Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphonies 3-5 & 7-9
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung (1876): Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [11:45]; Funeral March [6:45]
Siegfried: Act II scene 2 [17:27]
Die Walkure: Act I Scene 3 [19:51]
Bavarian State Opera Orchestra (3, Wagner) Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (4, 8 & 9) Munich Philharmonic Orchestra (5) Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (7)/Hans Knappertsbusch
rec. live, 1944-59
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1256 [6 CDs: 70:22 + 76:18 + 62:47 + 62:45 + 77:34 + 77:29]
I’ve not encountered the work of Hans Knappertsbusch (1888-1965) very much since I’m not a devotee of Wagner operas in which, above all, he made his reputation. However, I know that his admirers speak of his achievements with awe so the prospect of hearing him in recordings of several Bruckner symphonies was an intriguing one, even if I had been less than impressed when I reviewed a performance by him of the Eighth symphony - not the one included here - some years ago (review).
These performances have been issued before by Music & Arts. As well as individual issues of symphonies 3, 4 and 7 in the 1980s (respectively on CD-257, CD-249 and CD-209) there was also a boxed set of all six symphonies which was warmly reviewed by the late Tony Duggan in 2001 (review). However, that box contained a different performance of the Third symphony and for this latest reincarnation the Wagner items have been added. Furthermore, the recordings now appear in new, 2011 re-masterings by Aaron Z. Snyder. I’ve not heard the previous transfers so can’t comment as to how much Mr Snyder’s work improves on the earlier issue. However, the transfers in this box seem pretty successful to me.
The first thing to be said is that you will listen in vain here for the critical editions of the scores by Robert Haas or Leopold Nowak. Instead, Knappertsbusch retained what Tony Duggan called a “cussed loyalty” to the first published versions of the scores and in discussing each performance I’ll indicate which editions are used. Tony makes the important point that “If nothing else the early editions of the scores that you will hear on these discs are pretty much the versions of Bruckner's works that first established his reputation.” He adds that “With Knappertsbusch we are back in a world where, taking that cue from the first editions perhaps, conductors felt able to shape the music more dynamically, organically and dramatically.” He goes on to issue an important health warning, however, about Kna’s tendency to re-touch the scoring in the editions that he played. I’m afraid that without access to scores in the editions used by Knappertsbusch I can’t really say which of the “improvements” to the scoring that we’ll hear were made by the conductor or by Bruckner’s editors.
From the fact that I’ve put the word improvements in inverted commas you may well deduce, correctly, that I have a strong preference for the editions made for the Internationale Bruckner-Gesellschaft, chiefly by Robert Haas and, after the War, by Leopold Nowak, rather than the editions we hear on these discs. However, I take on board the points made by Tony Duggan and by Mark Kluge in his booklet note that these recordings offer a glimpse back in time to the early performance practices of Bruckner conductors. So I’d urge anyone contemplating investing in these discs to read Tony’s characteristically thorough appraisal as well as mine.
Tony Duggan talked of “cussed loyalty”. My own suspicion is that Knappertsbusch saw no real reason to change from the versions of the scores with which he was familiar. That said, the critical editions of most of the symphonies included in this box were available well before these performances took place - Alfred Orel’s edition of the Ninth came out as early as 1932 and by 1944 Haas had published editions of numbers 4, 5, 7 and 8. Nowak followed with editions of numbers 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9 between the end of the War and 1955. Indeed, the only one of these symphonies for which a critical edition wasn’t available to Knappertsbusch was number 3; Haas’s work on this symphony was destroyed during the war years and Nowak’s edition didn’t appear until 1959. Knappertsbusch surely stuck with the editions that had served him perfectly well. Moreover, Mark Kluge makes a fair point in the booklet in saying that Kna wasn’t alone among conductors in sticking with the first published editions. In his notes he discusses the editions that Kna uses and points out in general terms where these differ from the Haas editions - Nowak is never mentioned. I infer from his comments that he doesn’t think much of the work of Robert Haas, which is rather surprising since many of the world’s leading Bruckner conductors have been content to play Hass’s editions for decades. Actually, my difficulties with some of these performances stem not only from the editions but also from the nature of some of the performances.
