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Fritz Busch: Complete Dresden Recordings
CD 1
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Overture The marriage of Figaro (1786) [3:39]
Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Overture The bartered bride (1870) [4:55]
Johann STRAUSS (1825-1899)
Overture Die Fledermaus (1874) [7:38]
Franz von SUPPÉ (1819-1895)
Overture The beautiful Galatea (1865) [7:10]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Invitation to the dance (1819) [8:04]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Scherzo from A midsummer night’s dream (1843) [4:22]
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Dance of the blessed spirits from Orpheus and Eurydice (1762) [4:18]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
March of the priests from The magic flute (1791) [3:47]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Prelude to Act 3, Carmen (1875) [2:41]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Prelude to Act 3, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (1868) [4:58]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Overture to The nutcracker (1892) [2:55]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Minuet from symphony no. 39 (1788) [4:08]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Minuets in G major and A major from Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1920) [2:26] [1:27]
CD 2
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Transformation music and March of the ministers and mandarins, Terzetto of the ministers, In questa reggia from Act 2, Del primo pianto from Act 3 from Turandot (1924) [3:56] [9:43] [5:23] [5:19]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Overture, Battle music, Tarantella La forza del destino (1862) [6:23] [1:25] [1:43]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Overture, Tannhäuser (1845) [12:57]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Helen’s awakening, Bei jener Nacht Act 1, Da-ud’s death (Funeral march), Act 2, Helen’s aria, second wedding night – transfigured night Die ägyptische Helena (1927) [3:31] [2:54] [2:48] [3:49]
CD 3
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no. 2 in D major, op. 73 (1877) [38:14]
DVD
I left the rostrum [13:55]
Turandot electrically – technical insight [18:00]
Brahms on air – technical insight [13:44]
The Staatskapelle Dresden on sound film [14:19]
Over! 7 March 1933 [11:56]
Only as a guest... [6:39]
Reminiscences by Eberhard Steindorf [5:01]
Welcome home! [8:30]
Georg Wille (cello) (Mendelssohn)
John Amans (flute) (Gluck)
Paul Schöffler (bass-baritone) (Puccini)
Heinrich Tessmer (tenor) (Puccini)
Otto Sigmund (tenor) (Puccini)
Anne Roselle (soprano) (Puccini)
Rose Pauly Dreesen (soprano) (Strauss)
Dresden Staatskapelle/Fritz Busch
rec. unspecified venues (discs 1 and 2), the Philharmonie, Bernburger Strasse, Berlin (disc 3); 8-14 June 1923 (disc 1), 26 September 1926 (disc 2, Puccini and Verdi), 25 February 1931 (disc 3), 1932 (disc 2, Wagner), unspecified date (disc 2, Strauss) 
PROFIL-EDITION GÜNTER HÄNSSLER PH07032 [3 CDs: 62:47 + 60:56 + 38:14 + 92:04] 

 

 

Experience Classicsonline


Fritz Busch’s hitherto high-profile career never really recovered, it seems fair to say, from the appalling events of 7 March 1933 that terminated his association with the Dresden Staatskapelle. 

On that shameful day in the orchestra’s history, Busch – closely associated with Dresden since 1920 and its inspirational and innovative General Music Director since 1922 – found himself humiliatingly and publicly dismissed from his responsibilities in the city.  Though not a Jew himself, he had earned the enmity of local Nazis by shunning the swastika and the party salute and by refusing to discriminate against Jewish singers and musicians.  As a result, a howling mob of S.A. stormtroopers had invaded the opera house just as he was about to conduct Rigoletto, successfully intimidating the management into substituting another conductor.  That evening, moreover, Busch was shocked to find that only two of his musicians were willing to stand openly at his side.  As he later wrote: After the entire Staatskapelle with the laudable exception of two brave members, the violinists Tröber and Strelewitz, had held their cowardly, passive silence before the Rigoletto performance..., to continue working there was unthinkable to me

The conductor’s career never subsequently recovered its earlier momentum.  For the next dozen years or so Busch himself seems to have deliberately opted for lower-profile posts.  After all, positions in Buenos Aires (where he took Argentinean citizenship), Copenhagen and Glyndebourne were unlikely to involve immensely stressful political infighting of the sort that had driven him from Germany.  And when, after the end of the Second World War, he tentatively explored higher profile positions in the USA, he found audiences and critics in thrall to colourful orchestral showmen of the likes of Toscanini and Stokowski and so generally unsympathetic to his low-key, “natural” personality and style of musicianship. 

