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Jonathan Woolf
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Hans Knappertsbusch - In Memoriam
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Siegfried Idyll [20:07] (rec. 8 May 1953)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) 
Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98 (1885) [40:54] (rec. 8 May 1953)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op.67 (1808) [36:49] (rec. 9 April 1956)
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Kindertotenlieder (1901-04) [26:41] (rec. 9 April 1956)
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Rehearsal of Symphony No. 8 with Interview with Knappertsbusch [7:30]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major (1806) [32:12] (rec. 17 January 1954)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856):
Symphony No. 4 in D minor Op.120 (1851) [26:47] (rec. 4 November 1954)
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (selection) (1882) [61:29] (rec. 5 August 1954)
Lucretia West (mezzo) (Mahler)
Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor) (Wagner: Parsifal)
Martha Mödl (soprano) (Wagner: Parsifal)
Josef Greindl  (bass) (Wagner: Parsifal)
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano) (Beethoven concerto)
Kölner Radio Symphony Orchestra (Wagner: Idyll; Brahms)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Beethoven: Symphony; Mahler)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Beethoven: Concerto)
Dresden Staatskapelle (Schumann)
Orchester of the Bayreuth Festspiele (Wagner: Parsifal)
Hans Knappertsbusch
TAHRA TAH606-609 [4 CDs: 61:32 + 71:34 + 59:21 + 61:29]

This four CD boxed set from Tahra is produced in memoriam though there’s never a wrong time for intelligently selected examples of his art. Most Kna collections have their up and down moments and this is no exception but at its best it offers powerful and moving testimony to his rugged greatness as an interpreter.
All the performances – bar the rehearsal and interview - have made an appearance in some form or other so a few words might be helpful here to enable the collector to orientate the discography. The Siegfried Idyll, a truly beautiful performance, has been on Music & Arts CD-1014, which like this one was a four CD set; it was also on King Records. The Brahms has seen a lot of service on LP and CD; Arlecchino, Golden Melodram and Andromeda ANDRCD5066 (see review) are amongst the best known. The Beethoven Fifth has recently been released on ANDRCD5017 (see review) with the Backhaus G major concerto and a raft of all-Beethoven material. The Dresden Schumann has seen issues on Hunt, Fonoteam and King Records. The Mahler is a rare bird – though it was once again on Hunt and King. The Parsifal extracts – a whole CD’s worth – turned up on a Melodram LP set years back; also on King KICC 2341/44 and Golden Melodram GM 1.0053 – where I believe the whole performance was preserved.
So this leaves the brief rehearsal and interview – about seven minutes in total – as the only material not previously commercially released, to the best of my knowledge. The rehearsal proceeds much as one would expect, with Kna’s comments transcribed in the booklet; similarly with the interview in which Knappertsbusch’s gruffly wry voice has been well preserved. It’s not an especially revealing document though – a little about conducting etiquette and endorsements of the Vienna Philharmonic.
Of the performances the Brahms Fourth happens to be my favourite, maybe for all the wrong reasons. Powerful, fluid, dramatic, gruff, wilful - yes to all these. But also opening out like lava flow in the second movement and running rapid accelerandi to prefigure the finale’s crises. This is a very human Fourth, at times overwhelmingly, dangerously so. Not a connoisseur’s Fourth or maybe for most collectors or even auditors. But something for once in a dramatic while – gaunt tragedy, unvarnished.
The Beethoven Fifth isn’t as marmoreal as it was later to become but it’s still heavy going. The Berlin horns are rather blustery and things are heavily underlined. The highly emphatic performance has some passingly lovely things – try the string curve at 4.40 in the slow movement – but this is in truth a dumpling of a performance
The G major Piano Concerto with frequent collaborator Backhaus is good. The sonics are muffly and unhelpful, unfortunately, which mitigates pleasure but through them one can still hear the soloist’s fluent and thoughtful performance, the more so as he’s somewhat over–recorded. The first movement cadenza really blazes and the slow movement is expressive. This is a worthwhile addition to the Kna-Backhaus discography, though admirers will already have it on their shelves.
He certainly had to cede to Furtwängler when it came to Schumann. Tahra have released the latter’s live Lucerne 1953 performance and despite the shrill recording and tense sonics this is a memorable and moving traversal. Kna by contrast is faster all round with a swishy sound – like a dished LP – and he lacks Furtwängler’s organic power and sense of cumulative weight of expression. The Mahler with Lucretia West sees him with a singer with whom he was to make a commercial recording of the Brahms Alto Rhapsody in May 1957. Kindertotenlieder is recorded very close-up though the sound is otherwise clear – and there’s good spatial separation between strings and horns. Even so the recording gives West’s voice a slight edge and occasionally one might feel she lacks sufficient colour to bring the greatest degree of depth to the songs. Nevertheless this is the only Kna-Mahler survival so far discovered and as such an important document of Kna’s way with a composer he conducted very rarely.
Kna’s Parsifal by contrast is of course legendary. These 1954 extracts begin with a rather magnificent Prelude and include the Klingsor Garden scene, the Good Friday music and the finale of Act III. With a decent recording level and Windgassen, Martha Mödl and Josef Greindl with him this is another valuable souvenir of his 1950s Bayreuth appearances. It was taped three years after the famous 1951 recording to which it’s nearer in time than the equally esteemed 1962. But it makes for compelling listening.
As for the comparative business with regard to competing transfers; Andromeda’s transfers are consistently at a higher, that’s to say louder level. Tahra has also done some restorative work by, for example, removing coughs. This is especially evident in the G minor concerto performance where Backhaus has to battle against a bronchial audience. One can hear the excision edits though if one listens carefully. There is little meaningful difference - beyond transfer levels - between the two Beethoven Fifths. The Brahms is again transferred at a higher level in the Andromeda but the Tahra is slightly clearer and far better bass defined. Andromeda’s is by comparison crudely over processed and opaque and Tahra’s enormously to be preferred.
Tahra also has two good booklets. One is solely given over to photographs of the conductor from childhood to old age, provided by the family, and is a sumptuously produced affair – the kind of thing this company does so well. And for Kna admirers there are some important things in these four well-filled discs.
Jonathan Woolf




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