Say to any experienced Brucknerite the name Hans Knappertsbusch and the first thing they will mention is his use of the first published editions of scores that are now long out of favour. Of course for many years conductors didn't know any different. It wasn't until the 1930s and the fact that Bruckner was a favourite composer of Hitler's (he encouraged the formation of an orchestra in Linz to perform Bruckner and Bruckner was played over German radio when Hitler's death was announced) that the more scholarly critical editions started to appear. These cleaned the scores as if they were great paintings to be purged of the dust of everyday life, not to mention the retouching of body parts and activities that had been deemed too shocking for times more delicate than our own. And the work goes on to this day. Knappertsbusch wasn't the only conductor to use these first editions, of course. He just seemed to go on using them for longer than anyone else and made commercial recordings of them too. Long after the editorial work for the Bruckner Society of first Haas then Nowak replaced them with scores that claimed, and largely justified, a closer resemblance to the composer's original intentions, uncontaminated by men like the Schalk brothers, Knappertsbusch retained a cussed loyalty to scores used all his life. However, even this is a wrong perception. Other conductors went on using these scores in concert and recordings for as long as Knappertsbusch did and a few are starting to use them again today. Indeed, as Mark Kluge points out in his notes, one publisher may be planning to bring them out again, perhaps to coincide with a "new revisionist" view that these old scores are more valuable than we first thought in our zeal to "do the right thing" by Bruckner. The argument being that in them can be found important indications of performing practices Bruckner would have expected to hear and which influenced early interpreters. So we should actively consider them again and put behind us a generation of being told they only represented worst practice from bad old days. That by ignoring them so comprehensively we may have thrown out the charm of the baby with the stench of the bath water. If nothing else the early editions of the scores that you will hear on these discs are pretty much the versions of Bruckner's works that first established his reputation.
Compelling arguments for us to be more open-minded and listen to both the original and critical editions and make up our own minds about where we stand, therefore. Just as in the way we can benefit from hearing performances by men whose allegiance remained with these old scores, like Knappertsbusch. Because his devotion, love and knowledge of Bruckner shines through these "live" performances, even though he may do things which strike us as old fashioned as the scores themselves because even these are probably inspired by them. We are a world away from the more static, architecturally severe-leaning performances that have been the fashion for many years. With Knappertsbusch we are back in a world where, taking that cue from the first editions perhaps, conductors felt able to shape the music more dynamically, organically and dramatically. However, one word of caution. Take note that Knappertsbusch was not averse to a few tinkerings of his own of even these old scores so the pot of controversy gets stirred just a little more. But the performance of music is a living thing, life is never clear-cut and I would far rather have these recordings available than not. If we had the chance to hear and see Shakespeare performed by David Garrick or Henry Irving are we saying we would pass it up in spite of the shock to the system we would get from what we heard and what we saw? These recordings are not and can never be first choice recommendations for any of these works. The score question is in the end too problematic, Knappertsbusch is too particular a conductor and the quality of the sound too variable for that. These are more for the dedicated enthusiast both of Bruckner, of performance history in general and for people to whom perfection in sound and orchestral execution is a secondary consideration. But the number of such people is large and Music and Arts must be congratulated for their enterprise in bringing this set out and in such excellent style.
