BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60; MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488; R. STRAUSS: Sinfonia Domestica, Op. 53 – Friedrich Gulda, piano/ Staatskapelle Dresden/ Franz Konwitschny – Orfeo (2 CDs) C 839 112B, 37:34; 47:47 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:
Many would consider Franz Konwitschny (1901-1962) to have been the leading conductor in the German Democratic Republic, then under Soviet rule. When Herbert von Karajan assumed the general directorship of the Salzburg Festival in 1957, he invited the Dresden State Orchestra to appear at the Festival, virtually announcing its position, after the Berlin Philharmonic, as the second most prestigious musical ensemble in Germany, and a legitimate rival to the Vienna Philharmonic’s hegemony in Salzburg.
Konwitschny opens his 4 August 1961 concert with Beethoven’s 1806 Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, whose mysterious, even dire first movement Adagio might adumbrate some grand tragedy, but rather breaks out into Homeric mirth. The homogeneity of tone from the Staatskapelle Dresden will impress auditors today as it did in 1961, with the bassoon and flute parts filling out some intensely warm playing from the Dresden strings. Konwitschny’s leisurely approach to the development section proves broad, if not magnanimous, but not without potent drama in the horn and tympani colors. The transition to the recapitulation becomes measured and intimate, the flute and middle strings carrying the lyric element over soft tympanic beats. The heart of the symphony, its E-flat Major Adagio, becomes a grand march-hymn, the strings, winds, and tympani each contributing to the evolving cantabile a personal paean to fluid splendor, the flute’s offering what Hopkins called “Pied Beauty.” The peasant dance that forms the Menuetto resembles Haydn more than any courtly expression from Mozart. A sense of threat underlies its otherwise genial figures in alternating duple and triple meters. The light-hearted romp of a finale, Allegro ma non troppo, moves in perpetual motion, the Dresden woodwinds and especially the bassoon in full witty regalia. The sudden sforzati in the sonic mass adds that touch of epic comedy to a creative impulse that shares much with the darker regions of the Fifth Symphony.
For the popular Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, iconoclastic pianist Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000) appears, and his frothy puckish sensibility will assert itself in the final Allegro assai, where the light touch and the demonic tempo place bravura on a pedestal above lyric poetry.  Except for the manic last movement, however, Konwitschny and Gulda strive for an ethereal delicacy of tone and blitheness of spirit, the music’s evolving in seamless periods. Gulda brings a poised stately nobility to the fluid line, the attacks alternately poignantly declamatory or rounded like poetic teardrops. The numinous mysteries of the F-sharp Minor Adagio as played by Gulda and Konwitschny transport us well beyond any merely physical plane. Those moments in which the texture assumes that of a piano and woodwind quintet float in a seamless intimate aether. No wonder, the Dresden Staatskapelle earned the sobriquet “The Magic Harp.” The Dresden strings and bassoon seem to compete for the most notes per second for the finale, with Gulda’s adding his lithe champagne runs in pearly bubbles. The result, acrobatic and aristocratic at once, quite mesmerizes today as it once had almost fifty years ago at the Great Festival-House.
Of his 1898 Sinfonia Domestica Strauss noted, “My next tone poem will represent a day in my family life. It will be partly lyrical, partly humorous – a triple fugue will bring together Papa, Mama and Baby.” The expansive main theme intends to extend the “heroic” sentiment of Ein Heldenleben while simultaneously permitting the diurnal commonplaces of family life their prosaic and sometimes droll polyphonic expression. The music plays under Konwitschny as a colorful divertimento in various tempos and textures, a simple idyll expanded into scenic tableaux. Bits of Viennese melodies appear, waltz gestures, moments of rapture, indications of family spats and reconciliations; and throughout, there persists an eminent emotional security. That Konwitschny molds the disparate sections into a cohesive whole testifies to what one critic called “sovereign control of his orchestra,” a finely honed instrument performing at peak efficiency and emotional expression under its veteran master.
—Gary Lemco