We’re told that 450 years ago Elector Joachim II, Hektor of Brandenburg maintained a lavish court. Inspired by his leadership an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists was set up and the ground springs of Staatskapelle Berlin trickled forth, flowing full force in the Nineteenth Century under the likes of Nikolai and Meyerbeer and in the Twentieth under Richard Strauss, Leo Blech, Erich Kleiber, Clemens Krauss, Herbert von Karajan, Joseph Keilberth, Franz Konwitschny, Otmar Suitner and now Daniel Barenboim, who in the context of DG’s fascinating anniversary set is represented by a magnificent ‘live’ Bruckner 5 from 2010, at once majestic, impulsive, well-proportioned and superbly played, in fact an ideal supplement to Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Bruckner cycle for DG. I felt so excited after hearing it that I immediately tapped out an online order for the whole cycle, having never heard it before in its entirety.
Barenboim’s November 2012 concert performances of Beethoven’s Third and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concertos under Zubin Mehta are something else again. The Beethoven unfolds with unostentatious grandeur, the largo in particular being most sensitively voiced. But it’s the Tchaikovsky that really suggests territory revisited with fresh ears: broad in the manner of Celibidache’s symphonic Tchaikovsky, with ample space around the notes, so there’s time to appreciate the sheer beauty of the master’s writing. Suddenly a warhorse becomes a unicorn, and you begin to rediscover just what an extraordinary masterpiece this is. As to Celibidache himself, opinions divide, mine included. Give me his Bruckner or Sibelius and I’m invariably hooked but in the context of this collection there are some oddities. Dvorák’s 8th Slavonic Dance is fast but wooden and when it comes to Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber there’s a rudely over-conspicuous trombone in the jazzy second half of the ‘Turandot Scherzo’, as well as additional gratuitous point-making and in Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, at 3:06 into the second movement ‘Celi’ slackens the pace, has his cellos play loud pizzicatos and allows his upper strings to rapturously blossom on a somewhat exaggerated crescendo, effective once, maybe twice, but more than that? Not sure. Also, the marked slowing down in the finale, from the flute variation onwards, before the full orchestra returns with the main passacaglia theme. It’s the familiar old story of marking a difference between ideas applied from without or letting them suggest themselves from within the body of the score.
Celibidache tends to treat each work as a novel interpretative experiment, a process that can prove utterly absorbing – if you’re in the mood. If you’re not and would rather have music fired straight from the hip, then a conductor like Franz Konwitschny should fit the bill more securely. His view of the first act of Die Meistersinger (all eighty-two and a half minutes contained on a single cd) is as honest as the day is long, the Prelude broad-shouldered and direct, the singers first-rate, especially Josef Herrmann as Sachs and a young Theo Adam as Veit Pogner (try ‘Das schöne Fest … on track 10). The year is 1955, the venue for this live performance, the Staatsoper, and although the sound is excellent you do from time to time catch a rather audible prompter. Joseph Keilberth directs a fiery German-language account of Acts 1 and 2 of Verdi’s Macbeth, Martha Mödl an Elektra-like Lady Macbeth, with Josef Metternich sympathetically cast in the title role.
Of the other conductors mentioned in despatches only Clemens Krauss is missing from the set, whereas Otmar Suitner, always a personal favourite of mine, directs one of the loveliest accounts of Reger’s adorable Mozart Variations you’re ever likely to hear, where more than ever Brahms and Bruckner seem present in imagined friendship, the slow variations suggesting a deeply romantic aura, the wittier ones full of gaiety while the closing fugue’s OTT sense of momentum never bows under its own potentially considerable weight. The disc opens with Paul Dessau’s ‘symphonic adaptation’ of Mozart’s String Quintet K.614 and if you like Hans Zender’s refashioning of Schubert and the cavorting antics of Schoenberg visiting Handel or Brahms, you’ll love this. Dessau has Mozart bound in as if on horseback, with prominent horns, and beyond harmonically innovative inner movements, kicks up more turf with a wild, timpani-led finale. After the Reger we have music from Schubert’s Rosamunde, the Overture’s introduction an ear-splitting blare like one of Furtwängler’s wartime broadcasts.
Before continuing with the stereo material I’d like to mention some of the earlier recordings, where Staatskapelle Berlin is more commonly known as the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, 78s which have been superbly transferred (thank you Boris Hofmann, in Berlin), not all of them from DG. Electrola/HMV and Parlophone are also a significant source. Strauss’s Mozart big G minor is darkly intense, his roguish Till Eulenspiegel distinguished by considerable drive and an amazing sense of aural perspective. The orchestral playing is mostly excellent, save for the odd fluff in the horns department, and while Don Quixote sounds well prepared, cellist Enrico Mainardi makes for a rather formal Don. Strauss liked him apparently (mind you he seemed to like almost any cellist who troubled to play the rôle) but having recently heard Kurt Reher on Zubin Mehta’s marvellous Los Angeles Philharmonic recording (Decca) – the ultimate demonstration of just how good a conductor Mehta can be – I’m now spoilt for subtlety and tenderness. Reher for me is the best Quixote on disc.
