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Hans KNAPPERTSBUSCH – in Concert
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)

Leonore No. 3, Op. 72a - Overture, (1821)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58.
Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)

Tristan und Isolde – Vorspiel und Liebestod. (1865)
Birgit Nilsson, (soprano), Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
recorded 31st May 1962 in the Theater an der Wien, part of the Vienna Festival, (DVD).
co-production with ORF, directed by Hermann Lanske.
TDK DV CLHK62 [81 minutes]

Between them, the BBC, EMI, and TDK are making a wealth of fascinating visual material available to us which allows those who are interested, to understand better, how the great conductors achieved the results they did. Long may this continue, as it is a marvellous way to be entertained by the really great musicians of the past, and in some cases even the present.

This DVD, if issued in today’s environment, would be classed as a "celebrity event" and indeed that is just what it is, except that these terms were not around when the recordings were made. The undoubted star of the concert is the conductor Hans Knappertsbusch. I will not be tempted into the pretentious epithet "Kna" as some reviewers use, so here Knappertsbusch will be Knappertsbusch.

Knappertsbusch had the reputation of being very light on rehearsals, indeed when first encountering the Vienna Philharmonic in 1929, he rehearsed only the first half of the concert. About the second half, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony he told the orchestra "You know the work, I know the score." A contemporary violinist in the orchestra remembers "He radiated such confidence on the evening of the concert that a rehearsal had indeed not been necessary." We are not told in the notes whether the present concert was rehearsed beforehand, but there is no cause for worry – the results are excellent.

Tradition would have us believe that Knappertsbusch’s interpretations were highly controversial, which was part of his legendary reputation, but here, all is largely quite normal given the historical basis of the concert. His beat is the clearest it could be, and the orchestra, is intent on watching it intently, something which is often missing from current day concerts. Maybe he was tempered by his soloists, particularly the 78 year old Wilhelm Backhaus who had said when interviewed "Believe me, not a day of my life has gone by without my trying to play the introductory bars of this concerto. That is so terribly difficult and I have never really been satisfied."

Based upon current evidence, this goes very well, as far as the rest of the concerto is concerned, apart from a few finger problems which will not bother all but the most fussy listeners / watchers of this DVD. The picture is in grainy black and white, and the sound whilst being in mono, is quite clear without being in the least bit "hi-fi". There is a little distortion but this is in no way serious, and the overall experience is very entertaining as well as being a fascinating historical document. I never realised that history could be so interesting.

The concert starts with a funereal paced account of the Leonore No. 3 Overture, which soon picks up speed and ends with a large rush of adrenaline to produce a very good atmosphere for the concerto. The film during the interval between the two works concentrates on the latecomers finding their seats, which I find adds a little humour to the proceedings. This livens up the monochrome film, and I am sure that this part was severely edited, as no stage hands could re-arrange the orchestra and bring on the piano in such a relatively short space of time.

Backhaus sits at the piano like a god playing like a dream with absolutely no show of emotion other than what is emanating from his fingers. There are some rhythmic distortions but it is the skill of the conductor accompanying his soloist perfectly around each such minor change of tempo within the bar lines which makes this performance so interesting.

After the concerto, the orchestra is joined by the then young Birgit Nilsson singing the glorious Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Caught in her absolute prime, this most illuminating of Wagnerian sopranos gives a superb rendition of this most moving Wagner "bleeding chunk," and it rounds off a most satisfying programme.

John Phillips


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