Budapest, 28 August 1929 – Saba, 16 April 1973
István Kertész, a conductor of outstanding talent, who died tragically early, studied conducting at the Music Academy under János Ferencsik (1948/49) and László Somogyi (1949/53). The art of Bruno Walter and of Otto Klemperer, who at that time worked in Budapest, also greatly influenced him.
Between 1952 and 1957, he too taught conducting and couching at the Music Academy. From 1953 to 1955 he was the conductor of the Győr Symphonic Orchestra. In 1955 he became couch-conductor at the Budapest Opera House, though only for a short while, since in 1956 he settled with his family in Germany. From that time onwards his international career sharply ascended: from 1958 till 1963 he was the chief music director of the Augsburg Opera House, and from 1964 of the Cologne Opera. (In this latter post he often invited Hungarian singers, conductors and directors as guest artists.) Concurrently he frequently conducted the Vienna Philharmonics and the London Symphony Orchestra, and between 1965 and 1968 he was the chief conductor of the latter. He made his Covent Garden debut in 1965, with The Masked Ball. His first tour of the United States was in 1961, with the orchestra of Hamburg Radio. During this time he also made many successful recordings for Decca. One of his best known series is the complete set of Dvorák symphonies, with the Vienna Philharmonic. He conducted the first ever recording of Mozart's last opera, The Clemency of Titus, and the first recordings outside Hungary of Bluebeard's Castle and Háry János, with narration by Peter Ustinov.
His unusually wide and diverse repertoire included 20th century works as well. He was the first, for example, to conduct Britten's War Requiem in Vienna, and Billy Budd in Germany. In the second half of the 1960's he conducted several times with great success in Hungary as well.
This meteoric musical career came to a sudden stop on 16 April 1973: on an Israeli tour, in the course of which he conducted Mozart's Requiem, he drowned in the sea near Tel Aviv, in full view of his colleagues.
Kertész lived only forty-four years, but that time was enough for him to become a world-famous artist. György Kroó gave a very apt characterisation of his art on the occasion of his last appearance in Hungary (13 May 1973, with the Radio Orchestra): "Kertész's productions, as is always the case with important conductors, are created and constructed in the rehearsals. In the course of the concert he preserves the original impulses of interpretation, but supplements them with characteristic improvised ideas. Thus, the production is just as much characterised by settled safety as by adventurous freshness. His manual technique is quite outstanding, wonderfully light, perfectly clear and inspiring. He reads the score with great imagination: he is equally sensitive to the tonalities and the characters, his music-making is very intelligent, one can always detect the full-stops, the commas, the question marks at the end of separate phrases, and the emotional expression covers this intellectual base, finding its way to the audience through the great cantilenas, and particularly through making the strings sing. Thus, this is a very complex and carefully worked out art, equally characterised by a very high level of professional skill and the personal force of musical imagination." And here is another sentence, characterising the Till Eulenspiegel performance at the same concert: "…István Kertész, as opera conductor, can feel and hear all the theatrical effects and specific illustrative elements of the Strauss music in this wonderful score, and these together brought about a magical production, after which the audience did not want to let him off the rostrum."