Fritz Lehmann conducts French Music: Delibes, Gounoud – Bamberg Symphony Orchestra – Forgotten Records

by | Jul 4, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

A vibrant and thoroughly engaging restoration of neglected Lehmann repertory.

DELIBES: Coppélia Suite; Sylvia Suite; GOUNOD: Faust Ballet Music; Faust Waltz – Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/ Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/ Fritz Lehmann – Forgotten Records FR 2038 (62:10) ****:

I first encountered the art of German conductor Fritz Lehmann (1904-1956) on a vinyl LP of the Brahms Third Symphony on American Decca, led by Eugen Jochum in Berlin, accompanied by the Tragic Overture by Lehmann. This and other such Decca records were on sale in an area of the 14th Street IRT train station in New York City, where also I discovered Lehmann’s Dvorak Serenade in E and two Slavonic Rhapsodies, and my cherished item, the Beethoven Choral Fantasy with Lehmann and pianist Andor Foldes. I soon learned that Lehmann, a graduate of such esteemed music establishments as the Mannheim Conservatory and Heidelberg University, had made a distinguished name for himself in Baroque music, leading a number of Bach cantatas on disc, and directing the Handel  Festival in Göttingen. When I noted the dates of his work in Berlin with the Philharmonic, I realized that he led that orchestra, as a guest, contemporaneously with Music Director Wilhelm Furtwaengler and another brilliant visitor, Ferenc Fricsay, recommendations in themselves. In response to a listener’s ardent request, I programmed on “The Music Treasury” Lehmann’s Schubert Unfinished Symphony, which he insisted surpassed all rival interpretations. 

Producer Alain Deguernel and Forgotten Records already can claim a significant number of Lehmann restorations, not the least of which is the 1951 Dvorak symphonic poem The Wood Dove, taken from the sonically deficient Avon label and now in vibrant sound. Here, Lehmann leads a program of French ballet music, from 1951 and 1954 Heliodor and DGG LPs, contemporary with performances by Beecham, Fournet, and Sevitzky. No “German” heaviness applies in these readings, the five entries for the 1870 comic ballet Coppélia light and aerial in character. The Bamberg strings, woodwinds, brass, and battery provide an alert, energetic realization of the score, which has remained among the most popular ballet sequences, especially if adopted for productions of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.  Lehmann makes a smooth segue from the Valse des automates to the Csardas, here played with less treacle than by some other interpreters. 

For the suites for Sylvia and Faust, Lehmann stands before the Munich Philharmonic, the ensemble often associated with conductor Hans Knappertsbusch. The 1876 ballet Sylvia is clearly a superior score, and Tchaikovsky himself proclaimed it “the first ballet, where the music constitutes not only the main, but the only interest. What charm, what elegance, what richness of melody, rhythm, harmony!” Delibes sets up his characters with their own leitmotifs, a page from his idol, Wagner. Again, the deft transparency in the opening Prelude and mystical pomp for Les Chasseresses easily suggest the breadth in Tchaikovsky’s scoring of the 1890 Sleeping Beauty. The diaphanous Pizzicati sequence leads to the finale, the slick and convulsive Cortège de Bacchus, that smacks of Meyerbeer’s influence. 

The ballet music for Act V from Gounod’s Faust derives from its 1869 Paris revival, music deemed by  contemporary composer Camille Saint-Saens “a masterpiece of its kind.” The suave set of waltzes and dance variants flows graciously and idiomatically, and to ascribe this charming ease of execution to a German conductor seems incongruous. The second piece, Adagio, stands as vibrant testimony to Lehmann’s natural affinity for the medium, as does the wind-laden fluency of the Danse antiques. The creamy, string legato for Les Troyennes matches any of the Beecham renditions, which I thought set the standard. The rousing Danse de Phryné and its familiar successor, the Valse, enjoy an energy we might assume is Toscanini’s. I heartily encourage collectors to investigate Forgotten Records as a source of otherwise lost treasures.

A vibrant and thoroughly engaging restoration of neglected Lehmann repertory.

—Gary Lemco 

More information available through Forgotten Records

Album Cover for Fritz Lemann conducts French Music

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