Moreover, Busch’s relatively early death in 1951 occurred just before the widespread adoption of advanced recording techniques that might have enabled him to preserve his interpretations in “modern” sound for posterity.  As a result, he joins a sad list of conductors whose failure to leave a recorded legacy in acceptably modern sound has seriously militated against widespread appreciation of their artistry - Koussevitzky, who also died in 1951, is another obvious case in point. 

Of course, Busch’s name has never entirely fallen into oblivion – his hugely stylish and admired Glyndebourne recordings of Mozart’s The marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni would have ensured that that would never be the case.  But the recordings from 1923 to 1931 that are preserved on these new discs commemorate a time when he was widely considered one of Europe’s most eminent conductors at the head of one of its most accomplished orchestras. 

Not, admittedly, that one would guess that from the recordings made acoustically in 1923 – all neatly contained on disc 1.  Those are really just historical curiosities and of negligible artistic importance.  Not only were the chosen works musically unchallenging potboilers, but the recordings’ sound quality was severely constrained by primitive technology that required both severely reduced – and often musically unbalanced - orchestral forces and specially adapted instruments.  The utterly bizarre “Stroh violin”, for instance, incorporated both its own metal resonator and an attached horn to amplify its sound. 

The booklet notes offer a “listening recommendation”: The gramophone recordings of the period were played on trumpet gramophones with a limited range of volume.  Accordingly we recommend a much reduced playback level, which will give realistic period sound.  That may well be so, but the trouble with reducing the playback level is that it renders many passages, from the very first bars of the opening track onwards, virtually inaudible.  It is possible, to be fair, to spot some fine musical qualities through the hiss, crackle and generally murky sound – crisp articulation in the overtures to The marriage of Figaro and The nutcracker, some characterful playing in Die Fledermaus, a beautifully unfolded prelude to Act 3 of The Mastersingers and attractive woodwinds in Invitation to the dance and the march from The magic flute.  But those are hugely outweighed by frequently unyielding tempi (probably necessitated by the need to fit the music onto 78 rpm discs), an “orchestral” balance that is often unclear and a crude acoustic that can make Bizet’s flute sound like a penny whistle. 

It might be thought that the situation would have improved with the Puccini and Verdi tracks recorded in 1926 (disc 2), for Busch and his Dresden players were eager to exploit the potential of electrical recording – and to enjoy the opportunity, at last, for a properly-balanced and complete complement of players to be recorded by electrical microphones (rather than a simple horn) in a full-sized auditorium or studio.  Nevertheless, at this very early stage of its development the new technology was by no means perfect, tending to replace the acoustic process’s exaggerated woodwinds by its own bias towards the brass and sounding altogether bass-heavy.  In fact, the booklet writer accurately refers to these 1926 tracks as having “the frequency range of a telephone connection”.  If only Busch had waited another three months or so he would have benefited from the introduction of the new much-improved “Polyfar R” process that finally delivered something approaching “realistic” sound.  But, as it was, the technical deficiencies of these Puccini and Verdi recordings were so marked that not only did the conductor refuse to allow his name to be associated with some of them but the discs were quickly withdrawn from circulation in favour of newly-recorded versions by another orchestra. 

Nevertheless, the 1926 recordings of Turandot are especially interesting.  Puccini’s final opera had only received its world premiere – under Toscanini’s baton – in April that very year, so Busch, who conducted the German premiere in Dresden on 3 July, was quick off the mark when he made these recordings less than three months later.  While no vocal items had been recorded in 1923, even the earliest electrical recording process rendered voices with far greater accuracy than had the old acoustic method.  That is quite apparent here, especially in Ping, Pang and Pong’s lengthy terzetto where the three voices are especially well balanced against each other.  Under Busch’s careful direction, Schöffler, Tessmer and Sigmund give a charismatic performance that suggests far greater familiarity with the music than can actually have been the case.  Hungarian soprano Anne Roselle (born Anna Gengye in 1894) had become an overnight – if, as it turned out, short-lived - star after Busch had selected her as his first Turandot. She certainly possessed the necessary strong, powerful voice to hold her own against the orchestra in In questa reggia – though she is not quite in the Eva Turner class - and is also well captured by the microphone.  On the basis of her two tracks here, one can easily imagine her bring the house down on that summer night in Dresden all those years ago. 

