Cultural Death: Music under Tyranny = Works ov BEETHOVEN, BRAHMS, BERLIOZ – Munich Philharmonic & USSR Sym. – Arbiter

by | Jan 1, 2016 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Arbiter celebrates three musical personalities who flourished, then perished within the autocratic bounds of fascism.

Cultural Death: Music under Tyranny = BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 2; BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83: Allegro non troppo; BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique, OP. 14a – Munich Philharmonic/ Oswald Kabasta (Beethoven)/ Alfred Hohn, p./ Leipzig Radio Orch./ Reinhold Merten (Brahms)/ USSR State Sym. Orch./ Oskar Fried (Berlioz) – Arbiter 162, 78:43 (10/16/15) [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Extensive documentation complements this fascinating release, part of which – the Oskar Fried Berlioz inscription from 1937 – has had CD incarnation prior. Allan Evans has created a kind of musical liturgy for three artists who perished as a result of the rise of fascism in Germany and the USSR: Oswald Kabasta (1896-1946), Alfred Hoehn (1887-1945), and Oskar Fried (1871-1941). Each musician, in his own way, suffered under the regime of National Socialism; although in Kabasta’s case – unlike Herbert von Karajan – his opportunism led to a personal catastrophe rather than a case of political redemption.

Oswald Kabasta, a protégé of Karl Muck, assumed authority with the Austrian Radio Orchestra, the Vienna Symphony, and the Munich Philharmonic. His power-base, once established, even permitted him a degree of artistic latitude to program moderns, Bartok, Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Ravel. Known his vibrant, clear energy of execution, Kabasta has representation with a previously unpublished, whirlwind Leonore Overture No. 2 of Beethoven (rec. 1942-1944), actually the first of the composer’s attempts to preface his opera Fidelio. The interior work between the strings and winds proves particularly ravishing, with sudden, ferocious outbursts from the full orchestra in preparation for the fateful trumpet call that announces the possibility of liberation for the opera’s principals. As strings create a pedal point, undergirded by soft tympani, the music rises in velocity and aggression to manic heights, the playing barely controlled. Given the power of the overture, the played drama certainly would prove superfluous. 

Pianist Alfred Hoehn had been deemed “a brilliant poet of the piano,” much in anticipation of the younger Geza Anda. One of Hoehn’s more prestigious students, Hans Rosbaud, became an outstanding conductor of the first rank. The opening movement of the Brahms Concerto No. 2 (4 May 1940), previously unpublished, reveals a keyboard artist capable of broad swathes of sound in the Backhaus mode, complemented by fine degrees of graduated nuance and lyric persuasion. He can mold a phrase architecturally while altering its dynamic quite subtlety. The fiendishly large octaves dominate us, just prior to the full tutti, with the French horn’s entry to announce a tremolo episode and further development. Hoehn’s speed and articulation hardly slow down for the dialogue that follows, moving with colossal sonority to the strummed roulades with woodwinds that will lead, quasi glissando from Hoehn, to the recapitulation. Before the movement ends, we can already imagine what Hoehn’s work on the Brahms Paganini Variations might have given us. Hoehn died of a heart attack in 1945 during the American army’s billeting of soldiers in his home.

Unlike many Jewish musicians who fled West for sanctuary from Nazism, Fried chose to emigrate to the Soviet Union, where, of course, Brother Stalin proved no ally. The performance of the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique under Oskar Fried derives from a 1937/38 film soundtrack in Moscow. Fried remains among the most “willful” of conductors, a virtuoso technician and master of color discipline on a par with contemporary Willem Mengelberg. Like Mengelberg, Fried favors abrupt shifts in tempo and a degree of rhythmic license purists would find objectionable. But for dramatic power and intensity of expression Fried has few peers. The liquid power of the first movement – Reveries; Passions – maintains a palpable tension even within a highly subjective pulse that Fried imposes. The last pages threaten to burst from the seams, yet Fried pulls the maelstrom back from the abyss to reveal a version of the original, 40-measure idée fixe that rushes into another whirlpool of manic ardor that concludes with a sense of emotional exhaustion.

Idiosyncratic rubato and flexible phraseology mark the Un bal: Valse movement. At first, the movement glides well in anticipation of Ravel, but the nervous, even neurotic energy, increases insistently, with the harp’s suggesting the play of the beloved’s haunting image on the persona’s mind. The rhythm and interior lines rarely have undergone such twisting shifts, the waltz easily beginning to intimate a totentanz. A sense of pantheism – quite an adumbration of the later Mahler – urges itself forth in the Adagio, “Scene in the Country.” The pastoral evolves in a resonant singing line, likely an homage to the Beethoven symphony, given the Berlioz “program” of a thwarted love affair that assumes torrential energy – a thunderstorm, if you will – of its own. The most roiling – and wrongheaded – performance occurs in the Marche au supplice, in which the sheer impulsiveness of Fried – his sense of the grand guignol – makes his ensemble scramble to follow his requirements. The last movement – along with the Fried Mazeppa of Liszt and the Danse macabre of Saint-Saens – could easily stand beside his Mahler interpretation of the Resurrection Symphony as testimony to his especial sound world. The urge to demonism finds its musical adherent in Fried.

Common consent claims Stalin had Fried assassinated as part of his revenge on Germans after Hitler’s invasion of Russia. The photograph Allan Evans provides of Fried, 1940, finds a warm, frail humanity in the old eagle.

—Gary Lemco

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