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Great Wagner Conductors: A Listener’s Companion Jonathan Brown
820pp incl Preface, Acknowledgements, Selected Bibliography, Discography, Index
First published 2012; hardback format UK £37/US $55 Parrot Press, Canberra, Australia.
In this day of downloads, clouds, apps, Kindle and paperbacks it is good to hold a solid, heavy hardback in the hand. Such is this hefty tome which Jonathan Brown (former diplomat and international lawyer, author of two critical discographies, Parsifal on Record and Tristan und Isolde on Record) has written for discographers, record collectors and the music-lover with an interest in conductors. It bears the caveat, however, that Wagner is the only composer under discussion. That brings one to the use of the word ‘Great’ in the title. Always a hard one to define but helped here if the reader does not lose sight of the fact that we are only dealing with the music of Wagner in which these 23 conductors Brown says excelled. On what evidence? If we take their recording legacy we immediately lose the following from that list; Wagner, von Bülow, Richter, Mottl, Levi and Seidl all of whom never recorded, while Muck and Coates only left excerpts from Wagner’s works, Mahler made four piano rolls of his own music and Nikisch did nothing by Wagner except to accompany one of the Wesendonck Lieder at the piano. We have therefore only the written word to draw upon as a source of defining the good, bad and indifferent Wagner performances which took place over the course of a century beginning in the mid-1860s. Those written words are to be found largely in reviews, whether of live performances or (in the second half of the period) commercial records and the one positive to take away is that the century under discussion was a golden era for music criticism in journals and newspapers, from Shaw to Newman in England and from Huneker to Aldrich in the USA. German reviews are also sourced though the inter-War years are tainted by the growing Nazi propaganda in both Austria and Germany.
As I know myself (as Hans Richter’s biographer) it’s devilish hard to convey the quality of a performance or conducting style in words and without music examples but Brown sets to and argues many a convincing case. There are some surprises. Knappertsbusch, despite his reputation as a giant among Wagner conductors, could be extremely good and extremely bad - in other words he was human. Brown describes his 23 July 1960 Meistersinger as ‘quite the worst in [his] discography. Although it is one of the longest performances on record, many crucial parts are taken at a literally breathtaking speed. The prelude to act three is taken at such a reckless pace that one wonders whether [he] had received bad news in the interval’. Knappertsbusch was a musician easily bored and whose performances could therefore be dull. He hated rehearsing and loathed the recording process of seemingly endless repetition. On the other hand, Ernest Newman in his Sunday Times review of the 1951 Bayreuth Festival performances of Parsifal wrote that Knappertsbusch gave ‘the best Parsifal I have ever seen’. According to Wolfgang Wagner (one of the composer’s grandsons) the opera may have been conducted by Kna’ but it was Karajan who rehearsed it. It’s hard to imagine Karajan rehearsing anything for another conductor.
Another who had little time for recording was Erich Kleiber. In a 1929 interview he pointed out that ‘the bad thing about a record is that it fixes forever a certain performance, a unique emotional moment, when really never two musical performances are the same’. Kleiber likens a record to ‘canned music. A man who listens to records in a phonograph and does not go to concerts is like one who eats canned meals … it’s good for people to eat fresh food’. Apart from the usual canards Kleiber makes an interesting observation of the technological limitations of the day that ‘slow tempi and pauses do not come out well. For example at the beginning of the Tristan Prelude [which he never recorded], after the first sigh of the cellos, there’s a silence written by Wagner. It is not possible to do it on records. Instead of silence you hear the needle noise’.
An unlikely ‘Great’ was Karl Böhm, probably more renowned for his performances of operas by Strauss and Mozart, but Brown gives us a vivid description of his non-commercial recording from Bayreuth of Tristan in 1966. Böhm had insisted on using live takes: ‘The work must have a single intensification from the opening notes to the end of the Liebestod’ Brown draws attention to other recordings made between 1962 and 1970 by Böhm of Tristan which are more electrifying. Böhm himself recalled the 1964 first night as one which was ‘so brilliant, so thrilling, that at the conductor’s desk I sometimes had to be careful not to be swept away’. Richard Strauss, like Knappertsbusch, was prone to boredom. Beecham - a curious absentee from the list as is Siegfried Wagner, Blech or Mengelberg - described him as ‘the most accomplished conductor since Nikisch - when he was in the right mood’. His Tristan was light years from that of Böhm. Max Graf recalled how ‘after a particularly thrilling first act of Tristan Strauss said “Feel me here” and placed my hand on his armpit. “Absolutely dry! I can’t stand conductors who perspire!” The events in post-1933 Germany/Austria inevitably get in the way of an objective view of conductors who stayed such as Strauss, Furtwängler and Krauss, nor should excuses be made for the opportunism of some if not all of them. It must, however, not be forgotten that Strauss was in his seventies from 1934 and resisted the upheaval (if it was ever mooted) of emigration. One who did flee and with drastic results upon his career was Klemperer, another conductor who ‘would prefer to record a performance than make a recording in a studio … A few mistakes don’t matter’, he told his biographer Peter Heyworth.