The three 1926 Verdi recordings – reflective of the fact that Busch had been in the forefront of a revival of interest in the composer in 1920s Germany – are skilfully played but also fail to pass muster from the point of view of sound.  The overture suffers from a general lack of clarity and sparkle; the battle music sounds simply rather dull in an acoustic where we can’t hear anything approximating to a metallic clash of swords; and, in exactly the same way, the tarantella lacks the glitter needed to convey its excitement.  [The booklet notes are, by the way, completely misleading when giving the times of these tracks, as well as failing to give any at all for the Strauss items that end the disc.]  The recording of the Tannhäuser overture that follows is actually taken from a film soundtrack and is generally improved in tonal variety even though it becomes very congested at musical climaxes.  It offers the first aural proof we have had so far of the true quality of sound that Busch’s orchestra could produce.  The conductor’s careful control of dynamics makes this a performance of great cumulative power and one that is said to have greatly impressed Busch’s sometime successor at Dresden, Giuseppe Sinopoli, when he watched the original film. 

Three “bonus tracks” of music from Strauss’s Die ägyptische Helena complete the second disc.  Busch had given the June 1928 world premiere and was much admired by the composer, so these are obviously recordings of great interest.  Thankfully, though no recording date is provided, they must have been made after the introduction of the “Polyfar R” process, so benefiting from what the booklet describes as its “unprecedented warmth and breadth”.  Delicate playing – the detail of which would almost certainly have been lost in the earlier technologies - is certainly captured impressively, and there is a realistic sense of the overall Dresden “sound”.     The soprano Rose Pauly Dreesen was something of a Strauss specialist who also recorded extracts from Salome and Elektra, as well as some of the Strauss Lieder op.10 and op.33, in the 1920s and 1930s, and she sings both idiomatically and powerfully. 

Busch was clearly unlucky at Dresden – not only with his politics but also with recording.  Just as his Puccini and Verdi discs had been fatally compromised by the inadequacies of the earliest electrical process, his live performance of Brahms’s second symphony in February 1931 was recorded on the short-lived experimental “Needle Sound” system which attempted to use the technology of recording film soundtracks to produce improved sound on disc.  For reasons explained in the fascinating booklet notes, “Needle Sound” was not a commercial success and, even with modern restoration, some passages are almost completely inaudible and the overall sound remains very dull.  The re-engineered masters (four 16-inch diameter 33rpm discs) do, nevertheless, give us the chance of listening to one of the earliest recordings ever made of a live concert and our only opportunity to hear Busch and his Dresden orchestra in a complete symphony.  It is a fine interpretation, and one that one listens to with an awareness at the back of the mind that one of Busch’s teachers had been Fritz Steinbach, a conductor well regarded by Brahms himself.  Here an urgent and forceful opening movement giving way to a dreamy and ruminative adagio non troppo that is especially notable for some well-balanced interplay among the various sections of the orchestra.  The third movement combines the best qualities of its two predecessors but the very fast finale is a non-starter from the beginning because of some horrendously distorted sound (were the engineers completely unprepared for the sheer forcefulness of Busch’s opening bars?)  In spite, then, of its historical interest, this is certainly not a version to live with on a regular basis. 

That leaves us with the set’s fourth and final disc, a DVD that offers a great deal of interesting material.  As well as the original film of Busch conducting the Tannhäuser overture in full in 1932 (the performance that so impressed Sinopoli), there are short documentaries covering various aspects of Busch’s life as well as explaining the technical processes of sound recording at the time (a crucial issue, as we have noted, with this material).  They are uniformly interesting, though let down by the suspicion that the English subtitles may not be giving us the full story (there are a few long passages of German narration or interviews where little or no English appears on the screen at all!)   The booklet, too, though very detailed and full of fascinating illustrations, is let down by some poor English and shoddy proof-reading (wrong or missing times of tracks, as noted above, for instance). 

This set is actually Volume 30 of an Edition Staatskapelle Dresden.  In spite of its undoubted historical significance, I suspect that it has been included primarily for the sake of completeness and to ensure that the series offered at least some evidence of the orchestra’s golden age under Busch.  But these sonically compromised recordings actually do the conductor little true justice. 

I note too that, of the 18 “selected recordings” listed in its entry on Fritz Busch, the booklet for David Patmore’s excellent A-Z of conductors (Naxos 8.558087-90) includes only three from before World War Two – live recordings of Der Rosenkavalier and Lohengrin both from Buenos Aires in 1936 and a studio recording of Strauss’s Don Juan with the London Philharmonic Orchestra from the same year. As with most of his other judgements, the author is, in this case, absolutely spot-on.

Rob Maynard

 


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