The Third Symphony was a great favourite of Knappertsbusch's. He performed the 1889 revision of the score that was long attributed mainly to Franz Schalk. However Mark Kluge brings forward evidence that there is probably a lot more Bruckner in this score than we have hitherto thought which makes such a fine performance as this so valuable, even taking into account some extra touches of Knappertsbusch's own. He recorded the Third commercially for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic and other "live" recordings of him in the work survive but this Hamburg performance from 1962 seems to be the best in that it has virtues of strength and lyricism in equal measure. Though late in his life, Knappertsbusch is still in full command of both orchestra and symphony. The first movement knits together the material in one unbroken thread so that passages of calm and repose never jar with the outbursts of grandeur. This may have something to do with the very deliberate way Knappertsbusch floats the pulsating violin figure which keeps returning to drive the music along like small cogs from a large motor. There is tautness beneath, right up to the coda that, following a superb crescendo built by a master, wells up and overwhelms us from within the texture. The second movement is quite passionate in parts with Knappertsbusch belying his sometime reputation for slowness. To me the overall tempo seems well nigh perfect to allow the tender passages in the centre to make their effect but also contrast with the power always latent. How good to hear the third movement taken at a leisurely trot, just held back slightly to give a truculent gait and then note the cheeky trio where you can almost see the beam on this conductor's face as he accentuates the pizzicati. In some recordings the last movement can leave you short-changed. Knappertsbusch recognises the need to pace its episodes carefully, most notably the vaguely nostalgic second subject. As with his whole conception of the symphony, it's an object lesson of balancing overall structure with inner detail. His eye is always firmly on the end and that means a satisfying experience. Though I don't think even Knappertsbusch can completely save the coda from appearing to be "stitched on" by a composer who often had problems with his last movements, but he almost pulls it off. The playing is good though not outstanding with some lapses. The mono radio sound is clear and largely untroubled by distortion though is rather limited, but there is a good sense of space and depth. This is a fine start to the set.
The Fourth Symphony is the earliest recording here. The Reich Radio Service taped it in September 1944 in Baden-Baden where the Berlin Philharmonic was fulfilling engagements in what must have been a very sombre time in Germany as the Allied armies closed in. In the notes Mark Kluge gives more important details regarding the edition of the score Knappertsbusch uses than you could shake a baton at, and I do recommend them to you. Suffice to say this is the 1888 revision, published by Gutmann in 1889, and the version of the score that first endeared this symphony to audiences in Bruckner's own time. Absolute purists for the later critical editions will not like it with its apparent cuts and re-scorings. More enquiring souls should keep in mind my preamble, read what Kluge has to say regarding authenticity and listen with new ears. What you will hear in the first movement is a quite flexible and controlled performance that ebbs and flows, expands and contracts, with the mood. There is a hint of heaviness in its tread that seems to stem from the way the main theme phrased, though. Overall, this is dark-toned, furrowed-browed Bruckner and maybe stems from the mood of the players and audience at that time. It may indeed sound terribly old fashioned after so many years of more astringency but it's still projected here by the hand of a master. That feeling of foreboding pervades the second movement which has a funeral tread and melancholy mood that I found very moving with some especially fine string phrasing that is very much of its time. Perhaps I'm allowing the date and place of the performance to unduly influence me, but I cannot escape the feeling of Nuremberg triumphalism at one late climax. Knappertsbusch is characteristically robust and ethnic in the third movement and at turns powerful, muscular and argumentative in the fourth. The arrival of the main theme from the first movement, complete with heralding cymbal smash, is a piece of pure concert hall theatre that no conductor today seems capable of or willing to chance. The playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is splendid with that characteristic depth of tone and what appears to be knowledge and feel for this music unsurpassed. There are glitches but I can disregard those when there is commitment like this and I hope you can also. The mono sound too is clear and quite rich with a few hall noises and a slight low hum betraying the early tape machine. More than acceptable for 1944, I think. Add the fact that the date and place of the performance adds extra resonance and here is a recording to fascinate and treasure.
