Eugen Jochum- musician’s musician, maestro’s maestro, Icon

Last spring, I was commissioned to write an essay on the work of Eugen Jochum for EMI’s new 20 CD box set of his late recordings in the Icon series. The disc is now out, and I thought Vftp  readers might find the essay of interest. I’m confident that anyone who wants to hear core repertoire played with un-surpassable insight and understanding will want to check out the set. Available here


Eugen Jochum


Eugen Jochum was born to a Roman Catholic family in Babenhausen.  As he recounted to Alan Blyth in a 1972 Gramophone interview, ‘My father had a little choir school so that he could train his children for the church… I usually played the organ when my father was conducting and if he went on holiday, I would take over the conducting too – although I was only nine… And I had to accompany, and transpose, all of which was excellent training’.

He completed his formal studies in nearbyAugsburgandMunich, then held early posts inMonchengladbach,Kieland then went to Manheim, where he attracted the favourable attention of Wilhelm Furtwängler, who would be both a champion of and inspiration to the younger conductor.  The 1930s were to be hugely productive for Jochum, during which he served as director of both the Hamburg Opera and Philharmonic, eventually developing a repertoire of over 60 operas. Jochum, to his credit, managed to avoid getting entangled with the Nazis.

The most important appointment of his career came in 1949, when he was made the founding music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony inMunich, an ensemble he built into one of the most admired orchestras inEurope. He also had long partnerships with the Berliner Philharmoniker, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra,Amsterdam, where he served as Co-Principal Conductor alongside the young Bernard Haitink in the early 1960s.

Furtwängler remains the conductor to whom Jochum is most frequently compared. Both men were most at home among the monuments of the Austro-German repertoire, both were known for flexibility of tempo, but for both men, their seemingly spontaneous approach to tempo was grounded in a highly rigorous and analytical approach to score study, and both were keenly concerned with revealing the structure of the music they conducted. However, Jochum was very much his own man. Where Furtwängler was surrounded by something like the cult of a shaman, and could conduct with a beat that was sometimes as mysterious as it could also be illuminating, Jochum was a famously direct and genial man, and his conducting technique was one of pinpoint precision, honed to perfection during his early years in the opera house. Jochum also preferred a leaner, more delineated sound and more precise ensemble than the glorious growl Furtwängler drew from his Berlin Philharmonic.


The Bruckner Specialist


Jochum’s name and career were tied to the music of Anton Bruckner from the moment of his first significant professional success, when he conducted a triumphant performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with the Munich Philharmonic in 1926. Jochum himself said of the piece ‘this symphony made my whole career.’ From the beginning, Jochum found himself to be completely comfortable with Bruckner’s distinctive sound world: ‘Every young conductor has his problems with Mozart and Beethoven. I never found I had these problems with Bruckner; he seemed to come to me naturally.’ Jochum himself believed his affinity for Bruckner grew from his own training as an organist: ‘I began playing the organ when I was six years old… so his style was never difficult for me.’

From his debut in Munich to his final, triumphant Bruckner performances in the 1980s, many critics and musicians considered him the leading Brucknerian of his era. Off the podium, his commitment to Bruckner’s music included a long tenure as President of the West German Bruckner Society and several essays on Bruckner interpretation. However, Jochum always viewed his interpretations of Bruckner’s music as a work in progress, and he was passionately interested in absorbing the latest research. He was one of the first major Brucknerians to set aside Robert Haas’s original Critical Edition of the symphonies in favour of the new postwar edition made by Leopold Nowak. ‘Haas was, how shall I say, a very gifted man,’ he said, ‘but… I don’t think that kind of editing will do.’ In return, Nowak was unpolitic in his assessment of Jochum’s commitment to understanding Bruckner’s music, ‘The only conductor who ever came to the library, or wrote to ask questions about the sources in all my years editing Bruckner,’ he said, ‘was Eugen Jochum.’

