As part of what might be construed as a resurgence of interest in East German conductor Franz Konwitschny (1901-1962), who passed away in Belgrade while rehearsing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Weitblick has issued a powerful, live performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony (22 May 1962), given only two months prior to the conductor’s death. Konwitschny’s recorded reputation has rested on a few scattered opera performances, mostly of Wagner, some Beethoven symphonies, and his accompanying David Oistrakh in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Collectors might flaunt a copy of the Brahms D Minor Concerto with American piano virtuoso Julius Katchen (Weitblick SSS0043-2) and the Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1960. Originally trained as a violinist and then moving into the Fitzner String Quartet, Konwitschny came to conducting through a strong chamber music tradition, and we can hear aspects of that approach, its intimacy and transparency, in his reading of the Ninth.
Auditioning German conductors in Bruckner always tempts one to invidious comparisons, ultimately with Wilhelm Furtwaengler’s single documented performance of the Ninth from 1944 Berlin. Konwitschny’s reading lies somewhere between the earthy accounts by Eduard van Beinum and the willful spirituality (and slow tempos) of Hans Knappertsbusch. Projecting an eminently plastic and muscular line, Konwitschny moves Bruckner forward in graceful periods, the tension bold and dramatic, but still indebted to the lyric impulse Bruckner took from Lutheran psalmody and Schubert. I replayed the Scherzo, just to savor the poignant delicacy of pizzicato and high flute, then the monolithic chords from the brass and tympani. The tympani, flute. and oboe wax playful here, a moment of coquettish lightness in the midst of the thunder. The Trio, while lulling in the spirit of the Austrian laendler, emits an agonized paroxysm worthy of Mahler. The great Adagio is quite an epic experience, paced monumentally and lavishly colored by string, wind, and horn choirs. The more static episodes, often marked by long-held string chords and wind punctuations, keep the audience in thrall, then the main hymnal march, in augmented rhythm, stretches like some elastic ribbon of cosmic yearning. The sense of periodic transition, so integral to Bruckner’s ethos, proves quite revelatory in the final pages of the Adagio, where strings, horns, and flute dissipate into eternity. The audience hesitates nervously before erupting into applause. Old Austrian wine in a new bottle.