As you might expect if you know Knappertsbusch's relationship to the Fifth Symphony the edition used is the infamous Doblinger score prepared by Franz Schalk in 1894. It contains revisions, retouching and cuts most notably in the last movement, all made without Bruckner's consent. It can be argued, as Mark Kluge does in his notes, that the inclusion of an extra brass group in the final chorale is actually a good idea as by then even the best brass sections must be faltering. Then again it tends to overbalance the rest. Kluge's notes go into more detail and you will find an excellent explanation for realising this score cannot be defended as an accurate representation of Bruckner's intentions and for that the critical editions should always be used. However, this is the score Knappertsbusch used and if we want to hear him in the work we have to put up with it. In this 1959 Munich performance he gives what is a superb performance of a score he clearly knew and loved deeply and so, in line with my opening remarks, it has value if we are prepared to suspend our judgement for just over an hour. This is also a better played and conducted version than his studio version for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic even though the sound leaves more to be desired when compared with the previous two symphonies in this set. It is more constricted, has a tendency to crumble and glare at climaxes - what the notes refer to as "low frequency overmodulation" - which also means that the bass end, which Knappertsbusch always emphatically built his foundations on, is not as strong as it should be. This must have been made "off-air" from a broadcast and on a machine that was easily overwhelmed. There is one quiet passage in the first movement where can be heard some co-channel interference from a talk station. But full marks to Maggi Payne for doing such a fine job with it all the same as she does with all the recordings in this set. Characteristically, Knappertsbusch approaches the work from within. Not for him is this the symphony as "a cathedral in music" where the overarching structure, fundamentally represented by the figure that opens each movement varied only by tempi, carries the argument. For him there seems always to be that extra dimension to be brought out, the one that needs the expressive hand of the "conductor-actor", even though the hand used is not a heavy one. This questing, imaginative performance never sags. As we found in the Third, beneath the expressive approach can beat a rare rhythmic thrust that never flags in the way I felt it was always in danger of doing in the Fourth. The great main theme in the second movement is floated unforgettably, for example. The finale, grievously lobotomised though it is by Schalk, picks up power as it goes, keeps it in reserve then uses it to deliver a shattering conclusion with the extra brass resplendent, even though I could have done without the cymbals. In all this is a great delivery of a wounded tract by a master preacher. Would Knappertsbusch have delivered a greater one with the critical edition that was by this time available to him? We will never know, but somehow I doubt it.
The Seventh Symphony presents nowhere near such problems over score editions. Apart from the question of the inclusion or not of a cymbal and percussion climax in the second movement there has never been very much dispute from the start as to what Bruckner meant us to hear. In fact in this magnificent 1949 performance from the Salzburg Festival Knappertsbusch conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in an edition that might as well be one of the critical editions with some of Nikisch's additional tempo markings added though I await correction as always in this tortuous area. A better example of the special magic that Knappertsbusch could weave around a Bruckner score when the conditions were right could not be found than this performance. The first movement is one of those examples of music making where bar lines seem to disappear and the music seems to just flow in one breath. There are again marvellous examples of Knappertsbusch's expressive control of his material in the first and second movements, but here it is barely possible to say when some of them start and end since the whole approach is seamless. There is passion in the great melodies, fire in those characteristic dance-like passages Bruckner weaves, and elemental calm in the periods of contemplation. Listen to the granite-like bass pedal just prior to the first movement coda as the main theme emerges, pain-wracked across it like Christ across Mary in a Pieta, played like something that should have been in Parsifal, before the fires ignite and blaze. In the second movement we can also hear the corporate wisdom of the Vienna Philharmonic in this music. Wisdom learned under the batons of Nikisch, Richter and Levi, and under Knappertsbusch himself who learned at the feet of Richter. The second subject is filled with so many more facets than we have any right to expect and seldom hear under more recent interpreters as Knappertsbusch takes the theme in his hands like a master diamond cutter holding a huge gem up to the light, tilting it, turning it, examining it, then laying it down again on his bench, unable to bring himself to lift his cutter to cleave it. Again the Vienna Philharmonic seem to know exactly what he is doing. Listen to the way they lean on some notes and not others. But in this movement he saves the best until last. The great requiem for Richard Wagner that closes the movement meets the criteria often missed about Bruckner slow movements - meditation not confession. The third and fourth movements, very powerful under Knappertsbusch and counterbalancing the first two, give good demonstration of fairly decent sound, somewhat limited but with little in the way of distortion and only a hint of dryness to spoil things for those used to radio recordings from this period. This is one of the gems in the box. A great performance that all Brucknerites should hear.
