THE ART OF FRANZ KONWITSCHNY
BEETHOVEN The Nine Symphonies and
SCHUMANN The Four Symphonies and
Works for violin and orchestra by
BACH, VIVALDI, MOZART,
Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig, Rundfunkchor Leipzig (Schumann and Beethoven
symphonies etc), Staatskapelle Berlin (Bach etc); Staatskapelle Dresden (Mozart
ADD recorded 1958-1962 - stereo
11 CDs [74.12+67.02+68.31+63.11+59.41+65.49+77.51+71.39+74.44+68.29+70.47]
Konwitschny (1902-62), himself the son of a conductor, was born in northern
Moravia, studying at Brno and then at Leipzig. As a violist he played under
Furtwängler with the Gewandhaus. His conducting history began with the
Stuttgart Opera from which début he moved successively as director
to Freiburg, Frankfurt, Hannover, Hamburg and then to the Leipzig
Gewandhausorchester from 1949 where he remained as chief conductor until
his death. He held director positions with the Dresden and Berlin State Operas.
His Ring at Covent Garden (1959) was reputedly outstanding indeed
his strengths were said to lie primarily in the opera house. He died in Belgrade
while conducting in a TV broadcast.
A devout Catholic he was an adroit pragmatist operating with expedient aplomb
in the service of music in both the Third Reich and in the DDR. His funeral,
which attracted full state honours, was extraordinary, in the orthodoxy of
East Germany, for including a Requiem Mass.
His taste was for opera but he rapidly secured a firmly founded reputation
in the concert hall as documented by this set each disc of which can be had
separately. Details from the reviewer if wished.
'Konwhiskey' was his nickname amongst orchestral musicians: before performances
of Tristan und Isolde he was reputed to down six bottles of champagne.
He would take out his handkerchief during a performance, mopping his brow
and then using it to wave to friends in the audience. These eccentricities
(at least the last one!) are reminiscent of pianist, Vladimir de Pachmann
with his notorious but quite unselfconscious spoken asides to audiences.
Konwitschny's split-second drilled vigour and sheer heat are impressive.
While he may have hated rehearsals and was noted for a relaxed hands-off
approach he could instantaneously grasp control if the orchestra showed signs
If you are familiar with the Berlin Classics roster you will have known or
known of these discs as individual entries since the mid-1990s. This is their
first excursion together as a major boxed set.
CD1 - Bach and Vivaldi violin concertos
Big band Bach - a bug-bear to any souls who must have the 'authentic' approach.
This is unreconstructed Bach (and Vivaldi) wending its way via early twentieth
century sensibilities of th sort to be heard in Mark Obert-Thorn's two disc
collection of Bach orchestral transcriptions. The Largo of the Bach
Double Violin Concerto is of preternatural poise and inevitable flow while
the outer movements skim and spin in a rugged floodtide of dialogue. The
Oistrakhs (père et fils) light up the Bach and David alone takes the
other works (both BWV 1042 and 1052). There is a startlingly aggressive Vivaldi
Concerto Grosso in A minor for two violins and strings with a miraculous
Larghetto - sample this first.
CD2 - Mozart Violin Concerto K219; Beethoven Romances (2); Wieniawski
Violin Concerto No. 2.
The first two discs make unconvincing company for the other nine. Konwitschny
is not centre-stage. The personalities of David and Igor Oistrakh are well
to the fore. As such I would have expected to find the discs in an Oistrakh
box. The performances are lovely but K's conductorial art is below surface
level tactfully supporting the soloists and balancing the orchestra against
the solo line. In Mozart's cheerful and sentimental K219 the Dresden
Staatskapelle are discreet and subordinate to the flow of willowy melody
vibrating from Oistrakh's violin. Igor Oistrakh takes over for the romances
and the Wieniawski in both of which the Gewandhaus orchestra accompany. His
tone is more reedy and penetrating than his father's and he has less to do
in the rather dull romances than in the Wieniawski in which nationalist Polish
and gypsy themes abound.
CD3 - Schumann Symphonies 1 and 2
These interpretations have flitted in and out of catalogue availability.
In the days of LP they were licensed to Philips and were issued on the Fontana
label. In the Winter of the vinyl era all four were to be had in a 2-disc
gatefold sleeve. Hearing both symphonies in these transfers affirms the received
golden opinions I read back then.
