István Kertész (28 August 1929 – 16 April 1973) was an internationally acclaimed Jewish Hungarian orchestral and operatic conductor who, throughout his brief but distinguished career led many of the world's great orchestras, including the Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Detroit, San Francisco and Minnesota Orchestras in the United States, as well as the London Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, and L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. His orchestral repertoire numbered over 450 works from all periods, and was matched by a repertoire of some sixty operas ranging from Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Wagner to the more contemporary Prokofiev, Bartók, Britten, Kodály, Poulenc and Janáček. Kertész was part of a rich musical tradition that produced fellow Hungarian conductors Fritz Reiner, Antal Doráti, János Ferencsik, Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, János Fürst, Ferenc Fricsay, and Sir Georg Solti.
Through his gramophone recordings, István Kertész has been rediscovered by a new and younger audience, and has increasingly come to be regarded as one of the greatest conductors of all time.
Kertész was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1929, the first child of Margit Muresian and Miklós Kertész. His sister, Vera, was born four years later. Miklós Kertész, born in Szécsény, Hungary into a large Jewish family, was the director of a leather-works and died of appendicitis in 1938. An energetic, intellectually gifted woman, Margit Muresian Kertész went to work to support her family. Despite strictures against women working professionally in Hungarian society during the first half of the twentieth century, Margit was steadily promoted until she ran the office where she was employed. At an early age Kertész showed a great affinity for music, and began violin lessons. "When I was six and started music," he told a High Fidelity interviewer, "it was 1935 and cruel things were going on in Europe . . . I found my `exile' in music, practicing the piano, the fiddle, and writing little compositions."
With the failure of Hungary's efforts to negotiate an armistice with the western Allies, German forces occupied Hungary on 19 March 1944. Aware of what was happening to Jews throughout Europe, the family went into hiding. Most of Kertész's extended family were deported to Auschwitz in July 1944 and did not survive the Holocaust.
At the insistence of his mother, and despite the wartime interruptions of air raids, deportations, starvation and invasions by both Germans and later, the Russians, István Kertész continued his musical studies. By the time he was twelve, Kertész began to study the piano and composition in addition to the violin. The young Kertész, along with his sister, took advantage of Budapest's rich cultural life and attended symphonic or operatic performances almost every evening. It was at this time that Kertész decided to become a conductor. After the war, he resumed his formal studies and attended the Kölcsey-Gymnasium where, in 1947, he graduated with honors.
That same year, István Kertész enrolled as a scholarship student at the Royal Academy of Music, now the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where he studied violin, piano and composition with Zoltán Kodály, Leo Weiner and Rezső Kókai. Developing his keen interest in conducting, Kertész became a student of János Ferencsik and László Somogyi. At the conservatory, Kertész also met his wife, the lyric soprano, Edith Gancs whom he married in 1951. She later changed her name to Edith Kertész-Gabry. The gifted musical pair were part of a talented cohort of musicians. Musically, Kertész was most influenced by László Somogyi, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, then the director of the Budapest Opera.
On 17 December 1948, István Kertész made his debut as a conductor with an all Mozart programme.
From 1953 to 1955, Kertész was chosen as Chief Conductor or the Philharmonic Orchestra at Győr, a post that he held for two years. During this period he had the opportunity to develop a broad symphonic repertoire, leading the Budapest Opera Orchestra from 1955 to 1957, and working as an Assistant Professor of Conducting at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. After the upheaval of the Hungarian Revolution, and with a young family in tow, Kertész left Hungary. Offered a fellowship to the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Kertész studied with Fernando Previtali while his wife, Edith Kertész-Gabry sang at the Bremen Opera. Kertész graduated with distinction, and was given the highest award of the Accademia, the "Premio d'Atri." Moreover, Previtali chose Kertész for his "Corso di Perfezionamento" for two successive seasons, during which Kertész conducted the Santa Cecilia Orchestra forty times.
After completing his studies in Rome, Kertész was engaged as a guest conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra and the Hamburg State Opera. Guest conducting there, as well as in Wiesbaden and Hanover, he electrified German audiences with his masterful direction of Fidelio and La bohème.
In March 1960, Kertész was invited to become General Music Director of the Augsburg Opera—a post especially created for him. There he conducted performances of Mozart's The Magic Flute, The Abduction from the Seraglio, Così fan tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro, earning himself a reputation as one of the finest interpreters of Mozart's work. With exhilarating performances of Verdi's Rigoletto, Don Carlos, Otello and Falstaff, and Richard Strauss's Salome, Arabella, and Der Rosenkavalier, Kertész also proved himself a master of the finest of Italian Romantic operas. Invited to the Salzburg Festival, he conducted The Abduction from the Seraglio in 1961, and The Magic Flute in 1963. During this time, Kertész also gave the first of many performances at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, with the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, San Francisco Opera, North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hamburg Symphony, Munich Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto where he conducted Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, and with Arthur Rubinstein in Paris.
