BERLIOZ: Benvenuto Cellini Overture, Op. 23; REGER: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Hiller, Op. 100; SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 – Northwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra – Fritz Busch – Pristine Audio PASC 576, 79:38 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
In February 1951, conductor Fritz Busch 1890-1951) returned to Germany, having shunned the country’s self-destructive
embrace of National Socialism. Busch would lead the grateful Hamburg players in two concerts, the present program having been previously offered by Myriam Scherchen and Rene Tremine’s Tahra label (TAH 447)in 2002. Unfortunately, that prior issue omitted several lost variations of the Reger due to the inadvertent destruction of the original masters. Andrew Rose supplements the lost variations (nos. 7-10) with a contemporary reading (July 1951) from the Berlin Philharmonic under Paul van Kempen.
The opening gambit, the Overture to the 1837 Berlioz opera Benvenuto Cellini, a tribute to the master sculptor and goldsmith whose picaresque exploits provide a sensation even to this day. The energy and brilliant elan of the Busch reading convinces us that French music could play a significant part of the conductor’s palette any time he chose. Next come the 1907 Hiller Variations in E Major by Max Reger, the theme borrowed from a work called Der Aernotekranz by Johann Adler Hiller, a writer and composer. Reger dedicates his treatment to Fritz Steinbach. The theme and its eleven variants follow Brahms as a model, but Reger possesses a demonic undercurrent that proves counterproductive to his academic epigoni. He cannot remain content artfully to imitate Brahms, so he must exert a Dionysian impulse that occasionally echoes Richard Strauss. The verve of the opening tune and its immediate successors testifies to the alert enthusiasm of the Hamburg players, obviously delighted to serve a musical master whose humanity had not succumbed to cold ambition. The Allegretto con grazia evokes a pastoral image we might find in Dvorak or Grieg. The Poco vivace becomes notable for its torrential rhythm and transparent texture, rather a tour de force.
The mood assumes an idyllic nostalgia in Variation 5, Andante sostenuto. The tempo di minuetto enjoys that antique style of which Respighi would become the superb master. The Presto – the first of the variants supplied by Kempen – projects a quasi tarantella sensibility. The ensuing Andante con moto exhibits melodic flair, but its real interest lies in the serpentine bass line that owes debs to Bach. The Allegro appassionato gives us Italy once more, but through a Teuton’s lens. The longest of the ‘pure’ variations, Andante con moto, bears the imprimatur of the master, Brahms, texturally thick and technically virtuosic. Lastly, the double Fugue (Allegro moderato), cavorting in rather lyric style, with more than a touch of the Brahms Haydn Variations and some Smetana, maybe Weinberger, colors. Dignified and elastic, the performance might convince some of us that Reger possessed a melodic gift.
The Schumann D minor Symphony has had its champions, of whom Furtwaengler’s leading the Berlin Philharmonic remains one of the great ones. The step-wise motion of the opening Ziemlich langsam – Lebhaft by Busch has a stoic poise, a noble melancholy. The ensuing, presto figures move with a driven fury, hurtling and tripping into stellar and lyric regions. The NWR players, especially the upper voices in strings and winds, enjoy an alert responsiveness worth the price of admission. The brass pedal points, too, convey a nervous, chorale gallantry, beautifully breathed and sung, with a lofty coda rife with exciting color. A moment’s hesitation, and we enter the staid portals of the Romance. Schumann, well versed in his cyclical treatment, reaffirms the first movement progression. The first violin, somewhat distantly, carries the sentimental journey forward. A brisk Scherzo, light and breezy, within Schumann’s ponderous limits. The drooping figures of the Romance recur, and then we savor Busch’s ineluctable, mysterious progress, a la Beethoven’s Fifth, to the huge Langsam – Lebhaft finale. The horns open up the Kingdom of Heaven, and the rest is cyclical history, negotiating the old tunes in terrific, contrapuntal figures that manage to sing and dance. Quite thrilling, this reading, reminding us – and the Germans of the period – how much genius the passed, evil political climate had sacrificed in music and humanity.