International conductor and regular visitor to the Edinburgh Festival

Born: January 14, 1943;

Died: November 30, 2019

MARISS Jansons, who has died aged 76, was one of the most formidable conductors of recent years and often conducted many of the world’s leading orchestras. He had a recurring heart condition and suffered an attack while conducting the final scene of La Bohème in Oslo in 1996. Ever the dedicated musician Jansons beat the time to the orchestra as he slid off the podium. After another heart attack, he was fitted with an internal defibrillator and resumed his career.

He was a wonderfully exciting conductor to hear live in the concert hall. He coaxed from orchestras a refined and subtle playing that gave the music an extra dimension and meaning. His interpretations of the great symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner were dramatic and thrilling while his readings of the classics were profound and personal. Jansons knew intuitively how to find the correct sound balance in those large-scale symphonies.

Jansons wanted every concert to be special for the orchestra and the audience. “A concert should be something extraordinary: what I call cosmic.”

Mariss Ivars Georgs Jansons was born in German-occupied Riga, the capital of Latvia while his Jewish mother, Iraida, was in hiding because her family had been killed in the ghetto. He came from a musical family - his father was a conductor and his mother an opera singer. He also showed promise as a footballer. “Football?” his worried mother asked. “Are you crazy? He is going to be a musician.”

In the Fifties his father was appointed to work with the Leningrad Philharmonic and the family moved to Russia. Jansons studied at the Leningrad Conservatory and in 1968 Herbert von Karajan invited him to study conducting with him in Berlin. The Soviet authorities did not grant permission although he was allowed to study under Hans Swarowsky in Vienna. Jansons won second prize in a von Karajan competition in 1971 but again he was not permitted to become von Karajan’s pupil. Instead, he became assistant to Yevgeny Mravinsky in Leningrad.

In 1979 an offer came from the Oslo Philharmonic to become the orchestra’s musical director. Jansons accepted but the Soviet authorities created obstacles. They said that Jansons could conduct concerts but without the title of music director. He certainly upped the reputation of the orchestra within years and brought them to the 1986 Edinburgh Festival where the papers wrote of the orchestra’s brilliant young conductor. He also secured a valuable recording contract with EMI and remained its music director for 21 years.

His reputation had spread and in 2003 he was appointed music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra where he again greatly improved the musicality of the famous orchestra. He stayed for seven years.

His British debut was in 1978 on tour with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. He was principal guest conductor of the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra from 1985-1988 and his Scottish debut was a prestigious concert with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 1986 with Igor Oistrackh as soloist.

Jansons was principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic from 1992-1997. Christopher Lawrence, who was managing director of the LPO, remembered those years, “Mariss was a wonderful man, a great conductor and a musician to the bottom of his heart. There was no side to him, no grandstanding. He cared above all else for his musicians, for his orchestras and for enabling them to play and interpret music in ways that they seldom dreamt.”

Jansons became a firm favourite with Edinburgh Festival audiences - from his first appearance in 1986 when he conducted the Oslo Orchestra in an outstanding account of Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto with Emanuel Ax. He conducted at 11 Festivals with the Oslo Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw and the St Petersburg Philharmonic. All were highlights of that year’s festival - particularly memorable were Mahler’s massive Resurrection Symphony with the Oslo Philharmonic and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in 1996 and in 2010 Mahler’s 3rd Symphony with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Jansons was much criticised for an unguarded and most uncharacteristic comment in an interview two years ago. He was asked about female conductors and replied, “It’s a question of what one is used to. I grew up in a different world, and for me seeing a woman on the podium… well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.”

But he had a joy of making music and conducted the New Year’s Day concert in Vienna on three occasions – the last in 2016. His involvement in conducting Johan Strauss was as all-embracing as in Mahler.

Mariss Jansons married Irina in 1967. The marriage was dissolved and he is survived by his second wife, also called Irina, and a daughter from the first marriage.