Hans Knappertsbusch – The Complete RIAS Recordings = Works of BRUCKNER, BEETHOVEN, SCHUBERT, J. STRAUSS, NICOLAI, HAYDN, TCHAIKOVSKY, KOMZAK – Audite (5 CDS)

by | Jan 7, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Hans Knappertsbusch – The Complete RIAS Recordings = BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (two performances); Symphony No. 8 in C Minor; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93; SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 “Unfinished” (two performances); J. STRAUSS II: One Thousand and One Nights Intermezzo; Die Fledermaus Overture; Pizzicato Polka, Op. 447; NICOLAI: The Merry Wives of Windsor Overture; HAYDN: Symphony No. 94 in G Major “Surprise”; TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker—Suite, OP. 71a; KOMZAK: Bad’ner Mad’ln – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Hans Knappertsbusch

Audite 21.405, (5 CDs) 79:07; 78:39; 71:12; 69:13; 57:19  [Distr. By Naxos] ****:

Hans Knappertsbusch (1888-1965) has a major restoration here from Audite, which assembles his 1950-1952 inscriptions with the Berlin Philharmonic for RIAS. The dignified conductor–noted for “slow” tempos that favor architectural sweep rather than bravura–enjoyed the favor of the BPO’s chief conductor Wilhelm Furtwaengler, and so Knappertsbusch could indulge his fancies with a most responsive ensemble. After 1954, however, and the accession of Herbert von Karajan to the post of Permanent Conductor, relations broke off, given the temperamental and artistic differences of the two musical personalities.

We have the Beethoven Eighth Symphony from 29 January 1952 to estimate the relative truth of the Knappertsbusch “slowness” of tempo in relation to others’ approaches. Except for a decided ritard in the opening phraseology–and a playful withholding of the final beat in the last movement coda–the F Major sails through its four movements fully cognizant that “time” itself is the issue of the music,  even mocking Beethoven’s or Maelzel’s metronome in the process of the ironic second movement.  Rich with individual colors and a frothy élan, the reading quite exudes a spirit of irrepressible mirth.

From the same session we hear the lofty Intermezzo from the Johann Strauss oriental fantasy in measured colors. The Nicolai and Haydn works derive from a live concert at the Titania-Palast, Berlin 1 February 1950. Where the Nicolai surges with Viennese cream, the Haydn exudes both a monumental grandeur and limpid graciousness. The second movement “surprise” chord quite takes us by storm, the proceeding variants delicate and pointed. A measured pesante Menuetto adds humorous girth to the rustic-court dance, the strings and bassoon rather suggesting the invasion by a choir of hurdy-gurdies on a regal occasion. The finale ushers in some whirlwind effects, making a mere canard any reference to “slow” tempos. What Knappertsbusch slows down is the second subject, but only momentarily; once the transition comes, the stretti fly forth with a resolute authority the concert audience obviously relished.

Knappertsbusch takes the Nutcracker Suite (1 February 1950) as a symphonic excursion, a showpiece for his various BPO choirs, utilizing the celesta as both a solo and obbligato instrument; the other movements correspond to the conductor’s persistent balance of popular classics with high taste. Solid Russian rhythms in the Trepak and appropriate sensuality in the Arabian Dance. The Dance of the Flowers receives a broad approach, as if these flowers were Roses from the South. The crisp performance of the Die Fledermaus Overture conveys wispy playfulness, its long lines and huge luft-pausen flexibly ardent. The last page pulls the stops and hurtles into Viennese delirium with unbounded momentum.  Rarely have the pizzicati in the Strauss Pizzicato Polka thundered in the manner of a stentorian march, that is between deft aerial acrobatics. The composer Karel Komzak (1850-1905) endures virtually on his one lilting waltz, a tribute to the maids of Baden, a spa near Vienna. Knappertsbusch milks its opening measures for all the schlag he can muster. The martial aspects suggest waxed mustache and monocled eye, jeweled wrists, begowned thighs, and elegant gestures with champagne glasses.  

The live Unfinished Symphony (30 January 1950) comes just two days after Knappertsbusch inscribed the same work in the studio, and it possesses a slightly broader scope and more individual flair. Knappertsbusch slows down the main D Major theme in the first movement, only to intensify the dark drama played out in two distinct motifs by strings, horns, and tympani. Something of Furtwaengler’s potent sway with this music carries residually into the Knappertsbusch reading, with its almost mystical poignancy and agonized fortes. The E Major Andante opens with a broadly dark statement that haunts the progression in the manner of a ritornello. The martial aspects of the music consistently dissolve into natural evocations and cloudy tapestries. We can hear 19th Century music-practice in the long sighs and slides in the cellos and basses, but the transition with French horn still remains peerless. Knappertsbusch keeps this music fraught with meaning – ominous, dire, but not ponderous.

