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Hermann Abendroth. Portrait Inédit Volume 1
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Overture: Iphigénie en Aulide (1779)
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 103 Drumroll (1795)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 39 K543 (1788)
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Overture: Midsummer Night’s Dream
Overture: The Hebrides Fingal’s Cave Op. 26 (1830)
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Overture: Oberon (1826)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 9 Great (1825-28)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Gluck)
Leipzig Radio Orchestra (Haydn, Mendelssohn)
Bavarian State Orchestra (Weber)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (Schubert)
Conducted by Herman Abendroth
Recorded between 1944 and 1956
TAHRA TAH 139-140 [2 CDs: 144.47]

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Abendroth admirers are well served by this slimline double CD set from Tahra, which ranges chronologically from Gluck to Mendelssohn and in terms of recording dates from 1944 to 1956, just months before the conductor’s death. The classicist and romantic Abendroth are thus on show in performances that marshal his characteristic qualities. The three symphonies and four overtures offer a good conspectus of his discernment in this repertoire. Whilst one couldn’t truly claim that these readings elevate Abendroth to the most exalted level of twentieth century conductors there is much that is laudable. In one performance, the wartime Gluck, we catch a glimpse of the magnetic power that can lift a performance. His wartime performances have, not unsurprisingly perhaps, a sense of frequently overwhelming engagement that is sometimes missing from both the electrically recorded symphonies of the late 1920s and early 1930s and from his post-War discs.

It is the Gluck overture to Iphigénie en Aulide that opens the set, a performance made with the Berlin Philharmonic – their only appearance here – in September 1944. Strongly subjective, romantic, with strings that are thick and powerful this is a hypnotic reading. Certainly some may find it – even in contemporary terms – vastly inflated and glutinous but it is also wildly exciting, drenched in effulgent lyricism and sporting proto-Beethovenian brass to stunning lyrico-dramatic effect. We jump to 1953 for a Leipzig Haydn Drumroll Symphony. The recording, quite close, highlights the dramatic timpani roll before we hear Abendroth’s rather lugubrious and saturnine orchestral introduction. Comparison with the almost contemporaneous Beecham commercial disc (CBS 1951) shows that Abendroth keeps the tempo moving rather more but is less precise with his wind chording, Beecham allowing a greater sense of space to emerge and encouraging phrasing of more obvious charm. Abendroth however is still full of light-heartedness and spirit; this is no po-faced reading. In the Andante he is slower than Beecham who very slightly lengthens the basses’ note values the better to develop string phrasing; Abendroth’s leader is full of character, if occasionally very slightly fallible, in his long solo here. The Minuetto is a big boned affair in Abendroth’s hands, solid and weighty and much slower than Beecham’s more nimble and spirited traversal whilst in the Finale both men take the same tempo and Abendroth is full of eruptive fissures but also genial fire. The Mozart Symphony dates from two years later but the sound is very much more muffled and disappointingly so in comparison with the perfectly acceptable 1951 Haydn. The lower frequencies suffer in particular and this is bad for the indistinct bass line and their entries. The performance is good but not as good as the Haydn. Sensible tempi inform the first movement with strongly characterised material and some emphatic phrasing. The slow movement is really quite slow with expressive string playing and elegant woodwind contributions whilst the Minuet is rather solid in the portly rococo manner. However there’s still plenty of opportunity for rhythmic pointing and for once the recording allows us to hear the well-filled bass line. I liked the finale; a good tempo, fine articulation, no exaggeration. The first disc ends with a January 1956 performance of the overture to Oberon. Nuanced fillips drive the score with a sense of incipient drama and Abendroth’s rubati, romanticised though also highly pronounced, add another layer of dramatic weight, especially to the central, lyric section.

The second disc opens with two Mendelssohn overtures, expected Leipzig fare, and taped a year apart. The overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream dates from 1950 and is in reasonable sound. The performance is playful with fine chording and of eloquent and unforced musicality. The Hebrides was set down almost a year earlier; strong, rugged, powerful, not over-scaled, neither too fast nor unfeeling, a good solid traversal. Schubert’s Ninth ends the set, a September 1955 reading. Here Abendroth is far more personalised than in the other performances that grace the set, his strongly etched and powerful first movement containing inflections that set it apart. There is tremendous drive to his conducting, real passion, a dramatic sense of involvement and also a sometimes disruptive idiosyncrasy that won’t be to all tastes. There’s no doubting its drama or spiritual fire though.

The booklet reprints an autobiographical sketch by Abendroth originally printed in ‘The Artists Chatter’, a German book published in 1940 – the first time it has apparently been translated into English (the booklet notes are in French and English). There is also an interview with Abendroth pupil Günther Herbig and with Hans Schippel, a first violin in the Leipzig Radio Orchestra under Abendroth. All three are unusually insightful. A genuinely enjoyable and musically satisfying set of discs.

Jonathan Woolf


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