Jochum’s recorded performances of the Bruckner symphonies span almost his entire 60-year career, and his evolution as an interpreter is both clearly apparent but also notably incremental, the core of his artistic persona being present from early on. Critic Herbert Glass described him as someone constantly challenging his own ideas about music: ‘The Fifth Symphony drove him to distraction and he would regard his every performance of it as an interpretation in progress. In rehearsal, such doubts could sorely test an orchestra’s patience, this despite his courtly, respectful treatment of his players.’ Central to Jochum’s approach to all music of the Romantic era, and to Bruckner’s in particular, is the integration of a deeply ingrained structural understanding of the music’s large-scale organization with a finely honed approach to tempo flexibility.

Jochum’s approach to tempo in Bruckner remains controversial among some critics and conductors, but it is also often misunderstood. Where an interpreter like Bernstein, Stokowski or even Karajan might tend to broaden an established tempo to savor a detail or emphasize a cadence, Jochum more often used changes of tempo to underline large-scale musical structure, at his best achieving a rare balance of subtlety and audacity.  Where many musicians think first of ‘taking time’ when they think of rubato, Jochum was an expert at moving the music forward, a skill that has nearly vanished from the podium in more recent generations. Over the course of his career, one can hear his control of tempo becoming ever more refined. By the time he recorded this, his final complete cycle, with the Dresden Staatskapelle in the 1970s, his ability to pace a large-scale accelerando is so secure that one often only senses at the arrival of a long buildup that something has been going on at all. Jochum’s Bruckner interpretations ought to be required listening for those who find Bruckner’s music to grandiose, monolithic and static. Jochum’s Bruckner is always going somewhere, full of rhythmic energy and forward motion. His approach to sound is notably less massive and organ-like than that of his contemporary and sometime rival, Herbert von Karajan. Especially inDresden, Jochum elicited brighter and more intense brass playing than many of his peers, creating a sound with more edge if possibly less stentorian power. The Dresden brass were probably still using smaller-bore brass instruments than their American and West German contemporaries, so the orchestral sound is likely closer in many ways to one Bruckner himself would have recognized.


‘He should be de-Bruckner-ized’

Veronica Jochum, pianist and daughter of Eugen Jochum


‘Today, everyone thinks of me as a specialist in Bruckner’s symphonies,’ Jochum said in a 1983 interview. ‘But I began with the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. And it is to their music that I still feel closest.’

Jochum belonged to a generation of mainstream conductors who refused to relinquish Bach to historical specialists. He himself was deeply interested in the questions of source-criticism, historical instruments and style which have proved so influential in the last thirty years, and he wrote an extensive essay on the interpretation of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the 1960s. ‘Even nearer to my heart,’ he remarked toBlyth, ‘is the B minor Mass, the most spiritual work in the repertory.’ In the busy autumn of his career in the 1970’s, he still harboured one great ambition: ‘My greatest wish is to do the B minor Mass again.’

Jochum wore his scholarship lightly, and his underlying approach to early music was highly pragmatic:  ‘I realise that there are many specialists in this field, and they know how everything should go from a stylistic point of view but some of them do not succeed in bringing the music to life; their approach is too academic. I don’t think it matters too much if you use a large or a small choir, old or new instruments; what they must be is lively and dramatic. Expression is the heart of the matter.’

Jochum’s ‘greatest wish’ was fulfilled when he recorded the B Minor Mass for EMI in 1983.  Jochum’s Bach has in many ways held up better than that of many of his near-contemporaries, such as Klemperer, whose Bach can sound painfully leaden to some modern ears. Jochum’s understanding of dance rhythm, his sense of forward motion so apparent in his Bruckner performances, and his ability to get singers to engage with the meaning   of the text, all make for gripping listening in Jochum’s Bach.

The Beethoven symphonies were central to Jochum’s repertoire, and he recorded the cycle three times: first for DG in the 1950s with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bavarian Radio Symphony, then with the Concertgebouw for Philips in the 1960’s, and finally, this set for EMI with LSO in the 1970s.

