Though by no means a star conductor, Hermann Abendroth has undergone revisionist treatment with the release of numerous discs of performances hitherto largely unknown to the general public. These recordings, many from Germany's Nazi era, reveal a musical mind many notches above concertmaster level. Indeed, some of them indicate that, absent the charismatic Wilhelm Furtwängler and the brilliant Clemens Krauss, Abendroth might have been still more highly regarded. As more is known of his work during his prime years, assessments have risen.
In Munich, Abendroth studied piano with Anna Langenhan-Hirzel and pursued music theory with Ludwig Thuille. For further training, Abendroth worked with conductor and composer Felix Mottl and received coursework in other subjects at the Frankfort Gymnasium. Upon finishing his formal schooling, he earned a living as a bookseller, but in 1903 became conductor of the Orchestral Society of Munich, an amateur organization, but a capable one. He later became conductor of the Verein der Musikfreunde and for several seasons beginning in 1907, principal conductor of the Städtische Oper. After conducting orchestral concerts in Essen between 1911 and 1914, he moved to Cologne, where in 1915 he succeeded Fritz Steinbach as conservatory director and music director of the celebrated Gürzenich Concerts. In 1918, Abendroth was appointed general music director and the following year was made a professor of music. In 1922, Abendroth won acclaim for his directorship of the Lower Rhine Music Festival and subsequently presented orchestral concerts with players from the Berlin Staatsoper. For the decade beginning in 1926, he established a positive relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducting that ensemble on a regular basis. When Bruno Walter's career in Germany was blocked by the National Socialists, the post of conductor in Leipzig passed to Abendroth. For the next decade, he served as principal conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and taught at the Leipzig Conservatory. Abendroth remained in Leipzig until the end of WWII, also appearing at the 1943 Bayreuth Festival when a new production of Die Meistersinger was unveiled. Meistersinger was the festival's only offering that year (a move bearing the official approval of Hitler) and Abendroth's leadership seems, on the evidence of a recording preserved from one of that year's performances, to have been exceptionally fine and beautifully detailed, yet flowing and unfussy. Following WWII, Abendroth's work was concentrated in East Germany. He was appointed general music director for the regime and music director of the Weimar Symphony Orchestra. During this period, he became the first German conductor to receive an invitation to visit the Soviet Union since the war (Shostakovich recalled in Testimony that the conductor was among several Western musicians to have been exposed to the brutal cold of unheated Russian concert venues).
Following his death by a stroke, Abendroth was accorded the honor of a state funeral. A reputation that might have remained obscure to succeeding generations has been clarified by Abendroth's recorded legacy, some of it from live performance. With little doubt, his sympathies lie with the core Central European repertory, primarily of the Classical and Romantic periods. What emerges most clearly is a non-interventionist approach, a gift for allowing the music to speak for itself without extra-musical burdens. Whether wartime or post-war, most of Abendroth's recordings exist in reasonable sound, sufficient to confirm his considerable art.