TAHRA TAH 568/569, 68:41, 55:13 (2 discs) (Distrib. Harmonia mundi) ****:
Among the less celebrated conductors of the 20th-Century German school of conducting, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (1900-1973), while still under-rated, has emerged as a strong personality and tireless worker in symphonic music and opera. Philips some years ago transferred to CD a healthy portion of Schmidt-Isserstedt’s readings of the Beethoven nine symphonies. His collaborations with Kulenkampff in the Schumann Violin Concerto (1937) and with Neveu in the Brahms Violin Concerto (1948) remain justly famous. His name was first revealed to me through a budget-priced LP on Richmond (Decca) of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. His relationship to his Hamburg orchestra lasted twenty-five years, and he honed the ensemble for a more transparent sound than had been its wont, so it could handle French music with more style. His favorite composer to perform was Brahms (of Hamburg), and especially the Double Concerto, in which his two concertmasters, Erich Roehn and Arthur Troester, could shine. But Sibelius and Dvorak lay close to Schmidt-Isserstedt’s heart as well, and he often called Dvorak’s D Minor Symphony the “Brahms Fifth.”
The present Tahra set complements their earlier “A Musical Portrait” tribute to Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (TAH 363-365) by offering performances given at the height of his powers, 1952 (Bruckner) and 1954. Having accompanied Georg Kulenkampff, Gaspar Cassado, and Monique Haas in so many concertos, Schmidt-Isserstedt can combine with the splendid French violinist Christian Ferras (1933-1982) in the Paganini D Major Concerto (15 November 1954) to realize a crystalline performance, controlled but still thrilling in its sense of improvisation. Utilizing the abridged version of the opening Allegro maestoso, the two artists collaborate for a rendition still rife with elegance and spitfire pyrotechnics. Ferras’ tone and sonic projection embody the kind of sensual polish that contemporary youngbloods cannot yield for all the tea in China. The NWDR horn and wind section plays with the same pomp and liquid confidence as they reveal in the last movement of the Haydn Drum Roll Symphony (18 October 1954), where the alternations of dynamic levels elicit virile and canny adjustments from their conductor.
We hear a rare moment of Pachelbel (21 August 1954), not by today’s standards, but in 1954 few knew the Kanon in D, and we had still to await the whole Vivaldi revival. When connoisseurs mention the great Bruckner specialists, Schmidt-Isserstedt’s name is not among them. So to have a massive, often furiously poignant reading of the Ninth (28 April 1954) at a time when the great German masters of the idiom: Furtwaengler, Knappertsbusch, Walter, Klemperer, Karajan, Jochum, and Abendroth, were all equally active is quite a coup. The Hamburg tradition in Bruckner had been Eugen Jochum’s province, and Schmidt-Isserstedt’s reading shares the spaciousness of conception, albeit in a more literalist manner. The motion in the accelerando passages becomes quite supercharged without sacrificing the cosmic yearning. The Scherzo marches with trumpets, winds, and tympani ablaze, an aggressive yet buoyant realization that rivals my old favorite rendition with Eduard van Beinum. The great Adagio, much in the spirit of Mahler as it is of Mendelssohn’s “Dresden Amen,” emanates a transcendent light. Exemplary trumpet work and incandescent shimmering strings in pedal point lay the foundation for the entire unfolding process, broadly conceived but not dragging. Schmidt-Isserstedt understands the Brucknerian episodic architecture. When we reach the final peroration of this well-wrought edifice, we are on a high plane indeed. The insert contains a thorough discography of Schmidt-Isserstedt’s work with RRG, 1932-1944.