Balance seems to have been a key issue in Jochum’s Beethoven, especially as heard in his final cycle. The quirky woodwind chords which open the First Symphony are meticulously balanced, so as to make the most of the unstable harmonies and their resolutions, and as a result, what often sounds like a series of standalone events becomes a phrase. Beethoven himself seemed to welcome and perhaps even prefer larger orchestras, according to the historian Clive Brown, and Jochum’s full LSO string section would have been similar in size to the large orchestras used in the Viennese premieres of Beethoven’s Third, Fourth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth symphonies. Jochum’s achievement is to elicit incredible clarity of texture and unanimity of rhythm from such a large ensemble.  Jochum’s Beethoven sometimes lacks the same sense of propulsion and forward motion that critics often favorably commented on in his interpretations of Mozart and Haydn, but even if he doesn’t seem particularly concerned with Beethoven’s metronome markings, he is clearly aware of harmonic rhythm and phrase structure of every page, and by and large, his performances achieve a sense of momentum which belie their occasionally leisurely tempi.  As in his Bruckner, Jochum is particularly adept in making independent lines and cross rhythms come to life. Sample, for instance, the beginning of the development of the Eighth Symphony and note the way in which the arpeggios, moving in contrary motion between high and low strings, are so compellingly shaped and totally clear. Likewise, it is hard to imagine any conductor has ever captured the rhythmic and contrapuntal complexities of the finale of the ‘Eroica’ more incisively than Jochum with the LSO.


The Great Brahmsian

Jochum recorded the Brahms symphonies twice, first in mono for DG in the 1950s, and then with the London Philharmonic in the 1970s. He himself considered the 1964 sessions of Brahms’s piano concertos with Emil Gilels to be his finest recordings. Perhaps it is in Brahms that his artistic maturation is seen to greatest effect. His use of structurally underpinned tempo modification is absolutely central to his approach to this composer, and it is with Brahms that his greatly increased subtlety and mastery of tempo pays the biggest dividends. While the earlier set, for all its beauties, is occasionally let down by the odd awkward transition, ragged ensemble or in-organic accelerando, in this cycle, building on the intervening 20 years of experience and the matchless attentiveness and cohesion of London orchestral musicians at his disposal, Jochum recorded a truly great cycle of Brahms performances. From a conductor’s perspective, it is hard to think of a more technically or musically impressive performance than that of the first movement of the Fourth, in which Jochum is able to achieve complete and effortless-sounding flexibility of tempo, while making sure that all of Brahms’ intricate polyrhythms are articulated with absolute security and clarity.

Another hallmark of Jochum’s approach to Brahms is his ability to sublimate his own personality, where required, to engage with the full range of character across the individual works. The atmosphere of brooding high-tragedy Jochum elicits in the Fourth, with its huge surges and ebbs of tempo, is certainly the work of the same conductor as the similarly intense, even terrifying, performance of Bruckner’s Ninth, but miles away from the warm, unfussy and conspicuously brisk performance of Brahms’ Second, in which the long first movement unfolds with such ease and clarity of purpose.

Jochum was an artist with a huge musical personality, but what continues to impress across his vast discography is his ability to know when and how to apply the components of that personality to the repertoire at hand.  This master of rubato could stick with a lively and steady tempo to great effect in Beethoven, Bach and even Brahms, and this master of forward motion also knew when to stop and let the music breathe.  A man noted by all for his warmth and good humour, he could unleash the demons in the late Bruckner symphonies with an existential ferocity like few before or since. Surely, this is one of the marks of a conducting Icon?

c Kenneth Woods, 2012

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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5 comments on “Eugen Jochum- musician’s musician, maestro’s maestro, Icon”

  1. Neal Kurz

    No comments yet? Well, let m thank you for your wonderful comments about Jochum, who’s always been one of my favorites. I’m only old enough to have heard him ONCE, in what was the last of his infrequent visits to the US…..a 1985 Philadelphia Orchestra concert with a Mozart 33 and Bruckner 9. Beautiful music making! Do you know the live Bruckner 5th with Concertgebouw from 1986, issued on Tahra? The pacing of the finale leading up to the chorale, is pulse-stopping! And the actual sonority is chilling….nothing like it in even his other performances!