The recording of the Eighth Symphony carries two dates in January 1951 which means it's either compiled from two performances or, more likely, no one can decide which of the two was taken down. The orchestra is the Berlin Philharmonic and I would hazard a guess the venue is the Titania Palast, a former cinema where the orchestra performed for a number of post-war years. The edition of the score contains a few differences from the versions we are used to which are either of two scores from Haas or Nowak based on Bruckner's major revision of the work from 1890, but there needs to be no special pleading for this one. The Eighth is a very different kind of work from the Seventh. It covers a greater emotional compass and contains far more dark tones which conductor and orchestra must bring out. Proving himself the complete Brucknerite Knappertsbusch is able to make the necessary changes triumphantly. Straight after hearing the Seventh in this set it is also possible to hear how different the two orchestras featured were at this time. The Vienna Philharmonic is golden-toned and warm where the Berlin Philharmonic maintains a more leaner and leonine quality. Both however can float the long phrase and achieve a coherence of approach through these long works that is second nature. The Berliners must have found Knappertsbusch's approach to this work different from that of Furtwangler who performed it with them many times in this period. The fact that they seem equally at home with both is an immense tribute to them. Furtwangler may have been able to plumb the absolute depths of dark mystery contained in the work better than Knappertsbusch, responding bar to bar to any small change that comes, underlining contrasts and expressive points to an even greater degree that Knappertsbusch, but somehow the joins never seemed to show. Knappertsbusch, as we have seen, also moulds and shapes the music but not as much as Furtwangler and not as seamlessly either. It's a fascinating contrast. The first movement under Knappertsbusch has a craggier mien than Furtwangler and the second, though quite quick, projects greater weight than Furtwangler's does. In the third movement the music maintains a determined momentum, never leaving any doubt where we have been, where we are and where we are going. The same applies to the last movement where the end is clearly kept in mind by Knappertsbusch and when it comes is pure theatre. Listen to how the dynamics are managed and the tempo is held under tight control. The recorded sound is once again clear and relatively free of distortion if a little "rusty" at times and limited by its radio origin. But it's more than acceptable for us to hear the greatness of Knappertsbusch in this work. This is a better example of him in this symphony than his studio recording for Westminster made in 1963. That sprawls badly into 85 minutes and is for Knappertsbusch "completists" only. But then Knappertsbusch was always heard better "live".
The unfinished Ninth Symphony presents us with the Ferdinand Löwe revision made after Bruckner's death and finally published in 1903 prior to the first performance and here I really do wonder why Knappertsbusch went on using a score like this as late as 1950. When comparisons are made with one of the critical editions we now always hear there are profound differences. In the Löwe score there are instrumental colourings, timpani crescendi and more use of muted strings that are absent from the score Bruckner actually left, for example. The changes are less than those made by Schalk to the Fifth but they have to be taken into account, most notably the dilution of the shattering final climax in the third movement that Löwe clearly felt too shocking for contemporary audiences and so bowderlized shamefully. Indeed Löwe's agenda seems to be to subtly undermine the audacity of sound Bruckner was moving towards in his final days presenting us instead with something a little more sophisticated and easier on the ear. But note that Knappertsbusch himself again imposes changes of his own. Most notably just prior to the final blaze at the end of the first movement where he shortens the horn's call into the abyss after the penultimate storm. If you know the work well the change to this profound moment will bring you up with a jolt. So too will Löwe's instrumental changes in the scherzo, notably the use of flute and bassoon in the pizzicato passages, and also what can only be described as the "concert ending" at the close of the third movement. Right through the first movement Knappertsbusch brings out every contrast, dynamic and rhythmic, that he can without compromising that underlying forward momentum we have noticed him always capable of conveying. This is the most animated, interventionist reading that we have heard of any so far in this set. However, I have always felt the Ninth needs more intervention from the conductor to perhaps make up for what the composer was unable to put into it. The Scherzo is perhaps just too "lumbering" in its gait to really pack the punch it needs, but by the end it has established some momentum. The third movement is counterpart to the first with a wide range of tempi and a surprisingly sensuous sound palette to be heard, even through the limitations of the mono sound from Berlin in January 1950. This final disc in the set is, in sound and playing terms, very much consistent with the standard of the rest and rounds off a remarkable collection from a remarkable and much admired figure.
This superb collection of Knappertsbusch at his best in Bruckner should not be missed. It offers fascinating insights into how Bruckner used to be perceived and played, and can teach us a lot even today.