This reviewer was particularly pleased to see the inclusion of Albert Coates, underrated for too long as a conductor and whilst his performances post-1918 of Russian opera at Covent Garden remain legendary, so his reputation as a conductor of Wagner’s music was no less memorable. He was a protégé of Nikisch with whom he studied at Leipzig and where he secured his first operatic conducting experience. From 1910-1915 he served at the Imperial Mariinsky Opera in St Petersburg and as luck would have it, was an employee of the doomed German Tsarina, who demanded more performances of Wagner until all German music was banned because of the war. He spent the inter-war years in England but was never fully accepted, Somehow he did not qualify as the foreign-sounding-name-therefore-must-be-good-artiste, though a review in the Star of his 1914 Meistersinger at Covent Garden did comment that ‘Mr Albert Coates has very decidedly made his mark here, in spite of his English name’. The Second World War was spent in America but his career did not catch fire and his wanderings finally ended in South Africa 1946-1953, where the high altitude of Johannesburg and Pretoria exacerbated the heart disease which killed him at 71. He was physically huge, his hands seemingly encompassing his orchestra, however large and by his lack of restraint and his manifest passion he was the antithesis of Richard Strauss and sweated heavily.
There are other happy revelations; Artur Bodanzky and Fritz Busch for example. Busch, was a democrat and pacifist, fled Dresden to work principally in Argentina but also at Glyndebourne where, ironically, he is said to have persuaded its founder/owner that the size of the house meant Mozart rather than Wagner. There are photos on p.410 of Busch in the pit there rehearsing Mozart rather than the Meistersinger with which Christie had wanted to open the first Festival in 1934. Busch, a fine musician, did his final Wagnerian work at New York’s Met 1945-1949 where he conducted 51 performances of four Wagner operas. Thirty years before in 1915, Bodanzky - who played violin under Mahler in Vienna and thoroughly absorbed what he saw and heard - made his debut at the Met, where he went on to conduct 584 performances of ten Wagner operas in his 24 years there. These are statistics worthy of Hans Richter, who between 1868 and 1912 conducted 899 performances of nine Wagner operas (he never conducted Parsifal), making an average of 20 Wagner operas per year over those 44 years. More striking are the 348 performances among them of the four components of the Ring tetralogy, the equivalent of 87 cycles though many were single performances. The thought that also among those 899 were 198 Lohengrins, 141 Meistersingers and 123 Walküre is only cause for regret that none of them was ever recorded nor could they have been.
Jonathan Brown has produced a fascinating study and approaches his task with enthusiasm, care and thoroughness. For the bespectacled it is not an easy read; the font is a size too small, making the many quotes in the text and substantial footnotes even smaller and user-unfriendly. On the matter of footnotes, they are packed full of interesting information and most should have gone into the text itself. This is positive criticism and I would not be surprised to learn that it was a cost issue which took it out of the author’s hands by the publisher’s editorial or production team. Assuredly the book would have been that much more substantial in size and density.
Why not a sequel entitled Great Wagner Conductors of the Twentieth Century? Solti, Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Goodall, Kempe, Levine and Barenboim would do for starters.
Table of contents
Part 1: Setting the Stage
1. The case of Richard Wagner
Part 2: Wagner’s Pupils
2. Hans von Bülow: His Master’s Ideal
3. Hans Richter: His Master’s Musician
4. Anton Seidl: His Master’s Apostle
Part 3: Early Bayreuth Masters
5. Hermann Levi: Keeper of the Grail
6. Felix Mottl: ‘Death-devoted heart’
7. Karl Muck: Knight of the Grail
Part 4: A Touch of Russia
8. Arthur Nikisch: Apollo in Valhalla
9. Albert Coates: Bacchus in Valhalla
Part 5: Vienna Lights
10. Gustav Mahler: Fanatical idealist
11. Felix Weingartner: Master of tempo
12. Bruno Walter: Singer in the pit
Part 6: Americafelix
13. Arturo Toscanini: Maestro in control
14. Artur Bodansky: Mahler’s disciple
Part 7: The German Heartland
15.Wilhelm Furtwängler: Wagner’s symphonist
16. Fritz Busch: Wagnerian cast adrift
17. Erich Kleiber: Universal conductor
Part 8: Late Pickings
18. Hans Knappertsbusch: Heavyweight of Bayreuth
19. Clemens Krauss: Fleet-footed Wagnerian
20. Karl Böhm: Light at the end
Part 9: Outsiders
21. Richard Strauss: “Enjoying himself”
22. Otto Klemperer: Flashes from the dark
23. Fritz Reiner: Keeping it clean
Part 10: Discographies
The 23 composers listed above but in alphabetical order
Sources of illustrations
List of operas and major excerpts covered in the Discographies