    I hope someone is able to put the new 40+ box of his DG recordings in your stocking this xmas!

    Neal K.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Neal!

    Great to hear from you! How amazing to hear him do Bruckner at that point in his life the films of him doing Bruckner in the 80’s is all just transcendent. I don’t know the Bruckner 5- something to hunt down. I love the piece.

    I’ll have to look for the DG set. I treasure the EMI set I wrote these notes for. It’s like a conducting lesson to listen to some of it.

  3. dieter barkhoff

    Wonderful stuff, Kenneth. I fully agree with you, an agreement highlighted by a recent New York review of Barenboim’s New York cycle with his Berlin Staatskapelle.
    The reviewer claims Jochum is known as a Bruckner conductor, nothing else.
    It raises my rankles about the state of culture in the USA and leads me to believe that even music critics are mainly parochial philistines, that what the USA does best is bomb the shit out of countries and people who can’t defend themselves.
    I really like your appreciation of Jochum and regard you as an upholder of truth and justice and the real way for mankind to continue, which is, as I have noted, NOT the fucking American way.
    You may understand from my comments how the rest of the world regards your country.
    I am an Austrian born German now living in Australia. Your country is hated by anyone with half a brain cell left.
    Apologies about the diatribe. It’s just about all a poor man can do other than sing in a rock’n’roll band.
    We have corresponded before, re Kurt Sanderling.Hopefully from this you can deduce that I am a mensch not a lunatic.

    Dieter Barkhoff

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Dieter

    Good to hear from you and very glad to hear we agree about Jochum- a musician whose performances I always find thought-provoking, compelling and exciting.

    The crisis unfolding in America has been brewing for a long time. The problems extend far beyond the current President. However, it remains a nation with millions of cultured, decent people, a nation with many great orchestras and opera companies, wonderful universities, vibrant cities, natural wonders and, most importantly, many, many wise, kind, cultured people.

    Yes- all of that is under threat now. I don’t know if the country will be able to right itself. There is certainly huge damage to our institutions which has already been done and is continuing at a frantic pace. Universities are being gutted, courts stacked with fanatics and corrupt political operatives.

    But, for now at least, there is still hope, and it’s important to remember that the current government was “elected” despite losing the popular vote through a great deal of electoral gerrymandering and monkey business. The majority voted for something better, and more still would have voted for a less establishment candidate. Hopefully ours is the generation who recognizes that the time has come for common sense reforms to the electoral system, a renewed emphasis on anti-trust legislation, media reform and education reform.

    Don’t give up on the USA yet.

  5. Riccardo

    Dear Mr. Wood, since I bought this superlative box devoted to the great Eugen Jochum, I have read many times Your essay.
    I am currently listening to the new Deutsche Grammophon 42 cd box set: great as well but… why DG didn’t offer You to write the essay? A missed opportunity.
    Jochum is in the top list of my favourite conductors and I love his Beethove and Brahms. I have all of his Beethoven cycles (including the Philips). In this EMI one I love the Second, the Eroica, the Fifth and the Seventh among the others but also Jochum live recordings offer many surprises. Somethimes Jochum was more effective and inspired in concert. Tahra issued many wonderful recordings (including the famous Bruckner Fifth mentioned above by Mr. Kurz) like a live Eroica from 1977, recorded in Amsterdam. Also I consider his studio Beethoven Fifth from 1951 with the Berliner Philharmoniker his greatest.
    And, even if I love his DG Schubert Ninth from 1958, I find superior his live from 1986, in Berlin. In the late recordings Jochum became more and more spiritual and his interpretations even more sublime and deep.
    A serious collection of Jochum’s recording has to include his live recordings. Now we can only hope for a Box with the Complete Philips Recordings…

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