More from the historical legacy of an imperfect man but capable musician, Max von Schillings.
Schillings conducts = SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 8 in b, D. 759 “Unfinished”; SCHILLINGS: Mona Lisa, Op. 15: Prelude and Arrigo’s Serenade; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica” – Berlin State Opera Orch./ Max von Schillings – Pristine Audio PASC 474, 76:34 [avail. various formats from www.pristineeclassical.com] ****:
It has been quipped of composer and conductor Max von Schillings (1868-1933) that “his untimely death saved him from gross infamy, relegating him instead to relative obscurity.” An ardent Nazi, Schillings had begun purging many Jewish musicians from posts associated with the Prussian Academy of Arts. He was featured in the film documentary Great Conductors of the Third Reich. As a teacher of both Frieder Weissmann, Robert Heger, and Wilhelm Furtwaengler, Schillings may have achieved his real immortality. Procucer and recording engineer Mark Obert-Thorn, in collaboration with Andrew Rose and Richard Kaplan, provides us a substantial document of Schillings’ capacities as an interpretative artist.
The Schubert Unfinished Symphony (30 November 1927) exhibits many fine qualities in the course of the reading: the responsive breadth of the musical line stands foremost among a litany of impressive effects. Schillings has a potent sense of musical drama as well, following Schubert’s caesuras to impel the dramatic line toward muscular cadences. The singing line of the main melody proves lyric and virile, nostalgic without cloying. Schillings’ musical culture embraced much in the Romantic tradition that inspired his near contemporary Willem Mengelberg, though Schillings does not attempt a glossy heroism in this performance. Schillings urges the Andante con moto in a solemn but lyrically active tempo, given the often noble tragedy’s being played out. The individual woodwind parts – and French horn – enjoy a resonant, alert shape, along with a finely honed air of mystery. The occasional rubato and portamento effects appear relatively unobtrusively, allowing a palpable breathing space for selected phrase lengths. The performance concludes impressively, a controlled fading into a refined ether.
Schillings’ gothic opera Mona Lisa (1915) explores – as do we all – the secret of the sitter’s smile in the Da Vinci portrait, possibly accountable to the mantra that “sin is the source of all delight.” To a certain extent the opera’s libretto superimposes the Francesca da Rimini tale upon the principals in this opera. The post-Wagnerian Prelude to Mona Lisa (from Parlophone, 26 April 1929) offers a richly orchestrated score, easily compatible with sounds from Richard Strauss or Reger. Arrigo’s Serenade displays the composer’s gift for deft, snappy Italianate lyricism, likely attributable what Richard Strauss accomplished in his own Op. 16 Aus Italien.
After strained, somewhat shrill opening chords, the Beethoven Eroica (from American Columbia, rec. 24 May and 27 June 1929) proceeds in a driven, linear style, much akin to contemporary Felix Weingartner in style. Schillings applies some idiosyncratic touches in terms of pace, slowing down prior to crescendo but allowing his brass to ring prominently as the melodic line surges forward. The bass notes prove hard to discern, though the power of the first music gains a cumulative, impressive momentum.
Schillings makes the Marche funebre the heart of the occasion; and his performance reveals many qualities Liszt would imbibe into his symphonic poems. Again, unfortunately, the bass tones suffer poor acoustics, due, claims Obert-Thorn, to Parlophone’s own technology that eschewed the more felicitous Western Electric process. A light touch informs the middle section, but the haunted march returns with a mournful inexorability. The last pages reveal a decisive, mournful countenance. Good, brisk pacing marks the Scherzo and Trio, with a solid oboe and responsive, fleet strings and tympani. The “hunting” choir of French horns resonates well. When the sonority remains a bit hollow, the sound reminds me of acoustic-process records. After having just auditioned the 1930 Mengelberg Eroica on Opus Kura, with its last movement penchant for colored variations in the last movement, I found Schillings comparatively staid and certainly more metrically conventional. Nevertheless, aside from the restrictions of the acoustic sound process, the performance has girth and stylistic conviction, and Schillings elicits fine clarity in Beethoven’s contrapuntal filigree. If not “heroically opulent” in the manner of Mengelberg, the Schillings rendition stands on its own substantial merits.