Obituary - Georges Prêtre (1924 - 2017)

by Chris O'Reilly. 4th January 2017

The French conductor Georges Prêtre has died at the age of 92. Born in Waziers (just outside Lille) on 14th August 1924, he studied in Douai and Paris, where mentors and influences includes Andrė Cluytens and Maurice Duruflė. He made his professional conducting debut in Marseilles in 1946 and honed his craft in the opera-houses of his native France over the next two decades, including a spell as music director of the Opéra-Comique in Paris, where he conducted the world premiere of Poulenc’s one-woman opera La voix humaine with the soprano Denise Duval (who died last January). During the 1960s he made debuts at many of the world’s major theatres, including Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, and La Scala; operatic work (particularly French repertoire) would remain a major focus for the rest of his life, with highlights including acclaimed accounts of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Massenet’s Werther, Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust, and two landmark studio recordings with Maria Callas – Tosca (with Carlo Bergonzi as Cavaradossi and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia) and Carmen (with Nicolai Gedda as Don Josė) for HMV in 1964. French orchestral repertoire also played a central role in his career – he was renowned for conducting lengthy symphonic works without a score, with acclaimed recordings and signature works including Ravel’s La valse, Debussy’s Nocturnes and Prélude à ‘L'après-midi d'un faune’ and Roussel’s orchestral works. He was also committed to new music: as well as conducting several Poulenc premieres, he gave the first performances of Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie concertante for Organ and Orchestra and Marcel Landowski’s Fourth Symphony, which was dedicated to him.

Prêtre continued to conduct into his ninth decade and beyond: engagements during his eighties included the Wiener Philharmoniker’s New Year’s Day Concerts in 2008 and 2010 (where he was the first Frenchman to take the podium in the event’s history) and ‘Cav and Pag’ (which he had conducted for Franco Zeffirelli’s famous film 1982 version with Placido Domingo) in Orange in 2009.

Prêtre’s death was announced yesterday by the Wiener Symphoniker (with whom he had enjoyed a close relationship since the 1960s, and made his farewell to the podium in October); he is survived by his wife Gina Marny (whom he married in 1950) and their daughter, the writer Isabelle Prêtre Koch.

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Georges Prêtre - some key recordings

Poulenc: Organ Concerto, Concert champêtre, Les Biches and other works

Various orchestras, Maurice Duruflé (organ), Gabriel Tacchino (piano), Aimée Van der Weile (harpsichord), Georges Prêtre

'Space is of the essence here in that the music can breathe naturally and [Prêtre] captures the ebb and flow of the sectionally constructed score as to the manner born. A hard act to follow!' (Gramophone)

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Bizet: Carmen

Maria Callas (Carmen), Nicolai Gedda (Don José), Andréa Guiot (Micaëla), Robert Massard (Escamillo); Orchestre du Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris, Georges Prêtre

'Prêtre's conducting has plenty of animal energy, but it has elegance, too. As a reading of the score it is very French: powerful, yet as subtle and chivalrous to the sense as the bouquet of a great Chambolle-Musigny.' (Gramophone)

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Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust

Janet Baker (Marguerite), Nicolai Gedda (Faust), Gabriel Bacquier (Méphistophélès); Orchestre de Paris, Georges Prêtre

'With Nicolai Gedda and Janet Baker in their prime, a French orchestra lending Gallic bite to the colouring and Prêtre securing commitment and vitality, there's a pact to be made!' (BBC Music Magazine)

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New Year's Concert 2010

Wiener Philharmoniker, Georges Prêtre

'Prêtre, 85, the first Frenchman to take on this hallowed tradition, is in intoxicating form...Sparklingly played and witty.' (The Observer)

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Georges Prêtre: The Symphonic Recordings

Various orchestras, Georges Prêtre

Includes works by Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, Roussel, Saint-Saëns and Satie.

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You can view Georges Prêtre's complete available discography here.

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