CHRISTOPHER BREUNIG: Three conductors, and a German thread

Three conductors, and a German thread

Each chapter heading in My Century by Günter Grass is a year, from 1900-1999, and although Grass is somewhat disgraced by his belated admission that he joined the Waffen-SS, this fictionalised chronicle is nonetheless worth reading for the light it sheds on German thinking – not least on the later-generation’s indifference to the East–West Berlin divide.

I mention this because in a foreword to a new EMI DVD [3 67743 9], John Willan reminds us that Klaus Tennstedt came to prominence here after defection from East Germany via Sweden (Willan was his record producer and, later, manager of the London Philharmonic).

Just like Mahler?

Some American critics remained sceptical but London concert-goers took to this ungainly podium figure – as Willan says, Tennstedt's technique was shaky but not the way he gave himself to the music and inspired his orchestra or singers. The DVD shows him in revealing close-ups in two Mahler symphonies: the First, with the Chicago Symphony in 1990; the Eighth in a 1991 Festival Hall performance which far surpasses his earlier studio recording (among the soloists, Julia Varady is a tower of strength).

The first thing that strikes you is how like the caricatures and silhouettes of Mahler conducting Tennstedt looks. In spite of some watery image quality, the American film lets us ‘see’ the music unfold in Tennstedt’s face. And the orchestra can never had played Mahler like this under Solti!

Bruckner live

Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, the ‘Romantic’, is not heard as often as it used to be. I remember my first encounter with it, when I was a young student drawn to hear Otto Klemperer in London (then not such a widely acclaimed musician – the Philharmonia connection was yet to be made). The concert was a Royal Society event, when it was customary to place a bust of Beethoven on a stage plinth. I was horrified by this mess of a symphony and that it could be given before the image of that great composer!

No longer available, the Fourth was one of two Bruckner symphonies recorded by Tennstedt for EMI. But now, on the orchestra’s own label, we can hear from Radio Three tapes his Festival Hall performance from 1989, with the London Philharmonic [LPO-0014].

I still have problems with the stop–go nature of the work, albeit built, as Beethoven might have done, upon that opening horn call motif. Both Klemperer and Karajan offer readings of greater architectural concern; Tennstedt, like Furtwängler (whom he admired), is more flexible in tempi in order to realise atmospheres. He establishes, for example, that the opening section of the work serves much the same purpose as in Mahler’s First Symphony. Indeed, both promise something that never quite materialises!

The sound, for its time, is good: the hall ambience unmistakable, the impact of timpani sharp. By way of an alternative, in DG’s ‘Original Masters’ series, there’s a wonderful studio recording by Eugen Jochum made with the Berlin Philharmonic, oddly coupled with Sibelius’s tone poem Night Ride and Sunrise, an early mono recording with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra [447-718-2].

The authority of Herbert von Karajan

If Tennstedt’s conducting was all emotion with little stick definition, Karajan’s was about control. He’s been much vilified, and undoubtedly his legacy was less important than he believed. But he was supremely self-assured when it came to musical interpretation. Another documentary pairing [EuroArts 207 2118] comes from black and white films directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (largely remembered for Wages of Fear). From 1965/6, they set out to show what is involved in preparing a concert performance. Karajan is seen rehearsing then performing the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in Schumann’s Fourth, and coaching – or perhaps humiliating – a young hopeful in part of Beethoven’s Fifth, with a starkly lit, brutally driven complete performance with the Berlin Philharmonic to conclude.

Karajan takes the unidentified young man (not unlike Leslie Howard in looks) deep into concepts of self-preparation. What is generally seen as his obsession with ‘legato’ is shown in these films as more to do with links and continuity. Slouched sideways over a Steinway he gives a neat demonstration of how Beethoven’s Fifth is wholly derived from a single germinal idea. In the Schumann he laughingly stops the players then in no uncertain terms gets them to rethink and listen their phrasing; the same passage is played over and again.

Little side-glances at his wrist-watch underline that fact that he aware he’s making a film, as well as getting an interpretation from the players. Very much of their time, and provokingly to do with a specific German sense of order, these old television documentaries shed new light on Karajan, as a person and musician.

Sir Simon Rattle and The Planets

It was Sir Adrian Boult who in 1918 ‘first caused the Planets to shine’ (in Gustav Holst’s words). He made five recordings, one in Vienna; the composer made two 78rpm sets, the later one, from 1926, has just been reissued on Naxos [8.111048] coupled with Vaughan Williams’s historic recording of his Fourth Symphony.

I have no quibble with Mark Obert-Thorn’s remastering per se, except that he has worked from American pressings which, to my ears, don’t quite match the HMV sound, judging from previous analogue transfers.

Holst’s daughter Imogen wrote of ‘the characteristic authority of this performance ... sounding just as it did when Holst used to conduct it [at] Queen’s Hall’. This might imply definitive timings, but at the back of my mind are some comments once published in Gramophone where she discussed the constraints of 78rpm disc recording. However, when it comes to EMI’s prestigious autumn release with Sir Simon Rattle, he takes 8m 37s longer over the seven movements – although other writers seem not to have found this disturbing. I find much of this new reading with the Berlin Philharmonic painfully slow, the music’s natural flow compromised by Rattle’s characteristically dissective conducting style.

He adds Colin Matthews’s clever setting of ‘Pluto’ (its planetary status recently downgraded!) and, on a bonus disc with a short video track, four commissioned orchestral works. We see each composer explain his or her (Kaija Saariaho) ‘asteroid’ concept. Like Matthews – whose Debussy transcriptions Rattle brought to the 2006 Proms and has recorded – Mark Anthony Turnage has worked in collaboration with the conductor before; but his Ceres is somewhat disappointing. The most interesting piece here is Komarov’s Fall, by the Australian former violist with the BPO, Brett Dean.

Christopher Breunig