The Penguin Guide of 1982 regarded this recording of the Second Symphony as the pinnacle of this cycle: ‘Edo de Waart’s reading is attractively volatile, bringing out the music’s freshness. With generally fast tempi the effect is emotionally lightweight, although the slow movement is very beautiful and the refined orchestral playing is naturally expressive throughout. The recording is full and well balanced.’

The Symphonic Dances, dating from 1940, comprise Rachmaninov’s last orchestral work. The original title was Fantastic Dances, which says more about the curious atmosphere and timbre he sought, for instance in the eerie waltz that is the second movement. This work and the Capriccio bohémien were on the LP De Waart recorded in London in late 1971. To do this, he had to internalize the music. This took some time, as he admitted in an interview with Alan Blyth for The Gramophone in January 1973. ‘I must confess,’ he said, ‘that I didn’t like his music at first. About three years ago I bought a record of the Symphonic Dances. I didn’t care for them at all. Then I conducted the work in Rotterdam several times, and suddenly I became very fond of it.’ De Waart told Blyth how his interpretation had evolved, an explanation which undoubtedly also applies to the Rachmaninov cycle as a whole: ‘I think his music grows on you as you get rid of the “honey and roses” view of him that you first learn. You must play him as strongly as the Russians used to do. It’s the same with Tchaikovsky. If you listen to Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic in the symphonies you hear what they’re really about. I think what we’re now finding in Rachmaninov is probably responsible for the revival of interest in his music.’ The revival De Waart is referring to here took place in the 1970s – in other words, it coincided with these Rachmaninov recordings.

It is to the Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky that we owe another important orchestral work. In 1922 he commissioned Maurice Ravel to orchestrate Pictures at an Exhibition, a piano work by Modest Mussorgsky inspired by an exhibition of work by the Russian painter Viktor Hartmann. A shrewd businessman, Koussevitzky retained sole conducting rights for several years. When this monopoly expired in 1930, the Pictures began its unstoppable advance in concert halls. The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra performed it from 1949 onwards under Eduard Flipse. In the November 1975 issue of The Gramophone Edward Greenfield compared De Waart’s recording with Karajan’s, writing, ‘If he hardly matches Karajan’s individuality, and the orchestra has not quite the polished ensemble of the Berlin players, his straightness and freshness provides a clear alternative – preferable I feel to Ormandy’s disappointingly staid account of this coupling … There is also the question of recording, for though Karajan’s 1966 offering still sounds superb, the Philips engineers, working in the Rotterdam orchestra’s fine De Doelen hall, have gone out of their way to provide sound that is not just spectacular but wonderfully weighty and rounded.’

The first LP De Waart made in Rotterdam, in April 1973, was a selection from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. This ballet, which lasts two and a half hours, was composed in 1935 shortly after Prokofiev had returned to Russia from his self-imposed exile. Prokofiev realised that given the symphonic character of the dances this music would do well in concert halls. For this purpose he put together three concert suites from the music, based more on the musical progression than on the storyline of the ballet. Many conductors prefer to make their own selection, including Edo de Waart, who presents his own ordering of the pieces in Prokofiev’s Second Suite supplemented by four pieces from the First Suite. The selection begins with the depiction of the rival families, the Montagues and Capulets, and ends with two longer, dramatic numbers – ‘Romeo and Juliet Before Parting’ and ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb’.

The Prokofiev LP marked the beginning of Philips’s exclusive contract with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. After De Waart’s departure in 1979 the Russian line was continued by his successor David Zinman, who recorded orchestral works by Rimsky-Korsakov for Philips. In later years Russian repertoire would be given an even more important place under Valery Gergiev, chief conductor from 1995 to 2008. This collection, which is appearing in the year in which the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra celebrates its hundredth anniversary, recalls the heyday of the orchestra in the 1970s, when it started to make records for Philips under the young and enthusiastic Edo de Waart.