Sound quality is not a problem. The recordings were made by the
VEB Deutsche Schallplatten team who secured a rounded, broad-spread
and hard-hitting sound which yet finds space to showcase the wily, ardent
and yielding playing of the Gewandhaus wind principals. If I have a complaint
it is that the engineers did not choose to catch the hoarse power of the
French horns in quite the same way that they do in the Leipzigers recording
of Beethoven 5. The horns remain distant in the triumphal brass flourish
at 2.01 in the allegro of the Spring Symphony.
Konwitschny's Schumann is preponderantly Beethovenian rather than in the
flighty Mendelssohnian school. Weighty it may be but this does not hamper
its speed and fantasy when called for. In the Second Symphony the introduction
is rather ordinary. There should have been more of a Brucknerian sense of
peril and expectation but things do warm up as the staccato chordal attack
at 2.58 confirms. Overall though there are more softened contours and relaxation
than is good for the interpretation - good though it is. This is the Achilles
heel of the set made all the more noticeable by the excellence of the other
In the complete Schumann symphonies fellow Ostlanders Sawallisch and the
Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI Electrola, 1970s) are reckoned very strong with
Kubelik (DG), Hans Vonk (EMI Redline) and Szell (Sony-CBS) well-placed
though Szell omits repeats and carries out some judicious adjustments to
orchestration. I would not want to be without the Konwitschny sequence.
CD4 - Schumann Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4.
The Rhenish (No. 3) displays Konwitschny's accustomed broad pacing
as is evidenced by the Scherzo which has gravitas as well as an affluent
sweep. The tragic tread of the Nicht schnell is nicely pointed up
by the Lebhaft which fairly sparkles. The Fourth flames with excitement
and trademark precision. His way with hushed (almost threatening)
tension-building is close to Brucknerian in the Langsam-Lebhaft. In
fact it is highly reminiscent of Sibelius. I wonder if Konwitschny ever conducted
Sibelius who, through no fault of the Finn, was an extremely popular composer
during the days of the Third Reich.
CD5 - Schumann orchestral works: overtures etc
This is the miscellaneous Schumann and spans the overtures to Manfred
and Genoveva as well as Overture, Scherzo and Finale. These
recordings catch the mellow Konwitschny. This is suave, sincere and essentially
lyrical. Tragedy is a presence in these scores but this disc does not underscore
that factor. Lovingly done, buttery interpretations - not plodding but more
in step with a walk through the forests and meadows of classic Germany than
with cliffs, ravines, mortality and fear. The approach in the Concert
Piece for four horns and orchestra is uniform. The horns are well placed
aurally and make a satisfying contribution. This is playing of the highest
order. The soloists are; Peter Damm, Hermann Märker, Werner Pilz and
CD6 - Beethoven Symphony No. 1 and No. 2
Symphony No. 1: some hiss. There is no sign that the company have
used their usual filtering software. NoNoise technology is a fixture on Berlin
Classics' 'Document' line. The approach is vivacious and light of step.
Symphony No. 2 is notable for a silvery and airy scherzo and
nice perspective effects. Great clarity and 'spring' also on show in the
CD7 - Beethoven Symphony No. 3 Leonore overtures 1 and 2
The Eroica is taken very spaciously and the Marcia Funebre
(15.45) is very steady indeed. Note the slow woodwind playing. The splinter
sharp staccato in the scherzo is a heartbeat away from Konwitschny's fine
work in the Seventh Symphony. He brings a Berliozian impetuosity and fanciful
lightness to the great echo-dialogue Finale. The tape of Leonore
2 must have been on poorer stock as it suffered some-bleed through with
pre-echo present among the tacet-fff transitions at the start.
CD8 - Beethoven Symphonies No. 4 and No. 5
The engineering team who made these recordings back in the late 1950s merit
an award for their work. The Fourth Symphony is of demonstration quality
for its delicacy, its warmth and its fullness. Is it this clarity that made
me think for the first time how similar Berlioz's orchestral writing is to
Beethoven's. Konwitschny and the Gewandhaus players also made me reassess
my feelings for the Fourth. Lightning swift thunderclaps, barely harnessed
energy, tension and excitement flood out from the loudspeakers: luminous,
lucid and lavish. Only the hint of hollowness in the massed violins gives
away the age game. If the great wits always have the 'mot juste' Konwitschny,
a great conductor, had unerring judgement in his interpretation and direction
and his orchestra play like the seraphim possessed. Temptation to wander
down leafy paths was a Konwitschny vulnerability but it is successfully fended
In the Fifth the conductor takes as few hostages as in the Fourth.
