Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Les Préludes (1848) [15:37]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (1882) Prelude to Act I [13:46]
Parsifal (1882) Good Friday Spell (Act III) [11:10]
Tristan und Isolde (1865) Prelude to Act I [9:06]
Tristan und Isolde (1865) Liebestod (Act III) [6:09]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Hungarian Dance no.5 in G minor (orch. Parlow) (1869) [2:38]
Hungarian Dance no.6 in D major (orch. Parlow) (1869) [3:20]
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Alfred Hertz
rec. 24, 26, 31 January 1925 (Parsifal), 20-22 April 1926 (Tristan), 13 April 1927 (Brahms) and 27 February 1928 (Liszt); Scottish Rite Temple, Oakland, California (Parsifal, Tristan, Liszt) and Columbia Theatre, San Francisco, California (Brahms)

Why do we buy historic recordings? Usually, I imagine, it is to listen to an artist who later went on to greater fame and to see if we can detect, in spite of sonic limitations, any intimations of future greatness or simply any hints of qualities that were subsequently to make his or her artistry distinctive and valued. The current fashion for issuing, among others, the earliest recordings by Furtwängler - in various series on Naxos Historical or Stokowski offer many opportunities for playing that particular parlour game.

With the recordings under review we have some quite different issues to face. Before we do so let’s fill in the generally unfamiliar conductor’s background. German-born Alfred Hertz (1872-1942) was once one of the best-known conductors in the USA. As, from 1902, the chief conductor of German repertoire at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, he conducted the American premieres of Wagner’s Parsifal and Richard Strauss’s Salome and Der Rosenkavalier and, at the same house, was recorded experimentally in 1901-1903 on some of the intriguing “Mapleson cylinders”. He was only the second music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra – in post from 1915 until his retirement in 1929 - after which he seems to have concentrated on working on radio where he was closely involved with the popular “Standard Symphony Hour” broadcasts from 1932 until 1939. In fact, Standard Oil’s contemporary promotional material placed him at the very head of the decidedly disparate band of conductors who were associated with the programme ... “We know”, it boasted, “that the Standard Symphony Hour has a larger audience than any other Pacific Coast sponsored program ... Among the famous conductors who have appeared are: Hertz, Rodzinsky, Dobrowen, Cameron, van Hoogstraten, Molinari, Sir Hamilton Harty, Klemperer, Monteux, Piastro, Blechschmidt, Merola, Lert, Leschke, Nilson, Svedrovsky...” [see more here]

Today, however, we face significant challenges in listening to Hertz’s recordings and in trying to place them in some sort of personal and historical perspective. In the first place, the conductor seems to have been very unlucky in the resources allocated to him by the Victor Talking Machine Company, with several of his recordings stymied from the outset by outmoded equipment, poorly selected recording venues or something that remastering guru Mark Obert-Thorn describes as “acoustically-compromised dubbing”. Secondly, while in the 1920s Hertz seems never to have been allowed to progress beyond recording well-known and generally unchallenging orchestral “pops”, his subsequent retreat from commercial recording deprives us of any greater musical substance from which to construct a critical analysis of his work. Clearly, then, this is not just a case of looking for a needle in a haystack – it is a case of having to do so when we don’t even know what sort of needle we are actually trying to identify!

Accepting, however, the limitations of what it is now possible to learn or deduce about Hertz, it is still, thankfully, possible to comment objectively on these tracks as stand-alone entities. The Liszt Les Préludes, for example, is very finely done and it is apparent from the outset that Hertz has his own coherent conception of a work that can very easily seem all too disjointed and fragmented. After a carefully and beautifully crafted opening that creates an air of tense expectation absent from many other accounts, Hertz unrolls a musical panorama that is at least the equal of – and in this new remastering now sounds rather better than – his contemporary Willem Mengelberg’s better known 1929 recording with his Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Hertz’s accounts of the Parsifal extracts are of obvious historical significance and demonstrate again the atmosphere of tightly controlled power over the orchestra. The tension that he generates is quite palpable and one senses that the members of the orchestra are, throughout these accounts, in a state of rapt concentration. They play, in fact, throughout as if their very lives depended on getting every note exactly right.

Lionel Mapleson’s eponymous cylinders had included valuable 1903 accounts of Hertz directing singers Lillian Nordica, Georg Anthes and Ernestine Schumann-Heink in extracts from Tristan und Isolde, with Madame Nordica - who became, in 1914, the only diva in operatic history to die of hypothermia and pneumonia after being shipwrecked - offering a quite stentorian performance of the Liebestod. On the tracks under review here, recorded almost a quarter of a century later than those cylinders, the (purely orchestral) accounts of both the Prelude to Act I and the Liebestod fully match those of Parsifal in their intensity. Hertz’s flowing lines and finely-exercised dynamic control - not always an easy thing to achieve given the technological limitations of contemporary recording - mark him out, as one might well, after all, have expected, as a most accomplished Wagnerian.

The two Brahms Hungarian Dances are presented in colourful accounts that are full of gusto in arrangements for full orchestra by Albert Parlow (1824-1888), a German composer and conductor closely associated with Prussian military bands. Hertz could evidently let his hair down – even though most of it was, as photographs indicate, to be found on his chin – when required. The sixth dance is performed with especial flair and sly humour and brings the disc to an altogether rousing conclusion.

Our grateful thanks must be due, then, to Pristine Audio and to Mark Obert-Thorn for producing such high quality transfers of the original material and for filling in a hitherto largely blank page in the history of orchestral recording. Is it now, I wonder, too much to hope that, once all of Hertz’s slim discography has been addressed, they will be turning their attention to such other lost luminaries of the Standard Symphony Hour as Messrs. Blechschmidt, Lert and Svedrovsky?

Rob Maynard