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Schmidt-Isserstedt
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Euryanthe (Overture) (1823) [
8:47]
Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)

Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli (1953) [
21:05]*
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor op.98 (1885) [42:08]

Eli Goren, (violin); Bela Dekany, (violin); Denis Vigay, (cello)*
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt
rec.
11 April 1971, BBC Studios, Maida Vale (Weber), 14 April 1971, (Tippett, Brahms)
BBC LEGENDS BBCL42352 [70:07] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


This set of three radio broadcasts makes for an enterprising collection. It neatly encapsulates on one CD the key focus of Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt’s career. He spent twenty years as principally an Opera conductor. At the end of the Second World War he became an orchestral conductor after being requested to form the Hamburg Radio Orchestra by the British Army. He had apparently been interested in Tippett’s music from 1931 until it was banned in
Germany - ironic as Tippett went to prison as a conscientious objector! 

Many people fall in line with Colin Clarke’s assertion that Schmidt-Isserstedt was a dependable - read “boring” – conductor. I must admit to remembering his 1960s Decca Beethoven as OK but not the most thrilling. I may need to reappraise this judgment following hearing this CD. His Brahms’ though is a different manner. Geoff Diggines stated last year on “Seen and Heard” that “In concert he’s only heard three performances which come close to realizing Brahms’ supreme orchestral statement in the last movement “chaconne” - those from Klemperer, Boult and Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt”. His Fourth. Symphony for Vox in 1962 was regarded as one of the best bargains. His complete set with NDR Symphony Orchestra was on Artiphon-200-1-4 (4 LPs) and I purchased it a few months ago on 3 CDs (Scribendum SC005). It is available at MDT for under £20. It was also the last major piece he conducted one week prior to his death in May 1973; a very appropriate piece as a “Swan Song” with an ending of catastrophe as encapsulated by Furtwängler. 

The Overture to Weber’s Euryanthe is a studio recording and very fine too. Great playing and the conductor showing his experience of opera. I don’t know if this was the overture in the concert a few days later but it fits very well. The sound is good stereo illustrating the high standards of BBC. Euryanthe was first performed in Vienna in 1823 and met with failure but the “Overture” has always been popular and is a good choice for this German conductor: a good start to this CD - really gets the ball rolling! I see that this work opened the first concert in 2000 under NDR Orchestra’s conductor from 2000-2004, Christoph Eschenbach. 

What the sleeve-notes fail to mention is the significance of Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli. This might appear to the largely unknowledgeable on this conductor - including me - as a strange selection but his modern choices although limited included Tippett and Britten. There is a certain irony in this being a BBC concert as the organisation had originally turned it down; Tippett thought the “volte-face” very amusing. Neither Sir Malcolm Sargent (Chief Conductor) nor Paul Beard (Leader 1938-1962) were keen on this music. Sir Malcolm apparently said in 1956 that it was unplayable. I’m a great admirer of “Flash” and recall my first BBC concert at Oxford’s New Theatre in 1966 when he conducted Dvořák’s “New World” but I think he was wrong here! It must have had some effect on Tippett as he’d taken conducting lessons from Sargent and Boult in the 1920s.This is not a piece I knew but recently acquired an EMI Studio double CD set at my very friendly Oxfam in Broad Street Oxford. The version of the “Fantasia” on this double CD set from 1964 is conducted by the composer and features Yehudi Menhuin. I see that a similar set is available through Archiv Music. In the UK EMI have recently released a “Tippett conducts Tippett” set on  0724358658828. The soloists include two musicians I remember fondly from my Radio days (before I owned a record player) in the 1960s and early 1970s and TV Proms. Eli Goren - much loved first leader of the Allegri Quartet - and Bela Dekany - as well as orchestral his Quartet made some fine Haydn. Both Menuhin and Tippett are very good in this highly enjoyable piece with Schmidt-Isserstedt taking about a couple of minutes longer than the composer who unsurprisingly enjoys better sound in the studio. 

Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, composed in 1953 uses as a basis Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Opus 6 No.2 in F. He also transcribes later the opening of Bach’s “Fuge on a theme by Corelli” bwv579 for organ. This is a clear link with the Brahms 4 which follows on the disc as in the final movement Brahms’ chaconne adapts the passacaglia theme in the closing movement of  J.S. Bach’s cantata “Nach dir, Herr,verlanget mich” BWV 150 (“For thee O Lord, I long”). In his review of a Decca “twofer” Rob Barnett reviews the landmark recording by ASMF under Sir Neville Marriner which I now feel I must hear! His comment “The Corelli Fantasia is searching and flooded with baroque grandeur, humanity and a twentieth century passion” is spot-on. After the beginning Tippett does much more than ‘just’ variations but uses the theme for light and dark: utilizing the 18th century concerto in very inventive way. The BBC performance appears to me to differ in emphasis due perhaps to the fact that the soloists have more chamber music experience and theirs seems more integrated in this live recording. An analogy could be made with Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” between three soloists and a trio such as the Beaux Arts. The light and shade of this piece seems to be organic and really illustrates Schmidt-Isserstedt’s human way with the orchestra. I was very pleased to discover the piece and have the advantage over the audience of hearing it several times. A confession - I have always found Tippett's music a very tough nut to crack apart from “Steal away” from “A Child in Time” which like the current piece uses an established tune. I’m reminded of Beecham’s comment about Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, which has certain parallels with the Tippett: “In this work the composer uses this theme, unfortunately in all his other works he does not!”. 

Brahms 4 was my late father’s favourite symphony - along with Mozart 39 - and is an especial love of mine. As an enthusiastic/obsessive collector, I have over twenty versions including the above-mentioned Boult and Klemperer (both EMI), a couple of Toscaninis (Testament; RCA) and the truly remarkable Carlos Kleiber (DG). Whilst the studio recording made earlier is good, the playing of the BBCSO and the sense of live occasion strikes one immediately. Right from the start there is a strong forward pulse and momentum. The orchestral sound is very well captured illustrating again the excellent standard of the BBCSO in the not-so-easy acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall. The slow movement, a real gem, avoids any sluggishness but with impending sadness apparent; lovely clarinet from I guess Jack Brymer towards the end. The invigorating “Allegro” is full of lightness and a sense of panache. The engineers have captured the triangles and the horns, so crucial in Brahms. The finale is an equal triumph showing the conductor’s command of a fine orchestra and with speeds appreciably faster than his studio recording. There is a real sense of gathering disaster built up by the drums bringing the work to its climax. The audience who show warm appreciation at the end are very quiet throughout and their presence in no way detracts from this fine live relay. A very good Brahms 4 and one I will happily return to.

All in all this is a very fine and imaginative selection to represent an underrated conductor. A most valuable BBC Legends.

David R Dunsmore

 


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