Most people know that Hans Knappertsbusch (1888-1965) took
very slow tempos and didn’t like rehearsing. He is also affectionately
remembered in Germany for his supposedly Beechamesque bons mots,
none of which have ever seemed to me, at least through the filter of translation,
to be remotely funny. This record bears out the first two characteristics
and maybe even the third since the orchestra’s surprise when he launches
Beethoven 8 at a tempo some would think leisurely even for the first movement
of the "Eroica" is tangible. By the time we have got to the
exposition repeat (good to have it from a conductor of this generation)
they have evidently realised that this is not his idea of a joke, he really
does mean it, and the playing develops a good deal of point. The second
subject, for instance, which was flabby first time round, is now drolly
characterful. The trouble is, if you don’t rehearse then the first time
round for any musical idea risks being a public rehearsal for the second.
In spite of some orchestral fluffs this movement ends up as a very impressive
statement, weighty but not heavy and very warm-hearted. It is even, when
you have adapted to it, urgent in its way. It is a quite different slowness
from that of Klemperer.
The inner movements are likewise well-sprung at tempos
the slow side of normal, the metronome imitation sounding chunky and
droll rather than delicate.
The finale had me gasping. I have only once heard it
so slow – almost four-in-a-bar – and that from an amateur orchestra
whose conductor evidently judged that the players could do it no faster.
Once again, both orchestra and listener need time to adjust and yet
in the end it is sufficiently characterful and convincing to have you
wondering, at least fleetingly, if it isn’t actually meant to
go like this. Much has been made, in the authenticist camp, of Beethoven’s
challengingly fast metronome marks, but what about Liszt’s assertion
that tempi in his day were about 50% faster than in Beethoven’s own?
A far from flawless Beethoven 8th, then,
but one I shall be glad to turn to from time to time as an antidote
to certain more joylessly perfect ones.
About the Brahms I am not so sure. Recently I remarked
that in Willem Mengelberg’s hands (Teldec 0927 42662 2) this symphony
for once corresponded to Brahms’s description of it as music for "a
newly-married couple". But I also pointed out that the more majestic,
leisurely interpretations we generally hear seem to have roots going
back to conductors who had known Brahms. The issue here is not the interpretation
which is warm-hearted and moves forward, however slowly, at its own
majestic pace. It is simply that in order to enjoy such an interpretation
I should need to hear it better played. From the accident-prone opening
onwards, the numerous examples of clumsy balance, messy articulation
(often corrected when the passage comes again) and above all raucous,
ill-tuned playing from the wind and brass all testify to the fact that
rehearsals are necessary. The Swiss-Italian Radio recording is
very good for the date, but also very close-miked and it homes in on
the mess with devastating clarity. A more distant, fuzzy and reverberant
recording might have lent it more enchantment.
Knappertsbusch is now a cult-figure. He was not much
recorded in his own day since it was known that his studio performances
were inclined to be cold, cautious affairs, dim shadows of his live
performances. Some Wagnerians have been hard on Decca for their decision
to make their historic "Ring" with Solti and not Knappertsbusch.
It seems that a strong faction at Decca was well aware that Knappertsbusch
was the greater interpreter – in the theatre – but was unlikely
to deliver that greatness in the studio (this had happened with his
"Meistersinger"), while Solti was a natural recording artist
from the beginning. At the time of his death it looked as if Knappertsbusch’s
name would live on mainly through his two live Bayreuth Parsifals.
Of non-operatic music only his partnership with Clifford Curzon in Beethoven
and Brahms and some Bruckner in discredited editions had much catalogue
life. But today Knappertsbusch material is eagerly sought out in European
radio archives. His "Ring" and several other Wagner
operas can now be heard, as can a fair range of concert repertoire.
A full Beethoven cycle has not emerged but with only 1, 4 and 9 missing,
and the others often in multiple versions, his vision of this composer
can be studied. Alternative 8ths come from 1952 (Berlin PO, Tahra),
1959 (Bavarian State O, Orfeo d’Or) and 1960 (NDR SO, Hamburg, Tahra).
But in view of the good quality Swiss recording I would not feel impelled
to investigate the alternatives.
In the case of the Brahms, the possibility of hearing
the same interpretation from an orchestra likely to produce superior
playing even with little or no rehearsal is enticing. Recordings are
listed from various sources of all the Brahms symphonies, the variations
and the two overtures, though there is a possibility that the sole version
of no. 1 might be by Klemperer. Just to give you an idea how complicated
the situation is with this off-the-air material, a 1959 Vienna PO performance
of no. 2 was issued by Wing while a Golden Melodram album apparently
contains the same performance attributed to the Munich PO, and there
has been some suggestion that it is not conducted by Knappertsbusch
anyway. More trustworthy 2nds come from 1944 (Berlin PO, Tahra), 1947
(Suisse Romande, these seem to be Decca 78s never officially transferred
to LP or CD but available at various times from Preiser and others)
and 1959 (Dresden Staatskapelle, Tahra).
I don’t really know what sort of recommendation this
adds up to. Knappertsbusch followers are assured they will find good
quality sound and students of Beethoven interpretation will find this
of interest. If it’s Knappertsbusch’s Brahms you want then I hope my
description of the orchestral standards will enable you to decide whether
this matter will be prohibitive for you.