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Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706)
Canon and Gigue [12.32]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

Symphony No.103 in E flat major ‘Drum Roll’ (1794-5) [26.20]
Niccolo PAGANINI (1782-1840)

Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major Op. 6 (1817) [28.13]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)

Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1891-1896) [55.15]
Christian Ferras (violin)
NWDR Symphony Orchestra/Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt
rec. 1952-54
TAHRA 568/569 [68.43 + 55.15]

Tahra has been paying handsome tribute to Schmidt-Isserstedt of late and this is by no means the first of their sets devoted to a still underrated conductor. This one has a satisfying feel to it, the feel of an admittedly very long concert – but a good and convincing programme nonetheless. I should add that all the performances are from live broadcasts and all derive from separate concerts.

The Pachelbel is perhaps rather unusual material both for the conductor and the time but in its warm and teak-stained way it has a satisfactorily and non-coagulatory profile. Granted I Musici and Boyd Neel would not have been so accommodating of the big band approach but then Schmidt-Isserstedt was approaching this repertoire from a large orchestral perspective and from the viewpoint of the Romantics. In any case this is a sensitively shaped and winning performance and whets the appetite for his Purcell, which I doubt has ever been re-released - as an aside he also recorded the overture to Wallace’s Maritana on 78s, a quite remarkable thing for 1936.

The soloist in the Paganini Concerto is Christian Ferras, a player to whom I’ve never quite reconciled myself. I find his vibrato usage unsettling – though this is a minority view and most commentators admire his elegance and Gallic finesse. Here I’m happy to confound myself. His excessively nannying vibrato is largely lacking and it only surfaces in some overdone expression in the outer movements where there’s too much fat in its deployment. Otherwise this is impressive stuff. His technique is perfectly equal to the demands, even the stratospheric whistling harmonics in the finale, and his spiccato is seldom found wanting. His oratory in the slow movement is equally fine and though the recording tends to accentuate some glassy orchestral tone this doesn’t affect Ferras, who, though no great molten tonalist, had a tightly focused sound capable of considerable colouration at speed. Of especial merit is the fact that this is new to Ferras’s discography – and the conductor’s as well I believe.

The 1954 Haydn Drum Roll suffers a little from an ill-defined recording where the timpani roll doesn’t register with as much clarity as it should. Schmidt-Isserstedt is strong on the relative rusticity of the driving momentum, though he yields to Beecham’s 1951 commercial recording in respect of sensitively moulded string lines. Schmidt-Isserstedt doesn’t quite get the pesante feeling of the Andante and nor does his rhythmic snap register with as much aeration and dynamism as Beecham’s – but that’s not to imply that the German performance is stolid. It’s a healthy and very worthwhile traversal.

Finally there is the mighty Bruckner 9 in the earliest of the quartet of performances, this one dating from April 1952. The brass is full blooded and the strings respond with flexibility and weight, the playing being not at all stagnant. The ebb and flow of the first movement is acutely measured whereas the scherzo is very strident and bristly, almost hectoring. String moulding is necessarily to the fore in the long third movement. Things are perhaps lighter in the bass than would be the case elsewhere in Germany at the time but this adds to the sense of separation that clarifies detail without squandering emotional depth. There’s tension and grandeur here, considerable power and, if not quite the heft in the strings that one would ideally like, the direction in which Schmidt-Isserstedt takes the music is compelling in its own right. The sound has a certain stridency but is otherwise acceptable.

The booklet consists almost entirely of a complete 78 discography of the conductor who was especially busy in the studios with Georg Kulenkampff. They collaborated on big concertos but also the scandalous Schumann and the (export only) 1935 Mendelssohn, by then of course banned in Germany, but not above being exported to feed the National Socialist coffers. This is in short another very satisfying contribution to Schmidt-Isserstedt’s standing in the hierarchy of mid-century Germany conductors.

Jonathan Woolf




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