BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in c minor; Sym. No. 6 in F Major; “Pastoral”; Sym. No. 8 in F Major; Leonore Ov. No. 3; SCHUBERT: Sym. No. 8 “Unfinished” – Berlin State Opera Orch./Vienna Philharmonic – Pristine Audio (2 CDs)

Franz Schalk: The Complete Recordings = BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in c minor, Op. 67; Sym. No. 6 in F Major, Op.68 “Pastoral”; Sym. No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93; Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b; SCHUBERT: Sym. No. 8 in b minor, D. 759 “Unfinished” – Berlin State Opera Orch. (Schubert)/ Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Franz Schalk – Pristine Audio PASC 451 (2 CDs), 2 hrs 9:08 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

I first heard the name of conductor Franz Schalk (1863-1931) from a Mrs. Fliegl, a neighbor of mine in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan, an inveterate music-lover with strong opinions. She mentioned him with a certain reverence, particularly for his persuasive interpretations of Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and Wagner. Unfortunately, Schalk’s legacy remains only in these recordings assembled by producer and restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn and in the more “disreputable” aspects of his emendations of Bruckner symphonies.

At the time of his death in 1931, Franz Schalk had earned respect in a position of Kapellmeister of some dozen musical organizations, his first having been served in Olmuetz, Moravia, in 1884. Between 1888-89, Schalk devoted his talents to the Metropolitan Opera in New York and also Chicago. His Ring Cycle in 1898 London received excellent reviews and resulted in repeat performances in 1907 and 1911. His appointment in 1900 at the Vienna Court Opera made him first assistant to Gustav Mahler.  In 1919 he assumed leadership – with Richard Strauss – of the Vienna Court Opera.  After triumphs in Paris with Fidelio and Der Rosenkavalier, the Austrian government in 1930 elected him General Music Director for all Austria, an unprecedented appointment.

The Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony (2 March 1928) reveals what Bruno Walter described as Schalk’s sense of “the local music tradition.”  Leisurely paced but fluent, articulate, and dramatically pert, the b minor Symphony projects melancholy and lyric beauty. The BSOO achieves an organ sonority in the second movement without the music’s having devolved into pedantry.  Schalk expounds a sense of tragic urgency without bathos, a reading much in the Viennese tradition we know from Felix Weingartner and Bruno Walter.

The Beethoven Sixth Symphony (4, 11-12 April 1928) opens with a rapid tempo that perhaps captures the composer’s hectic metronome marks for the period, a tactic David Zinman would try 60 years later.  I don’t recall Scherchen’s having moved this music so briskly, yet Schalk retains an outdoor delicacy to the proceedings.  We might recall that the string section had Arnold Rose at the helm! The Scene by the Brook suffers some degree of molasses at first, as though the schnapps were distorting our cat-nap along a murmuring stream. Yet, the innate Viennese charm endemic to the occasion manages to triumph, and convincingly.  Bassoon, flute, clarinet, horns, and warbling strings merge into a splendid paean to Nature.  The rustic dance of movement three moves on alternately light and urgent feet, the VPO brass resonant against the peasant guffaws of the counter-tune.  The storm sequence rather chides than punishes, but the majesty and power of Nature still might awe the Shelley of the “West Wind” ode.  The Allegretto, appropriately, proceeds like a venerable benediction from a Viennese cathedral.

Despite a somewhat shaky opening chord in the Leonore Overture No. 3 (13 April 1928), the musical drama proceeds passionately and deliberately, the mists eventually clearing for the various vocal lines that will result in the triumph of the human spirit over tyranny. Response from the low basses and cellos, along with the enunciations from flute and trumpet, maintain the sense of heroism requisite to the evolution of this massive, even explosive, symphonic poem.  The Beethoven F Major Symphony, Op. 93 (12-13 April 1928) suits perfectly the “Schalk” persona – his name can be translated “prankster” – in its combination of delicacy and acerbic humor. Obert-Thorn’s restorations of the original electrical recordings, here from HMV and for Leonore from Electrola strike me as particularly seamless.

The spirit of the performance of the Eighth approaches what I also like in Weingartner’s rendition with the same ensemble, a grand leisure of conception. The Tempo di Menuetto has received attention, bars 19-24, for Schalk’s adjustments to matters – alternately arpeggio and pianissimo – of rhythmic pulse and dynamic textures. The slight exaggerations in portamento seem thoroughly idiomatic to the performance practice of the era.  The ubiquitous Fifth Symphony (26, 28 October 1929 and 27 January 1930) opens marcato, though Schalk does squeeze the E-flat for its fateful juice.  A free approach to the tempo yields some fine lyricism, much in the way Schalk had the last movement of the Op. 93 singing. Schalk keeps the theme-and-variations second movement moving, in which the organizing principle transfers to the pulse.  Deliberately, the Allegro third movement marches the rhythmic kernel forward, hustling through the contrapuntal counter-section and moving inexorably, in mysterious pizzicato, to the A-flat pedal that looms before the explosion to the last movement’s Allegro.  Festive, buoyant, and effectively witty, the performance bespeaks a Beethoven interpreter who elicits potent energy from his players. Mrs. Fliegl would be glad I finally caught up with her musical youth.

—Gary Lemco

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