The Third Symphony is played in the 1889 revision to which the conductor himself made some slight modifications. Mark Kluge says of the performance that it’s “hard driven, in some places mercurial, hardly an exemplar of Kna’s reputation for massive tempi.” The first movement is blazing and exciting at times. Kluge tells us that Kna loved this symphony and the affectionate yet strongly phrased reading of the second movement surely evidences that. The scherzo is fast and fiery though the trio sounds a bit untidy at times - this isn’t the only time that the playing is fallible. The interpretation of the finale tends towards volatility and it sounds to me as if the orchestra is caught on the hop a few times. I’m afraid the concluding major key peroration comes across as blatantly grandiose - but, then, it’s not the most subtle passage in Bruckner. The sound quality isn’t at all bad for a recording that’s nearly sixty years old, though the middle of the orchestral spectrum is somewhat congested.
It’s not entirely clear from the notes but I infer that in the Fourth Symphony Kna uses the 1888 revision of the score, published the following year, rather than the 1878-80 version which is more commonly played these days. I don’t know whether it’s the fault of the edition or the interpretation - or a mixture of both - but I don’t feel the first movement quite coheres as it does with, say, Haitink or Wand. The scherzo is energetic but the orchestra isn’t always tidy and the trio is rather deliberate for my taste. The edition used is particularly problematic in this movement. I haven’t seen a score but there must be a substantial excision in the repeat of the scherzo: first time round the music plays for 4:22 but after the trio the resumed scherzo is a full minute shorter, which is a nonsense. I’m afraid I heartily dislike several aspects of Kna’s way with the finale. For example, before the first great tutti (at 1:13) he makes an egregious accelerando before slamming on the brakes immediately before the full brass come in; it’s crude. That tutti itself is then taken at an elephantine speed. As the movement progresses there are variations in tempo too numerous to count - and who decided it would be a good idea to have a cymbal clash at 2:22? Later on, around 11:00, either the editor or the conductor has added some timpani rolls which serve no useful purpose so far as I can see. I can truly say I’ve never heard a performance like this of the movement and, frankly, I’d wearied of it long before the end.
The Fifth Symphony is presented in Franz Schalk’s revision of 1896, which included substantial cuts in the repeat of the scherzo and some cuts, one of them a massive one of 85 bars, in the finale. And Schalk reserved one ‘special surprise’ for the end! Kna conducts with great belief in the score and both the orchestral playing and the recorded sound are good. Yet again, however, the performance is peppered with speed changes. The second movement is taken at a surprisingly swift basic tempo yet overall the interpretation is convincing. As previously mentioned, the scherzo is disfigured by a huge cut; some four minutes of music are unheard second time around. The finale is even more the victim of the editor’s pencil and Mark Kluge relates that the Bruckner scholar, William Carragan, has said that the effect is to turn the movement into a vast prelude and fugue, followed by the chorale section and coda. For the last couple of minutes Schalk decided to maximise the impact of the concluding chorale and, reasoning that the brass players might be tired by this point, took it upon himself to add parts for another eleven brass instruments! Frankly, once all these brass players get going the rest of the orchestra might as well go home because they’re virtually inaudible; certainly that’s the case here.
Knappertsbusch presumably plays the Seventh Symphony from the first published score, though this isn’t explicitly stated in the notes. It would have been helpful if the edition used could have been shown against each symphony in the track listing, as many record companies do. Happily, this is one Bruckner symphony in which textual considerations matter less because the score wasn’t subject to much tinkering. This Knappertsbusch performance, given at the 1949 Salzburg Festival, is a fine one. He is spacious at the start of the first movement - impressively so - but as the movement unfolds he brings a welcome urgency to the music. His reading of the Adagio is broadly conceived and noble. As in the first movement, the Vienna Philharmonic offers some distinguished playing. The scherzo is mobile and powerful while the trio is affectionately phrased. Incidentally, there’s an unusually long pause both before and after the trio. The finale is majestic and convincing and, in summary, this is the best performance in the set. Given that it’s a live performance recorded over sixty years ago the sound is pretty good though it can be a bit shrill in louder passages and overall I don’t think it flatters the tone of the VPO brass.
Somewhat to my surprise - and relief - the account of the Eighth Symphony is also a rather distinguished one. I say that because I’d had such a disappointing encounter with Kna in this symphony (review) but here I suspect we get a more representative view of this conductor’s approach to this great symphonic edifice. Though timings aren’t always a reliable guide to interpretation it’s noticeable that this present traversal runs for over seven minutes longer than the 1955 performance that I reviewed. In my comments on that performance I frequently drew attention to places where I felt fences were being rushed. Even in this performance there are passages that made my eyebrows rise but they were far fewer. Though it’s not confirmed explicitly in the notes I assume from Mark Kluge’s comments that Kna uses the 1892 edition - as he did in the 1955 recording. This edition incorporates significant changes that Bruckner made to the first two movements between 1887 and 1890. However, it also incorporates some cuts and other changes visited on the score by Joseph Schalk and others which Haas rectified in his 1939 critical edition.