Kertész also made his earliest recordings, including Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 4. Having already recorded for EMI/Columbia records, Kertész now signed an exclusive contract with Decca/London for whom he began to make dozens of prize-winning recordings. Already at this early stage in his career, Kertész's intrepetations of Brahms and Dvořák were highly regarded for their transparent textures and unmannered phrasing. In stark contrast to Herbert von Karajan and George Szell, Kertész's music making featured an unforced manner even when employing the fastest of tempi. Other elements that made a Kertész performance notable was the elasticity of tempi while adhering to the structural coherence of a given musical work. His British debut was with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 1960. Kertész made his U.S. debut during the 1961-62 season, also beginning an association with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with whom he guest conducted at Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium in March 1962. Eventually, Kertész conducted over 378 compositions with the Israel Philharmonic over an eleven-year period.
Within just four years, István Kertész had established a lasting international reputation as a conductor.
In 1964, Kertész received an appointment as the General Music Director of the Cologne Opera where he conducted the first German performance of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd and Verdi's Stiffelio, as well as the Mozart operas La clemenza di Tito, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and The Magic Flute.
While he established good rapport with the often critical Cologne audience, they were sometimes unhappy with his often fast tempi. His 1970 Aida, with Martina Arroyo in the title role, with one interval and some cuts, lasted under three hours.
Retaining his previous position as Director of the Cologne Opera, he also became Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1965 to 1968, and made guest appearances at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. During his three years as Principal Conductor of the LSO, Kertész gave superbly stylish, imaginative and deft performances. He was acclaimed for recordings with the ensemble of the nine Dvořák symphonies, which included the first complete recording of the Symphony No. 1.
During this period in Kertész's career, in 1966, he also recorded Bluebeard's Castle with Christa Ludwig singing the role of Judith and Walter Berry in the title role. Kertész's interpretation of Bartók's difficult, brooding work is considered by many to be the benchmark performance of the opera; "the playing of the London Symphony Orchestra, and Kertész's instinctive shaping of the drama . . . has never been surpassed."
Kertész was a frequent guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and numerous other orchestras. He was appointed Principal Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony in 1973. The Cleveland Orchestra unsuccessfully bid for his appointment as musical director the year before. The orchestra players voted 96 to 2 to request the board to favour Kertész as the replacement of George Szell. In Chicago, he conducted his first performance at the Ravinia Festival in July 1967; he was the Festival's principal conductor from 1970 to 1972.
On 16 April 1973, while on a concert tour, Kertész drowned while swimming off the coast of Israel at Herzliya. He had been recording what would become a legendary version of Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn, as well as the complete Brahms symphonies. After his untimely death, and in tribute to him, the Vienna Philharmonic finished recording the Haydn Variations.
Kertész was survived by his wife, operatic soprano Edith Kertész-Gabry, his children, Gábor, Péter, and Kathrin, his mother, Margit Muresian Kertész Halmos, and his sister, the graphic artist Vera Kertész.
István Kertész served as principal and or guest conductor under the following orchestras: Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Gürzenich Orchestra (Cologne), Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Japan Philharmonic Orchestra (Tokyo), London Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra (London), Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Munich), Orquestre Nacional (Madrid), Orchestre Radio-Télévision (Paris), Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Geneva), Philadelphia Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Radio Symphony Orchestra (Berlin), Opera Orchestra of Santa Cecila (Rome), San Francisco Symphony, Symphonie Orchester des Norddeutschen Rundfunks (Hamburg), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Tonhalle-Orchester (Zürich), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
His many recordings include the first complete recording of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito. He was also the first to record the complete Dvořák symphonies and his interpretations of them are still considered classics of their kind. Pianists Clifford Curzon, Hans Richter-Haaser, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Julius Katchen each made fine records with Kertész, among which the Mozart concertos are particularly inspired. With his renditions of Kodály's big orchestral works, and given his precise yet passionate conducting style, Kertész was particularly well-suited to get the full orchestral swoop and swoon endemic to Psalmus Hungaricus and the Peacock Variations. The sonority Kertész managed to elicit from the LSO was expertly executed. Little wonder that Barry Tuckwell, the principal hornist of the LSO, spoke of the élan and enthusiasm Kertész could coax out of the orchestra, many of whose members Tuckwell regarded as "old codgers not bloody likely to dance to any youngster's tune."