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WAGNER Richard (1813-1883)
Overtures to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde, Tannhäuser, Der Fliegende Holländer
STRAUSS Richard (1864-1949)
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op. 28
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Franz Konwitschny
Recorded in the Dvorak Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague, 1952 (Strauss) and 1960 (Wagner)
Supraphon SU 2469-2 011 [58í 13"]
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Though Franz Konwitschny (1901-1962) carried the image of the typical German Kapellmeister (and a thoroughly German-sounding name) he was actually born in Moravia. However, as a young student in his early twenties he moved to Leipzig and it is in Germany that he made his career, holding the conductorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1949 till his death. His Beethoven cycle with that orchestra acquired a certain reputation in the early days of the budget-label LP since it was the first cycle of any standing by a single orchestra and conductor to appear so cheaply. However, apart from a famously inspired no. 7 it was not much more than safe and sound and probably contributed to the rather staid image we tend to have of this conductor. It was also looked down upon by knowledgeable musicians for the very good reason that, in the interests of squeezing the symphonies onto as few records as possible, "some impertinent barbarian", as the EMG Monthly Letter put it, had cut out all the repeats on which the conductor had insisted. Some years later the Solti cycle was touted as "probably" the first to include all repeats; in reality Konwitschny is likely to have preceded him, though I donít know who, outside the then German Democratic Republic, has actually heard the cycle complete.
Konwitschny was no stranger to the Czech Philharmonic and, apart from the present offerings, he recorded a Schubert "Great" C major with them and accompanied Josef Suk in a version of the Beethoven Violin Concerto which was very highly regarded in some quarters.
This Wagner collection circulated widely in the 1960s and also appeared on Music for Pleasure or Classics for Pleasure (I forget which) during a period in which EMI had a hook-up with Supraphon. Even then, the sound was deemed to be a drawback. I heard the first track late at night on headphones and it did seem very congested, though I appreciated the vitality of the performance. Hearing the rest through loudspeakers I found it much more acceptable, with only the loudest passages becoming strident (and thereís the vibrato favoured by the Czech trumpeters which not everybody will like). But donít the "loudest passages" constitute most of Wagner?, I daresay you are thinking, and it is a tribute to the clarity and lack of heaviness of Konwitschnyís approach that it so rarely degenerates into a reverberant mess. Listen to this first forte statement of the pilgrimís theme from the Tannhäuser Overture (example 1: Track 3 from 2í 02"). Thanks to a more detached style of articulation than we often hear in Wagner these pilgrims do not plod on wearily, their heads bowed under the weight of German romanticism, but have a joy in their stride which reminds us, befittingly from a Leipzig-based conductor, that Wagnerís musical ancestry also embraced Bach. And now hear this extract from later on in the same piece (example 2: Track 3 from 7í 14"). We are used to hearing moments in Dvorak where reminiscences of Wagner risk swamping the composerís individuality, but here, thanks to Konwitschnyís relaxed, pastoral approach and the rustic-sounding woodwinds, Wagner is made to seem a precursor of Dvorak. Iím not sure that Venusberg ought to be quite such a pleasant place to stay in, but I loved every moment of this.
The Tristan Prelude also gains from the conductorís sense of pacing. As a true opera conductor, he doesnít try to make a drama in miniature out of it, he remembers it is an introduction and maintains a certain lyrical flow, only hinting, in one unforgettable brass-capped climax, at the passionate tragedy which is to unfold.
In the Mastersingers Overture we again hear a more detached style of articulation than usual in the passages which are not specifically legato. The apprentices actually sound young for once while the lyrical moments flow strongly forward. And there is no doubt where the climax is: the cymbal clash is not just loud but seems to be the signal for the orchestra to unleash all its power with terrific force. Magnificent!
The Dutchman is a good, lively performance, more compromised by the sound than the other pieces and with a few patches of rough ensemble to suggest that studio time might have been running out. If you are not too fussy over sound this collection is still not a bad introduction to Wagner, but if you want to get to know Konwitschny as a Wagner conductor (not a bad thing to want, on this showing), then I would point out that he recorded Tannhäuser and the Dutchman complete for EMI with very fine casts.
The real reason for getting this CD, at least for me, is the Till. Just listen to the opening (example 3: track 5 from the beginning) and hear how, after the Mozartian grace of the first few bars, there bursts onto the scene the most irrepressible rapscallion of a Till you could imagine. I canít believe you wonít want to buy the disc to hear how it continues, and I guarantee it is all characterised in this same vivid, vital, lithe, effervescent manner, with the orchestra responding absolutely unanimously to every quicksilver change. I havenít enjoyed Till so much for a long time. And, while the 1960 Wagner recording was not exactly state-of-the-art for its time, this 1951 production is remarkably good for the date.
This raises two points. This Till must have had an "other side", presumably more Strauss. Might we hear it? And, in general, was this a "one-off" (like that suddenly terrific Beethoven 7 in the middle of an unremarkable cycle), or was Konwitschny a more vital conductor earlier in his career than he became later?
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