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Gunter Wand. My Life, My Music
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony No.4 in B flat Op.60 – Adagio-Allegro vivace [12.27]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Serenade in D Posthorn K320 [3.59]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Symphony No.1 in C minor Op.68 – Andante sostenuto [9.26] +
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Symphony No.9 in C The Great D944 – Finale; Allegro vivace [11.20] *
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)

Symphony No.5 in B flat (original version) – Introduction; Adagio - Allegro [21.30] #
NDR Symphony Orchestra
Chicago Symphony Orchestra +
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra *
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra #
Gunter Wand
Recorded April 2001 (Beethoven and Mozart), January 1989 (Brahms), March 1977 (Schubert), January 1996 (Bruckner)
A DVD Video documentary of Gunter Wand. Bonus audio CD featuring complete performances of music heard in the DVD documentary from the artist’s RCA Red Seal legacy.
Executive producer Christian Leins. Director Robert Reiter
RCA RED SEAL 82876 63887 9 [DVD 130.00 + CD 58.40]

The heart of this release is a documentary biography of Wand conducted by filmed interview toward the end of his life. It’s composed of a biographical overview and then a formal talk. The biography traces his early life, Cologne before and after the War and gives us some snippets of rare concert footage. One such is a 1956 performance of Zimmermann’s Symphony in One Movement with the Gürzenich Orchestra. He also conducts Stravinsky and we learn of his championship of Messiaen and his 1950 period in Paris. There’s a treasurably embarrassing on-stage interview (in front of the orchestra) from the 1950s in which Wand talks of his recent trip to Russia and how highly he esteemed their orchestras – this is followed by a segment of a rehearsal of Brahms’ First Symphony. Sensibly his revivifying effect in Cologne is compared with that of the NDR’S Schmidt-Issertstedt. Throughout, whenever an interviewee hoves into view, the subtitles become sur-titles to accommodate the name of the interviewee so I advise English speakers to grin and bear this mini-outrage with equanimity. In truth the run-through of Wand’s life here is rather superficial, though not without incident or interest.

No, the meat of the DVD is the last filmed interview with Wolfgang Seifert, his biographer. It’s moving to hear him recall Franz Allers, his teacher, whose forced exit from Nazi Germany is not glossed. Equally so his early career. Wand began as a conductor not of mighty Brucknerian behemoths but of light opera in some out-of-the-way opera houses in central Europe, some in what is subtitled "Tchechia". His admiration for the sheer professionalism of the genre is evident nearly sixty years on. He admits "it had to be a certainty for me" regarding repertoire and that he realised – understatement of the week – that he "wasn’t an easygoing conductor either in rehearsal or performance." Everything had to be in place in the rehearsals and his ideas were fully formed before he came to the rostrum. The salutary thing about Wand was the sheer fixity of his ideas. Von Karajan liked to say that, great orchestra though it was, when he conducted the Philharmonia in the 1950s he knew that magnificent though they would be at the last rehearsal, he knew that that’s how they would be at the concert. For him it was a weakness; I suspect that for Wand it would have been a strength.

"Vanity is a vice" is a mantra he followed assiduously, and Wand was keen to take advice from orchestral players he respected, even though there were almost mutinies when he over-rehearsed; there was a notorious bust-up in 1974. There’s a witty anecdote concerning Erno von Dohnanyi whose relaxed approach to Haydn was the opposite of Wand’s measured and plotted professionalism. And one or two revelations as well; he hated Schubert’s Great C major and was 60 years old when he first conducted it, by which time his opposition had somewhat mellowed. Similarly he wasn’t keen on Bruckner 5 for a long time, calls the Schalk edition "an abomination" scorning it as a mix of Mendelssohn and Wagner. Flashes of anger still cross his face, even in these, his last months. Brucknerians will hope for some elucidation; he sees symphonies 4 to 8 as representing the external works, and 5 and 9 as internalised "like a monk" turned away from the world. Bruckner 1 is "a sick piece, he was ill, like Schumann 2."

There are other things upon which to reflect; his obvious sincerity when he says how moved he was by the audience’s response at a Proms programme of Schubert and Bruckner. Then there’s the complex question of tempo, by which one feels he was much exercised but which doesn’t emerge with great clarity or blinding realisation (perhaps it can’t. More intriguing is the wide question of "interpretation" to which his negative explanation will suffice in all its philosophical abstraction; "If I can feel the interpretation…then it’s the wrong one." Or to follow the Toscaninian analysis of Steinbach’s Brahms – "the music just flowed." It was just this aspiration to the level of interpretative perfection that led to a gradual reduction of his repertoire. Like Carlos Kleiber he concentrated on what was essential to him.

There’s invariably a valedictory air to the interview, which was conducted in his Swiss home after his retirement. He remained analytical and strong-willed to the end. It’s not an interview that is strong on humour – his was of the rather wintry, Thomas Mann kind – but there’s a certain impressiveness in his elegantly turned-out, rather weary engagement with Seifert. As a Last Testament it stands not so much as a corrective but more as a retrospective.

The second disc includes extracts from commercial recordings. The Brahms, Schubert and Bruckner are cannily chosen to support the remarks in the interview. Note that the Brahms is with the Chicago Orchestra and is distinctly slower than his earlier 1982 NDR commercial recording. So maybe his fixity was not always quite as absolute as he maintained. Or maybe in Chicago there were other fixities involved. I’m sure admirers will find their appreciation of Wand enriched – there has been no English-language biography so far as I’m aware – but the Wand-agnostic may find parts of the documentary rather turgid.

Jonathan Woolf



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