Leo Blech’s cd opens to a Mozart sequence that includes a top-speed Tom & Jerry-style Figaro Overture from 1916, plangent Masonic Funeral Music (the work’s premiere on record we’re told), a brilliant and busy Symphony No.34, as well as some lively Bizet and, best of all, Ring excerpts with the Austrian-Hungarian bass-baritone Friedrich Schorr (described in print by Hans Hotter as ‘unforgettable’), a true heldenbariton, the voice firm and vibrant, the pitch dead-centre, easily the equal of Lauritz Melchior’s heroic heldentenor. As for the Orchestra, the brass ‘rings’ especially resplendent (forgive the pun) in ‘Wotan’s Farewell’. One hopes that a future project might involve Hofmann transferring a sequence of Meistersinger extracts with Schorr and the same orchestra recorded during performances in the spring of 1928 at Theater unter den Linden. Pristine Audio have already released a very good transfer of this set (on PACO 065) but still with the evidence of Hofmann’s work immediately to hand, I’m curious as to what he might achieve with the same material.
Otto Klemperer’s disc includes among its contents an often animated and fairly well-known Brahms One recorded between 1927 and 1928, the bass line typically solid, and a dazzlingly lifelike refurbishment of Kurt Weil’s droll Kleine Dreigroschenmusik as recorded in 1931, a cross between Cabaret and Dad’s Army, the band’s playing right on the nail. Erich Kleiber’s ‘Vltava’ suggests an uncommonly strong current and his opening to the New World trades bright, late summer skies for gathering storm clouds. Interesting too that in the ‘Largo’, at around 2:50, he has his upper strings play without portamento, and his middle strings with, and in so doing brings out significant inner voices. In the monumental finale (or at least ‘monumental’ in Kleiber’s hands), at the point where Dvorak originally marked Allegro con fuoco (just after the last full string statement of the opening theme, at 10:26) Kleiber forges ahead and the effect is bracing at the very least. Most conductors follow Václav Talich and broaden the tempo considerably. Kleiber’s disc also features a swift, tousled ‘live’ Beethoven 5 from 1955, rough and angry, the finale suggesting Toscanini with designer stubble.
Herbert von Karajan’s selection includes a Beethoven 7 where the opening is clipped and to the point, beyond which the vivace canters along a more leisurely path. The highlights surely are a lyrical and athletic account of Verdi’s Forza del destino Overture (1938) and a sonically remarkable genuine stereo recording of Bruckner Eight’s finale from 1944, marmoreal in the typical Karajan manner (his Warners BPO recording comes most readily to mind for comparison) but also uncommonly transparent. Wilhelm Furtwangler is represented by a superior transfer of extended extracts from the Second Act of an October 1947 performance of Tristan und Isolde with the same Tristan as appears on the conductor’s famous Philharmonia recording (Warner Classics), Ludwig Suthaus, and a rather matronly Isolde in Erna Schlüter (not that the great Kirsten Flagstad was exactly a Lolita). Coarse-sounding though the Berlin broadcast sometimes is, there’s a big payoff in its favour. Compare the two in the excited lead-up to ‘Isolde! Geliebte!’ and you’re left in no doubt as to which performance suggests the erotic heat of the moment, and which doesn’t. Also Gottlob Frick’s sonorous King Marke is an extra bonus (try ‘Dies wundervolle Weib’ on track 15), a bigger, darker, more emotive and more handsome voice than Josef Greindl’s on the Philharmonia set though I still treasure Greindl’s great depth of feeling.
Returning to more recent recordings, Pierre Boulez in Mahler’s Sixth offers an oddly literal reading of the score. Boulez takes the popular option of following the first movement with the scherzo which in this particular case falls flat because the chosen tempi are too similar. The finale’s opening has none of the chilling nightmare atmosphere that makes Karajan and Michael Gielen, in particular, so effective, though the hammer blows later on are deafening. Gielen himself is represented by Schubert and Schoenberg, a narrative ‘Unfinished’ (with first movement repeat) that calls on numerous contrasting tempos, and a Gielen speciality, Schoenberg’s expressionist symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande, which ranges in tone from thunderous bass drum and snarling brass to eerie filigree (try track 12). There are various Gielen recordings of Pelleas, all of them compelling in one way or another, with differing timings or subtle contrasts, but the sheer vividness of the Berlin version should win it many fans.
A bonus cd of additional ‘recordings from the shellac era’ includes memorable performances of Wagner under Max von Schillings (most notably a thrilling Flying Dutchman Overture), a characteristic sampling of Paul van Kempen (equally dramatic in the overture to Der Freischütz), Pietro Mascagni conducting the Sinfonia from La maschere (deliciously pointed and with plentiful portamenti), Pfitzner conducting the Prelude to Palestrina, Karl Muck cueing a tender Siegfried Idyll, and so on. So, viewed overall, a feast for the ears with many significant first-releases and useful annotations. A set to cherish and revisit frequently, I’d say.
450 YEARS – Staatskapelle Berlin – Great Recordings
DG 483 7887, 15 cds, c£49.00