Günther Herbig, now in his late seventies, made his reputation
in the old East German state, though he was actually born in Czechoslovakia.
He became known in the west in the early 1980s, a period when
he was Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Northern Symphony
orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic), and many Mancunians will
recall a string of magnificent performances from that period.
He is best-known for his interpretations of the Austro-German
classics, but is in fact a conductor with wide sympathies. So
it comes as little surprise that this disc contains stylish, meticulous
performances of these French ‘lollipops’.
return to the music in a moment; but these Berlin Classics ‘Schätze
der Klassik’ (probably best rendered as ‘Best-Loved Classics’)
were new to me, so I was intrigued by the presentation. The
discs come in a pretty case of the ‘booklet’ type, with a classy
gold seal on the front cover. But inside, there is - nothing!
– apart of course from the disc itself. No information, no notes
on the music, nothing about the performers.
surprise, then to find no details of recording dates and venues
either; all we have is a date of original publication given
as 1979. This is interesting, as it was the point when Herbig
began to become better-known in the West. The orchestra here
however is the Berlin Symphony, which was based in East Berlin,
and was thus in a sense the communist counterpart of the Berlin
Philharmonic, based in West Berlin. It was a fine orchestra,
and still exists today, though now named the Konzerthausorchester
Berlin, after the hall which is its home.
then are excellent performances. ‘La Valse’ gets a thoroughly
idiomatic treatment, with the slightly exaggerated rubato
(flexibility of tempo) that emphasises the element of parody.
Some orchestral details are not as prominent as they might be
– the trombone scales at track 1 (2:55) are weak enough to make
me suspect the players of dozing! – but the final climax is
convincingly seismic, and the work’s character is well projected.
same is true of the Mother Goose Suite that follows.
The playing draws out sensitively Ravel’s delicate sensuality.
The recording is mostly good, allowing details such as the bird-cries
in ‘Petit Poucet’ (Tom Thumb), or the contra bassoon
in ‘La Belle et la Bête’ (Beauty and the Beast) to register
naturally, without ‘spotlighting’. The only major disappointment
for me was the string sound in the ineffable final movement,
‘Le Jardin Féerique’. This calls for an intense, hushed pianissimo
at the outset, but the Berlin strings – and the recording engineers
– can find only a rather muddy, unattractive tone colour.
and that Boléro? It’s fine - said through gritted teeth.
In fact let’s be honest, it’s a good performance of a piece I
want to listen to about once every five years or so. No more.