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Great Conductors of the 20th Century: Hermann Scherchen
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)

Coriolan Overture, Op 62: (1807) [8.05]
Vienna State Opera Orchestra (June 1954)
Symphony #8 in F, Op 93 (1812) [23.20]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (mono 30 Sept 1954)
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882 - 1971)

LíOiseau de Feu (1910): Suite (1919) [19.50]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (mono September 1954)
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874 - 1951)

Suite in the Old Style (G Major) for Strings (1935) [17.43]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (stereo 1 September 1959)
William BYRD (1543 - 1623)

"The Bells" arranged and orchestrated by Carl ORFF (1895 - 1982) as "Entrata" (1940) [8.35]
Vienna State Opera Orchestra (stereo 17 November 1960)
Emil Nikolaus von REZINCEK (1860 - 1945)

Donna Diana: Overture (1894) [5.38]
Vienna State Opera Orchestra (stereo June 1957)
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809)

Symphony in G, Hob 1:100 "Military" (1794) [23.06]
Vienna State Opera Orchestra (stereo July 1958)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)

Symphony #1 in c, Op 68 (1876) [44.14]
Vienna State Opera Orchestra (mono October 1952)
Vienna Recordings made in the Mozart-Sall, Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria. (1952-60)
British recordings made in the Walthamstow Town Hall, London, UK (1954)
German radio recording made in Lankwitz Studio, Berlin, September 1959.
Hermann Scherchen conducting
Recordings are monophonic except the Schoenberg, Byrd/Orff, Reznicek and Haydn. AAD
EMI CLASSICS IMG ARTISTS 7243 5 75956 2 9 [78.26 + 73.23]

 

When I first began buying LPs there were "great conductors": Stokowski, Koussevitzky, Beecham, Monteux, Walter, Toscanini, Boult, Mengelberg and Weingartner. When recordings by Scherchen began appearing on an audiophile label few critics or collectors of my acquaintance took him seriously, figuring he was just somebody available on the cheap to provide an inoffensive recording for the sound engineers to fiddle with. Friends would mispronounce his name and giggle. It wasnít long, however, before critics and collectors woke up and showed some respect. At one time during the late 1950s the Scherchen recordings of the Bach Mass in b, St. Matthew Passion, and Cantata #54; Handelís Messiah; the complete Beethoven and late Haydn Symphonies; the Mozart Requiem; Berliozís Requiem and Symphonie Fantastique; Rossiniís William Tell Overture; Lisztís Piano Concertos and Hungarian Rhapsodies; Mahlerís Fifth and Seventh Symphonies; Tchaikovskyís Romeo and Juliet; Weberís overtures; Stravinskyís Petrouchka and Firebird Suite; and Honeggerís Pacific 231 were all hailed by many critics as the best available versions both for performance and for recorded sound. Not one of the "Great Conductors" had even recorded all these works, let alone recorded them well, let alone made landmark recordings of them. Nobody laughed any more.

Scherchen, like Leopold Stokowski, was very knowledgeable in the technical area of the recording process, but, unlike Stokowski, was primarily concerned with clarity, detail and realism in his recordings. Also, unlike Stokowski, he knew when to back out of the process and let the engineers do their job without interference which earned him their respect and their willingness to collaborate creatively.

Unfortunately Westminster made a number of bad business decisions about this time which headed the company towards eventual bankruptcy, one of which decisions was to be sparing about recording in stereo which many persons, even many audiophiles, still thought of as a temporary craze. The first bankruptcy of Westminster was just before Scherchenís death in 1966. His name all but disappeared from concert billings and the recording catalogues. Over the next 20 years his recordings would appear briefly here and there on LP bargain reprint labels, including a barely resuscitated Westminster functioning successively as a division of several other companies.

