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Karl Rickenbacher

Former conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Former conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Born: May 20, 1940; Died: February 28, 2014

Karl Anton Rickenbacher, who has died aged 73, was conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony for two controversial years at the end of the 1970s.

The players soon decided he was difficult to work with, and that the results displeased them, though they were heroically rescued by him, near the time of his departure, from threatened disbandment when the BBC was going through a period of financial disarray.

Although Rickenbacher arrived as an unknown quantity in performances terms, he was reputed to be a major catch for the orchestra and when he first raised his baton in Glasgow in 1977 it was with the best of musical credentials.

As a pupil of Herbert von Karajan in Berlin, and a protege of Pierre Boulez, he had clearly gone through the most rigorous training.

His repertoire, which was neither wholly traditional nor wholly progressive, also looked promising. BBC Glasgow's music department was said to have the highest expectations. And he himself, after a test-run, claimed that he thought highly of the orchestra. It had been, he said in the course of a news conference in the Glasgow studios, love at first sight.

Except that it wasn't. Though he exuded effusively, smilingly Swiss charm, he failed to win the respect of the players.

John Drummond, as the newly-appointed director of the Edinburgh Festival, called him a disaster and when the festival's 1979 programme was published, neither Rickenbacher nor the orchestra - one of the festival's annual assets - was found to be included.

Rickenbacher was born in Basel and studied privately under Karajan and Boulez. What did Karajan think of him or he of Karajan?

What did Boulez? We are never likely to know, though Otto Klemperer, that most magisterial of 20th-century conductors, called him one of the most talented conductors of the younger generation.

He began his career at the Zurich Opera and the Freiburg Theatre but thereafter devoted himself largely to concert work.

He was general music director of the Westphalian Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Belgian BRT Philharmonic. He also appeared with the London Philharmonic, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and Budapest Symphony Orchestra.

After the BBC chose him for Glasgow, one sympathetic Scottish music critic declared all he needed to do was to loosen up and perhaps conduct occasionally with a rose between his teeth.

It was all to no avail. Rickenbacher soon proved that he could do no right. A performance of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony with extra kettledrums (a Karajan trait) did not please.

Schubert's Great C major Symphony, held strictly in tempo at Glasgow City Hall, was theoretically worth praising but the results, though refreshingly taut, lacked inner vitality.

Schumann's Cello Concerto, held on a similarly tight rein, so irked the soloist that steam seemed on the point of emerging from his ears.

Only when the time of the official disbandment was nigh, and when the conductor made what looked like his brave last stand with a City Hall performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony delivered by the players as if their whole future depended on it, did things spring thoroughly and satisfyingly to life.

At a tense news conference announcing the proposed disbandment, Watson Forbes, BBC Scotland's head of music, chose to sit among members of the press rather than in the line-up of BBC officials who were there to seal the orchestra's fate. The orchestra, in the end, was not disbanded.

Yet in retrospect, Rickenbacher was an orchestral enthusiast of the happiest sort.

Here and there in Europe, he conducted Mahler, Zemlinsky, Richard Strauss, Olivier Messiaen (a prize-winning recording of the vast oratorio La Transfiguration). His recording of Strauss's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, with a text specially written by Peter Ustinov, was nominated the best German recording of 1993.

He was a nice man (not necessarily a good thing for a conductor to be) and he did not lack experience. He took the BBC SSO on one of its first trips to the St Magnus Festival in Orkney. It was more a question of attitude, both his and the orchestra's. The players, perhaps, should have cared for him more than they did.

He certainly appeared to care for them. The trouble was that the magic spark never came - except once and through recognised necessity.

Rickenbacher was married to the former ballerina Gaye Fulton of the Zurich Ballet and was stepfather to her two sons who survive him.

His admirers recognised him as part of the continuum of the grand German tradition.

He died of a heart attack at his home in Montreux, where he was sitting at his piano with a score of Mahler's Totenfeier - which he was due to conduct this month in Geneva - in front of him.

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