Max Fiedler: German Radio Recordings, Vol. 1 = BRAHMS: Tragic Overture, Op. 81; MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466; SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 97 “Rhenish”; TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 – Lubka Kolessa, piano/ Orchester der Reichsenders Berlin/ Hamburg Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Max Fielder – Pristine Audio PASC 547 (2 CDs) 2 hrs 7:39 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Recording Engineer and restoration editor Mark Obert-Thorn unearths a series of 1936 German radio recordings led by Max Fiedler (1859-1939), whose repute has mainly rested in the interpretation of the music of Brahms, and with good reason. Much of the 19th Century performance practice becomes manifest in the documents bequeathed us by Max Fiedler, who along with Fritz Steinbach, embraced the rhetorical strategies in Romantic conducting style.  Steinbach died in 1916 without having left sound documents, though a direct disciple of his manner lies in Arturo Toscanini.   Christopher Dyment claimed that the Fiedler style owed as much to Hans von Bulow, Liszt’s son-in-law and mighty exponent both of  Liszt and Wagner. Selective use of string portamento and modulated variations in basic tempo define much of the Romantic style, which in its more excessive incarnation speaks much of what Willem Mengelberg brings to orchestral interpretation.

In this set, we have only one Brahms work to complement the set of commercial issues by Fiedler (PASC 363) on Pristine of two Brahms symphonies, the Academic Festival Overture, and the B-flat Concerto with Elly Ney. But, as Mark Obert-Thorn sadly notes, “Time and the vicissitudes of war have made [the present documents] scarce, resulting in some of the performances presented here being incomplete.” For example, the otherwise driven, even haunted reading (17 April 1936) of the Tragic Overture in D minor (1880) loses about two minutes of playing time as it approaches the fateful denouement, making the idea of its broadcast—no less true of the Mozart concerto and Schumann symphony—problematic.  Still, we cannot deny the intrinsic excitement and romantic ardor of the Mozart D minor Concerto (26 October 1936) with Ukrainian virtuoso Lubka Kolessa (1902-1997) with her inclusion of the first movement cadenza by Hummel. Her collaboration with Fiedler in the Mozart C minor Concerto is available on Doremi (DHR-7743-5), a set issued by Jacob Harnoy in 1999. The combination of intimacy and sudden onrush of emotion in the Romance of the Concerto 20 offers a stylized lesson in narrative development.  The sheer, dark confluence of forces that opens the Allegro assai, which moves to the openly optimistic D Major, has us in its titanic grip when much of the transition to the fateful coda disappears, though we do receive the blessings of a sumptuous last page and the audience response.

It never ceases to amaze me how many German-tradition conductors—Fried, Knappertsbusch, Borchard, Moralt, Kempen—favor Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Fiedler (26 October 1936) brings much in the way of transparent and delightful colors to the ubiquitous score, finding charm and elegance in its eternal appeal to youth. The virtuosic elements in the music allow the winds—especially those in high registers—to bloom, along with the low strings and the cymbals. After a spirited Trepak, Fiedler imbues the Arabian Dance with a measured eroticism worthy to rival Stokowski. Flute and bassoon rule the plucked strings and percussion of the Chinese Dance, and the Dance of the Mirlitons enjoys a lively sense of the French taste. Winds and harp announce a delicious Waltz of the Flowers, light, pearly, so that even the French horns seem enchanted. The sweep and grandeur of the rendition finds a warm response in the audience.

The warm, energetic reading of Schumann’s 1850 “Rhenish” Symphony (11 December 1936), first, has to be among the earliest such recordings of the work I have heard; second, its being incomplete gives me more reason to regret that, should I program a Max Fiedler tribute on air, I would have to select a complete movement or two.  The dramatic periods in movement one, Lebhaft, enjoy explosive cadences in the tympani and trumpets, complemented by a warm string line, shimmering tremolandos, and genial, suave sense of transition from 3/4 into 3/2. A broad, throaty line announces the Scherzo: Sehr maessig, articulate and transparent, its staccati and layered fabric much in the spirit of Mendelssohn. The martial intensity increases as we proceed to culminate in a fine peroration that recedes into a tranquil space. The serene intermezzo that follows, Nicht schnell, exudes a staid, balletic repose.  The Feierlich movement presents a solemn procession inspired by the Cathedral at Cologne. The contrapuntal layering achieves an “antique” disposition, underlined by Fiedler’s faithful tympanist. Schumann designates that the last movement Lebhaft should open “loud and sweet,” and so it does under Fiedler, soon gaining a gleeful momentum. The brass fanfares prove resilient and cleanly executed, and I would prefer we had the entirety of this sympathetic reading whose grand line halts just before what must have been a sublimely majestic coda.

Obert-Thorn designates the Beethoven Fifth (1936) from Hamburg as “possibly the most portentous and dramatic” as one is likely to encounter.  Even in the face of my own preference, that with Erich Kleiber and the Concertgebouw, this “fate symphony” has a mind of its own. It’s as if Fiedler had served as Mengelberg’s—or late Stokowski’s—model in terms of stretched note-values, pregnant pauses, and metric shifts. But whatever the “distortion,” the musical pulse and natural flow of the dramatic line make perfect sense within the aesthetic Fiedler projects. Occasionally, we hear a “newly” liberated melodic or accompanying voice that other performances elide or bury in the texture. For my money, the grandly conceived Andante con moto second movement steals the berries in terms of lushly, extravagantly mounted execution.  The last two movements have us meeting in thunder, lightning and in rain, with the Hamburg orchestra’s bass fiddles in full tilt. An almost-seamless side join ushers in the colossal Allegro finale, which occurs on Parnassus. Fifty years earlier in this same Hamburg, Brahms would have been basking in the same exalted musical space as we.

—Gary Lemco

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