In the mid-1980s MCA, who had eventually come to own the Westminster tapes, reissued a number of his better sounding recordings transferred to CDs, and a new generation of collectors came to know him, confronted with the astonishing consistent quality of his artistic production. Many of these recordings still sounded as good as then new recordings. A new Scherchen public began to develop creating a market for additionally discovered recordings and today we are as much aware of the gaps in the Scherchen discography than of its wide range. We are deeply in debt to Scherchenís daughter, Dr. Myriam Scherchen, for establishing TAHRA records and searching out and publishing radio transcriptions and tapes from minor labels and sharing with us her family photograph album and many fascinating recollections.

Scherchen was as admiring of ó and as well acquainted with ó Mahler as Bruno Walter was, and his interpretations, while quite different, must be regarded as equally authoritative. Unfortunately we do not have a complete Mahler cycle: number four is missing completely (Scherchen didnít care for it and rarely performed it) and of number six we have only a cut and under-rehearsed radio performance of what would have been the most amazing performance of the work ever done. Of Scherchenís long dedicated friendship with Arnold Schoenberg we have almost nothing recorded, but we can be grateful for a stunning Pelléas et Mélisande and a few shorter works like the one in this set. Of Bach we have an abundance ó two sets of Brandenburgs, two Masses in b, the St. Matthew and St John Passions, three versions of Art of Fugue, and a good selection of cantatas ó reflecting his profound admiration and identification.

The most serious detraction critics laid against Scherchen was use of unconventional tempi, but like many creative people he disliked doing anything exactly the same way twice. Also he was frequently forced to work with undermotivated orchestras, and I canít think of any better way to wake up a complacent group of musicians than to make them play a piece they know too well at a tempo faster or slower than theyíd ever dreamed of before. But many of his innovative tempi which were considered shocking when first heard have since become the canon.

This selection is a reasonable set of representative Scherchen excellence, but they canít please everybody. Of his three recordings of the Haydn Military Symphony, I feel this is the least satisfactory, but probably was chosen because itís the only one in stereo. It amply displays Scherchen in his "surprising tempo" persona; the finale is, by any measure, absurdly fast. The Schoenberg work is completely new to me, and is untypically consonant for this composer, being at times almost pretty; but it demonstrates Scherchenís missionary desire to promote the composerís art. The Brahms is a superb performance, rich with detail and drama right up to the end of the third movement; but, disappointingly, sections of the finale are rushed, and at times there the orchestral ensemble is less than perfect. For his English recordings he had a great orchestra to lead and apparently plenty of rehearsal time, and these recordings show that the best that he was capable of is the very best there is. The Beethoven 8th Symphony is one of the very finest performances of this work ever done, as is the "Firebird Suite." Few modern recordings can match the sinister and evil violence of the Kastcheiís Dance sequence.

These transfers are new. Direct comparison of this Beethoven Symphony with the transfer of the same work on the 1988 MCAD2-9802-B issue shows the new transfer to be more transparent and wider ranged, even on my 3-inch K-L-H computer speaker system. The same comparison with the Stravinsky shows the new transfer to have deeper perspective and greater definition, but the older transfer on a 1999 Japanese Victor pressing MVCW-14033 has been differently equalized, so it has the effect of slightly wider range; one could actually prefer the earlier version if one did not have a super high-definition speaker system.

If you like what you hear here, you might want to search out Scherchenís 1953 St. Matthew Passion (monophonic and OP), his Mahler 5th and 7th Symphonies, and the Tahra "Enregistrements Nixa" set (TAH 413/416) of Russian and French orchestral war-horses. There is a wonderful VHS video rehearsal of Bachís Art of the Fugue on CBC Home Video (VAI 69408 NTSC). The stereo remakes of Handelís Messiah and Bachís Mass in b which are currently available on DG are nowhere near so good as the original monophonic versions (both currently OP) which are worth any amount of trouble to find. Never released on CD is the 1953 monophonic English recording of Rossiniís William Tell Overture, a performance which stands out in a heavily crowded field as the finest performance and recording this work has ever received. As any orchestral musician will tell you, to get an orchestra to enjoy playing this despised work and do it this well is the achievement of the millennium.

Paul Shoemaker

 

 



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