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Karl Ristenpart

"Scheel tracked me down in Predeal," the familiar voice rasped into the bedside phone speaker, showing a potential for rhyming, the actual realization of which depends strongly on local dialects. It was five o'clock in the morning and research assistant Igor calling from a resort in the Carpathians.

The hard-working combination musicologist, discographer, private detective, and graverobber is supposed to be having a vacation break there, catching up on old times with a shape-shifting fellow sometimes known to kids as "Wolfy." Scheel is Charles W. Scheel, author of a biography on classical conductor Karl Ristenpart. The latter work is something Scheel has in common with Igor's employer, although in Scheel's case it is an entire book published in German and not a screed of a few paragraphs' length posted and dispensed via a large Internet site. Thus no surprise that the lab assistant, exasperated at the temporary damming of his vacation's enjoyment spurt, continued in this vein: "The problem is the Ristenpart piece, not all but parts."

"Part of the Ristenpart?" "Part."

Scheel, a Frenchman, had sent his own corrections forthwith. Igor and associates could go back to scoping out the new arrivals at the train station, or whatever is done to pass the day in Predeal. Scheel's welcome contribution to the fact-finding at this institute certainly expands the scope of biographical information previously offered on Ristenpart. Musicians in general seem to appreciate tidbits of accuracy in the biographical data available upon them, only occasional hotheads such as genius arranger Buddy Bregman conspiring to cover up hallowed details such as exact birthdays. Individuals whose careers include periods inside Nazi Germany would be even more concerned with veracity. Assistance and insight from an actual scholar -- as opposed to an only sporadically helpful character best described as a "creature of the night" -- is appreciated beyond possible description. Associated with three major symphonies, Ristenpart receives great credit for his recordings of baroque and pre-classical music, positively shimmering on the repertoire of J.S. Bach, Mozart, and Haydn. Also of great importance is the contribution made under his direction to the archive of modern classical compositions, a factor which certainly has led a certain part of this conductor's audience to him. Like much great documentation of modern music, the German government was indirectly behind the payroll. The Saar Radio Music Archive division of the noted Deutsche Rundfunk was behind an effort that Scheel says is "likely to constitute the widest repertoire of modern compositions recorded by a chamber orchestra in the 20th century."

The Saarland region from which Saar Radio broadcast Ristenpart's Saar Chamber Orchestra was the conductor's base of operations from 1953 through 1967. Prior to that he spent from the early '30s onward in Berlin, undertaking conservatory studies there as well as in Vienna. The first little string ensemble he could call his own developed in 1932 and was dubbed the Karl Ristenpart Chamber Orchestra. This group led the way into radio engagements for Ristenpart yet upward momentum was interrupted by the upturned hand of the swastika crowd. Ristenpart, not eager to endorse their dogma, had to wait until the allied occupation and division of Berlin in order to again take hold of a subsidized orchestra, this time as a conductor for RIAS or Radio in the American Sector of Berlin.

His discography of recordings, eventually to include a treasure trove of Bach interpretation, began moving forward by 1946: Monteverdi and Stravinsky were among the composers lavished with great new available resources including a choir, his former chamber orchestras, vocal soloists, and special solo talent brought in from other Berlin orchestras, all under the label of the RIAS-Choir and Chamber Orchestra. Here Scheel constitutes a division into a second important period or part of Ristenpart's career, a fact stressed by Igor as part of the fiend's obvious interest is anything being divided, especially chopped up.

International fame as a conductor was part of the career developments during this second chapter, much of the acclaim resulting from his absolute refusal to turn his back on Bach, so to speak, tracking more than 100 Bach compositions for the radio in a marathon ending as the snow fell in 1952. Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and oboist Herman Töttcher were featured on some of these productions. Of course the ability of the RIAS to subsidize such well-endowed radio broadcasts became by the early '50s weak enough to prompt Ristenpart's move, not far, to the Saar. The Discophiles Français imprint was among the first to release material involving the Saar Chamber Orchestra and guest soloists including flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal. A record pile of some 170 albums could be amassed if this entire discography was collected, many masterworks in the heap: the Brandenburg Concertos, the Orchestral Suites, the Art of Fugue, Bach vocal cantatas as well as award-winning Britten, Roussel, and Hindemith pieces.

Ristenpart suffered a heart attack while touring Portugal with the Chamber Orchestra of the Gulbenkian Foundation in December of 1967. He died in a Lisbon hospital on Christmas Eve. Antonio Janigro took over the Saar ensemble, taking the orchestra on a pair of American tours in 1969 and 1971. Scheel published his biography of Ristenpart in 1999. In the summer of 2006, an association administrating the works of Rampal began putting out the entire collection of recordings from the flutist's aforementioned collaborations with Ristenpart. Following an out of print period, the conductor's Bach cache has come back out thanks to the French Accord label and a 2000 six-CD set comprising the entire set of Ristenpart's recordings of Bach orchestral works. ~ Eugene Chadbourne

    Kiel, Germany
  • BORN
    Jan 26, 1900

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