This is exciting. We have an almost unknown conductor, little
known recordings, including a major symphonic statement, first
class Polydor pressings, and splendid restorations by Mark Obert-Thorn.
The conductor is Alexander Kitschin, about whom almost nothing
is known. He was married to soprano Xenia Belmas, and – I’m
reliant on the brief notes for my information – he emigrated
to Germany with her from the Soviet Union in 1921. They moved
to South Africa in 1938. He accompanied her on some vocal discs
in Berlin, as well as these three orchestral outings. All were
made in Berlin, and even here there’s been some debate as to
attribution. The Tchaikovsky Symphony is label-credited to ‘The
Opera-Orchestra, Berlin’ but it’s been ascribed elsewhere to
the Berlin-Charlottenburg Opera Orchestra. Obert-Thorn thinks
it’s actually the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, who recorded
the work two years later for Leo Blech, who ironically later
trod the same journey as Kitschin, only in reverse, ending up
Kitschin’s conducting ethos, on the basis of the symphony in
particular, might be generally likened to such outsize individualists
as Mengelberg, Coates, Stokowski, and Golovanov. In another
twist, I assume he was living in South Africa at around the
same time as Albert Coates, whose conducting his so resembles,
so maybe some trace remains of him there, as some recorded traces
do of Coates in broadcast performances.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Fifth open in such a way as
here; a doleful, trudging, hugely introspective tempo, but one
that is, amazingly, just about sustained through the opening
paragraphs. Thenceforth we are treated to a remarkable display
of personalised music making – powerful moments when the music
stop-starts, slows down, speeds up. Rhythms are hugely flexible,
and things are taken to phrasal and expressive limits. The slow
movement is not especially slow in any way, but as throughout
it’s the variety of phrasing and of orchestral colour that lends
this performance its strategic purpose. He encourages distinctive
wind playing and phrasing, and brings the orchestra along with
him to a remarkable degree. There are cuts in the finale but
these were, I think, not unusual at the time and even later
conductors, such as Schmidt-Isserstedt and Sargent, used them.
If you’ve had the good fortune to hear Coates’s 1922 traversal
of the symphony you will certainly note a kind of kinship of
interpretation. What is undeniable is the flair, excitement,
and extremes generated by this unknown conductor.
As a bonus we have Glazunov’s Stenka Razin, in a purposeful,
powerful traversal, and the ‘1812’, with the full-blooded contribution
of the Ural Cossacks Choir.
These set the seal on a rather amazing disc.