The first movement is interpretatively very good with no sign of the impetuosity which I felt marred the 1955 reading. That said, Kna is often urgent but that’s a different thing. Surprisingly, the performance suffers from a number of instances of fallibility on the part of the Berlin Philharmonic’s brass section. The second movement comes off well. The great Adagio is very spacious but the music can take it and Kna’s interpretation is dedicated and noble. The Berlin strings are very fine in this movement. I’m less happy with aspects of the finale. There are some instances where I really do question the judgement. Most seriously, around 6:16 there’s an appalling and frankly ugly accelerando for a few bars. At the same place there are a series of dynamic swellings which I’ve never heard from other conductors. Whether these are in the score that Kna used or are his idea I don’t know but either way they’re unwelcome. The accelerando in particular sounds like an unmusical rush of blood to the head. As the movement proceeds there are quite a number of dynamic changes, mostly in the form of small crescendi, which are not what we’re used to; they don’t seem to add much to the music, if anything they detract. In this finale there are many more modifications of tempo than we have experienced in the preceding movements and I can’t help feeling that these rather militate against the structure of the movement. However, there’s also much to admire and I’m glad to have heard this performance of the symphony as a whole as a corrective to the 1955 performance.
The Ninth Symphony is played in the 1903 edition by Ferdinand Löwe and this revision - made after Bruckner’s death - is textually the most objectionable of all. Its use here is particularly regrettable since this was the first symphony to benefit from a critical edition, as early as 1932 so that score had been available for some 18 years by the time of this performance. Kna’s reading of the first movement is often impressive though the BPO’s playing is not always accurate. However, there are the usual instances of his flexibility of tempo - which I feel can produce instability. The start of the scherzo will make you sit up. Ferdinand Löwe thought it would be a good idea to get the flute and bassoon to join in the string pizzicato passage to “help out”. It’s rather a shock to the system to hear it. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on I didn’t really care for Kna’s performance of the scherzo material but he treats the trio delicately, which I like. The finale poses problems. There are a number of dynamic “swellings” which I think are hideous - I presume this is Löwe’s work. Instances occur at 1:40 - 1:50, around 11:38 and elsewhere. Though Kna conducts the movement well his interpretation is ill-served by Löwe’s editorial vandalism which smoothes over and misguidedly sanitises the granite implacability and originality of Bruckner’s writing. The very last climax (18:20 - 19:00) is very imposing in Kna’s hands but it’s wrecked by Löwe’s “improvements.
For this reissue Music & Arts have added some Wagner ‘bleeding chunks’, which are all well worth hearing. Kna conducts a surging account of Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and the Funeral March fromGötterdämmerung is splendidly intense. The excerpt from what is, I believe, a complete performance of Siegfried has all manner of stage noises and the sound is rather boxy but you soon forget all that because the performance itself is very good indeed. Bernd Aldenhoff is a ringing Siegfried while Otto von Rohr is splendidly cavernous of voice as Fafner. Kna conducts with electrifying intensity. In the excerpt from Die Walküre, also from a complete staging, I think, we hear Aldenhoff again, this time as a fine Siegmund while Maud Cunitz offers some tremendously intense singing as Sieglinde. Once again Knappertsbusch is a formidable presence in the pit.
In his review of the first issue of this box Tony Duggan had this to say: “These recordings are not and can never be first choice recommendations for any of these works. The score question is in the end too problematic; Knappertsbusch is too particular a conductor and the quality of the sound too variable for that. These are more for the dedicated enthusiast both of Bruckner, of performance history in general and for people to whom perfection in sound and orchestral execution is a secondary consideration. But the number of such people is large and Music and Arts must be congratulated for their enterprise in bringing this set out and in such excellent style.”
I think that’s a fair summary in many respects and collectors will find that in general Tony responded more positively to some of the performances than I did. I was impressed by the Seventh and found much to admire in the Third and Eighth. On the other hand there are significant problems, many of them textual, with the Fourth, Fifth and Ninth. It’s been an interesting experience to hear these performance but I think that Günter Wand, Bernard Haitink and - sorry, Mr Kluge - Robert Haas are more reliable guides to Bruckner and I think that I’ll stick with them.
Knappertsbusch’s Bruckner performances are more for specialist collectors.
see also review by Jonathan Woolf