BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, “Eroica”; Leonore Overture No. 3 in C Major; BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor – Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Hans Knappertsbusch – IDIS (2 CDs)

by | Feb 23, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica”; Leonore Overture No. 3 in C Major, Op. 72; BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor – Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Hans Knappertsbusch – IDIS 6652/53 (2 CDs), 78:18; 78:19 [Distr. by Qualiton] ***:

Hans Knappertsbusch (1888-1965) maintained a reputation for his smooth, temperate unfolding of the German romantics (especially Wagner). Knappertsbusch made only one studio recording of the Eroica, in 1943 Bremen, which especially impresses – despite ragged playing by the ensemble – for its having achieved an organic evolution even while limited by the four-minute-fragment recording process. Tempo shifts are subtle and dynamics develop smoothly; but the music inexorably builds toward and then away from the Marcia Funebre fugue, suggesting a fixation with tragic disappointment in the manner of Rachmaninoff’s “point” toward which all musical elements converge. Happily, Knappertsbusch’s open contempt for rehearsals does not factor in the Vienna 1961 concert, which sounds both sincere and richly patient in its continuity. Kna seems less repressed than is his wont in the climaxes, yet carefully controlling of his tempos to create an arching atmosphere of introspection and solemn grief in the funeral march.

Given Beethoven’s fierce metronome markings for the Allegro con brio – which would place the realization at hardly more than eleven-plus minutes – the seventeen-and-one-half minutes of the first movement (sans repeat) will inflate the proceedings too much for certain tastes. Only Hermann Scherchen in the “golden age” of recording (and more recently David Zinman) approached the original tempo; and here, too, Beethoven himself has his detractors. A homogenous development and emotional urgency mark the Marche Funebre, and we must applaud (as does the VPO audience) the concentrated tenacity of the effort. The Scherzo brings the horns to prominence, and the Finale maintains the “Prometheus” tune’s elastic dance-character, even as its girth swells and increases to culminate Beethoven’s thoughts on what this country-dance theme could germinate in terms of heroic ideas.

Equally slow in its musical evolution, the Leonore Overture No. 3 exhibits wonderful orchestral discipline, but the trumpet calls to freedom remain barely audible, since the microphone placement seems string-oriented. Broad tempos cut huge swathes of sound from the various melodies, ascribing to Beethoven the same “periodic” development we accord Bruckner. It becomes obvious that with a Knappertsbusch reading of this overture, the opera Fidelio becomes dramatically superfluous. Wonderful flute and tympani resonance as we approach the coda, a whirlwind, a maelstrom of emotion executed with string runs in acid tones. That the taut line sustains Kna’s Turkish-taffy pulls and compressions attests to the endurance of Beethoven’s heroic impulse and the firm response in the VPO in repertory it knows well

Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony (1885) had a painful gestation in the composer’s output, having been originally rejected by conductor Hermann Levi in Munich in 1887, after Levi’s having read through the finished orchestral score. It was Hans Richter in 1892 who gave the successful premier. Hugo Wolf heralded the work as “a complete victory of light over darkness.” Without belaboring the perennial issue of Bruckner editions and Originalfassungen versus Praktiker editions (prepared by Loewe and the Schalk brothers), suffice it to say that Knappertsbusch knew the Robert Haas edition represents an uneasy compromise between the 1887 first attempt and the 1890 revision. The IDIS liner notes do not indicate any particular edition of this score. In the first movement Allegro moderato, set in three-theme groupings and a tripartite recapitulation, Knappertsbusch provides a titanic struggle between F Minor and C Minor, a tumult that produces at least one point of polytonality, when the recap moves – via the flute – into D-flat Major. The Manichean principle extends into the Scherzo, where fluttering tremolo violins play against heavy treads from the brass. The Trio section appears then like an angel of light, set in A-flat Major, French horn interwoven with harp. If Knappertsbusch does not elicit quite the transcendence Furtwaengler emanates, he does favor a consistent scope, a sense of the colossal.

Both we and the original 1961 audience live to hear the solemn Adagio in D-flat Major, likely the longest slow movement in the symphonic oeuvre. The architecture basically adheres to the sonata-form, though constructed in four thematic groups. The initial valedictory tone of the strings warrants the price of admission, both a lamentation and a ground for hope. That Knappertsbusch can invoke exaltation in his ensemble becomes immediately apparent. If we can lose ourselves in the labyrinthine development, we avoid the resistance we find in a critic like Brahms, who dismissed Bruckner’s works as “so many boa constrictors.” The Adagio presents itself akin to a vista from atop a huge mountain range, another analogy to Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Sea of Mist. The stormy heavens open, so we either continue to listen or rent a film by Cecil B. DeMille. No less mighty in its proportions, the Finale lays out a huge exposition in three organic theme complexes. A stentorian martial opening yields to a chorale and then to a theme marked by Bruckner’s signature falling fourths.  Knappertsbusch makes a point of infusing poignant drama into the manipulation of these motifs contrapuntally by a symphonist who clearly conceives his orchestra as the diapason of a celestial organ. The occasional rustic or bucolic call from Nature soon concedes to a darker presence, something like Hardy’s Immanent Will. The recapitulation and the extended Coda literally vie for dynamic dominance, the latter having begun in pianissimo C Minor that will move inexorably to the tonic major, much in bloated imitation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Knappertsbusch and the VPO immerse the final major triad in as much pomp and illumination as they can muster, here for Bruckner’s ascent to those spiritual pinnacles Scriabin claimed as his own.

—Gary Lemco

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