He marshals his tensions carefully at first, so the 'call to arms' can seem
a mite languid, but soon he is driving the Gewandhaus like a chariot of the
Gods. The brash horn blasts in the first movement are abrasive, rough and
virile. The whole is splendid - momentous without rodomontade, freshly imagined
in a work that can so easily sound threadbare, sharply accented without
affectation, the acceleration of a cheetah without scouting detail.
CD9 - Beethoven Symphony No. 6; Overtures: Leonore 3,
Coriolan raises disappointment that space was not found in the sessions
for an Egmont. It, together with the Fidelio and Leonore
3, has all the drama, tension and tragedy you could ask coupled
with a machine-precise performance which yet retains humanity. The bed of
analogue hiss is at a very low level showing the high quality of tape stock
used and judicious setting of equalisation and head alignment. There is an
unusual level of hardness to the sound in the fff passages in Leonore
3 - an exception - not at all usual in this set.
The main work is a Pastoral which is effortless without being facile.
Leipzig's first oboe is sheer delight in the Allegro (track 4). The
conductor's predilection in this work is clear - lovingly traced outlines
and a graceful contentment are what speaks out most persuasively. This is
heard to best effect in the first and last movements. The music is moved
forward with firm conviction as if Konwitschny knew that he could not afford
to dawdle overlong in this music.
CD10 - Beethoven Symphonies No. 7 and 8
Seventh Symphony: Vaulting and bounding majesty, but without bombast,
boldly thrusting forward, golden tone, steady tempo, and omni-dimensional
recording. The horns howl exuberantly. The strings are in ample numbers but
age has lent the finest blade of roughened stress to their strength. The
woodwind tone is miraculous. These performances speak from an age when the
meeting of boundless ambition and humility did not seem a paradox. Kleiber
(père et fils) recorded 5 and 7 and each is highly regarded. Konwitschny
has that same animalsitic excitement but is neither breathless nor hysterical.
High praise also for the Eighth which has all the strengths of nervous
tension combined with tautness of control. The dynamic contrasts are as
staggering as they are in the Seventh. It is many years since I heard them
but I am sure I recall a similar effect from the early 1960s Decca Beethoven
Nine conducted by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt.
CD11 - Beethoven Symphony No. 9
The Choral Symphony line up involves Ingeborg Wenglor, Ursula Zollenkopf,
Hans-Joachim Rotzsch and, the only international name, Theo Adam. The venue
is deeply reverberant making for a disconcerting faint double exposure image.
Also the sound does not have the body of say the Eroica though the
drum in the Molto vivace sounds well. The Gewandhaus's gutty strings
(try 1.15 in the Presto finale) will ruffle feathers but their half
victorious and half sinister chorale (3.30 - finale) must be heard. Konwitschny
unleashes a startling fury at 6.03. The choir are just as precisely responsive
and coordinated as the orchestra. While Wenglor can be a little shrill,
Zollenkopf is secure and satisfying of tone. Joy indeed. The Turkish march
clinks and clangs with a hint of a smile playing around the lips. The choir's
sopranos are stratospherically secure.
It is good to hear these symphonies complete with repeats. When Philips issued
them on LP in the 1960s they inexplicably snipped the repeats out. Berlin
Classics have not fallen into that trap.
No notes. No background. Only a list of contents on each inner sleeve. Each
sleeve is a simple rigid card pocket. The pocket gives track information
but no precise dates of recordings or venues. In the case of the two concerto
discs it is difficult to work out who is playing what. All eleven pockets
sit inside a sturdy flip box.
After travelling back in time to Iron Curtain Germany via these discs we
can understand the affection in which Konwitschny was held in Leipzig. For
his state funeral procession the streets of Leipzig were lined deep and crowded
over a ten kilometre route.
His Leipzig orchestra are dark and firm of tone precisely coached and powered
like the 1930s BBC Symphony Orchestra under the young Adrian Boult.
Though these recordings were made at the end of his life his powers showed
no signs of dimming. There is a stark contrast when you compare the fallibility
of many of Barbirolli's late recordings with these late fruits of Konwitschny's
I could have happily sacrificed the concerto discs for some Bruckner symphonies
but overall this is a remarkable box the allure of which will be heightened
by the bargain price. This set is an even better introduction to the classics
than the many cobbled together introductions: real music played as if the
music meant something to the players. It is astoundingly well recorded.
In case of dificulty these disc can be obtained from
The Complete Record Company Ltd
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London SW4 6BT
Tel 020 7498 9666
Fax 020 7498 1828
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