The studio Unfinished  28 January 1950) moves with a tad more urgency, especially in the cello line, the transitions slowed down but the melody graduated in dynamics and molded with velvety affection. In neither version does Knappertsbusch repeat the exposition, so the pace seems streamlined in spite of the willful ritards in the dramatic line. Beautifully graduated, the transition passages prove seamless in the conductor’s style, but more conservative in cast than in the live document. The pacing the second movement moves at a pace astonishingly similar to the performance two days later, but the textures in the stretti appear more thin and diaphanous. The horn work all but points to the Bruckner symphonies that dominate this collection.

The association of Knappertsbusch with the music of Anton Bruckner remains well known and well documented, and collectors still treasure his Bruckner Eighth from Munich on the Westminster label. The C Minor Symphony (1892 Edition) given here, from 8 January 1951 Berlin, has many resplendent moments, considering the sheer thickness of the texture, and the occasional mis-firing of a French horn line. Knappertsbusch maintains the first movement’s epic tripartite thematic groups in architectural tension, the rhythm often galloping in repeated, even obsessive, riffs. The music tries to vault to a ceremonially triumphant C Major, but the music falls back into a funeral march deliberately patterned on Siegfried’s music from Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods. Few performances of the Scherzo equal what Furtwaengler achieves in his 1949 realization, but Knappertsbusch certainly breathes fire and passion in his individual, chromatic strings lines, supported by some mighty work in the trumpets. The trio in duple time receives a kind of balletic quality here, the strings and harp leading to brass figures with pizzicato strings that encourage a pastoral vision in celestial colors not far from Mahler’s mountain music.  

With the D-flat Adagio we enter a world of spiritual queries that have their harmonic counterparts in keys like C-flat and A natural = B double flat. The ambiguities of the opening theme–coming off a G string and beginning on A-flat above middle C–reach upward to an equivalent of the “Dresden Amen” in Mendelssohn and Wagner. This Adagio might be construed as Bruckner’s “Good Friday Music.” Strings, horn, and harps play a prominent feature in the heavenly energies, but Bruckner often breaks off into dark descents or triple-time riffs that induce anxiety and doubt. The tenor trombone will lead us into anguished territory–some the property of Wagner’s Wotan– but the prevailing mood confirms God’s mysterious ways.

In the transparent passages, Knappertsbusch exacts a chamber music intimacy from his low strings, the cellos especially. The fusion of chorale and aggressive march that characterizes the last movement finds a monumental reading from Knappertsbusch, who molds the melodies to reminisce openly their debts to themes in the first and second movements. In the midst of feverish galloping and thunderous work from the tympani, Nature makes its presence felt in bucolic episodes that soon yield to alternately dire and religious progressions. Once the titanic struggle for (contrapuntal) dominance ensues to several “apocalyptic” climaxes, Knappertsbusch can hardly be accused of “slow” tempos. The coda seems to rend the veil of Heaven, peeling back the astral layers of time and space in a sustained moment of revelation.

Of the two performances of Bruckner’s 1896 Ninth Symphony by Knappertsbusch, the live performance from 30 January 1950–inscribed two days after the studio recording of January 28–simply electrifies in its sense of gravity and magisterial awe. Often exquisitely supple and fleet–as in the F-sharp Major trio of the demonic Scherzo–the reading, lasting barely two minutes longer than the studio version, exhibits wonderful tension, given the sheer variety of musical periods the two outer movements present. Knappertsbusch relishes the music’s often audaciously piercing dissonances, its grinding descents in to the maelstrom, its heightened, even neurotic, spiritual ecstasies. Almost anticipatory of Richard Strauss, Bruckner indulges in multiple examples of self-quotation, both symphonic and liturgical. Genuinely incandescent and exciting as the Adagio finale is, what beguiles us has to be Knappertsbusch’s manic drive, ascending to an hysterical peroration just before the strings seem to snap in spiritual crisis. The extended coda’s chromatic lines often remind us of Russian music, with its high string pedal, tremolando, unfolding an aerial vista easily comparable to the Friedrich painting of the Wanderer Above the Sea of Mist.

— Gary Lemco


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