FORGOTTEN ARTISTS - An occasional series by Christopher Howell
8. HANS SWAROWSKY (1899-1975)
Before researching this article I reflected on what I knew about Hans Swarowsky. Three things came to mind.
The first is what everybody remembers. He was a much appreciated, even revered teacher of conducting whose pupils included Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta and Giuseppe Sinopoli. Somewhat lower down the scale of fame, a fellow-student of mine at Edinburgh University did a summer course with him in the 1970s and was enraptured by the experience. My colleague ended his course by conducting a movement of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in a Viennese church, so evidently the Swarowsky method threw the student in at the deep end with plenty of practice as well as theory.
The second was that Swarowsky had been, for a short period, the immediate predecessor of Sir Alexander Gibson as principal conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra (not yet Royal). By the time I came to Edinburgh in 1971 Gibson was well into his long reign (1959-1984). Stories were rife about how dire the SNO was before Gibson took over. These were the early years of the Scottish National Party – Edinburgh was plastered with stickers proclaiming “It’s Scotland’s Oil” – and a well-organized publicity machine had it that the SNO had had nothing but a long run of mediocre Austro-German conductors whose supply had run dry, enabling a fighting Scot to take over and put it on the map. One day it would be interesting to examine the earlier years of the SNO – originally just the Scottish Orchestra. Gibson’s predecessors included a number of figures, such as Talich, Golschmann, Barbirolli, Szell and Susskind, who wouldn’t have thanked you for calling them Austro-German. And if they suddenly became mediocre in Scotland when they were assuredly not so elsewhere, it would be interesting to know why. Any such study would depend heavily on the local press, however. To the best of my knowledge no records were made by the SNO prior to the Gibson era. All the conductors named, like Swarowsky and most others in the orchestra’s pre-Gibson history, had very short tenures, so it is unsurprising if they made little impact. It would nevertheless be interesting to hear from any reader with Scottish memories of Swarowsky, Rankl, Susskind or Warwick Braithwaite.
The third thing that stuck in my mind was a letter to the “Opera” magazine. Unfortunately I don’t seem to have kept the issue in question so I can only refer to it from memory. It was from a reader who had been present at the sessions for Swarowsky’s “Don Giovanni” in 1950, with Mariano Stabile as the Don. In the duet “Là ci darem la mano”, the singers had expected to make the customary – but not actually marked – increase of tempo for the 6/8 section. Swarowsky rapped the music-stand angrily with his baton. “Mozart has written no change of tempo AND THERE WILL BE NO CHANGE OF TEMPO”. The reader thought this awfully obtuse and wished he could have intervened. This memory, as we will see below, does not quite tally with what happens on the record. But the point is that the name of Swarowsky became associated, for me, with dry pedantry. I did rather wonder, before I started gathering together the records and listening, whether I was going to enjoy myself very much. As the reader will see, it didn’t turn out like that.
Swarowsky’s career is quickly related. Born in Budapest on 16th September 1899, he was of Jewish descent. He soon moved to Vienna, where he studied musical theory with Schoenberg and Webern, and conducting with Weingartner and Richard Strauss. It is probably significant that his early influences combined the avant-garde with interpreters of a more traditional, less abrasive persuasion. We will find, in fact, during the following discussion, a Swarowsky allied with such fellow Schoenberg disciples as Scherchen and Leibowitz, vigorously committed to cleaning up the scores of traditional accretions. But we will also find that he does not carry this mission to the same extreme as the two conductors I have named, tempering his rigour with a more equable sense of balance which he may have owed to Weingartner.
Swarowsky took up few permanent conducting posts, and did not remain long in any of them. He was with Zurich Opera from 1937 to 1940, headed the Cracow Philharmonic from 1944 to 1945, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra from 1945 to 1947 and the Scottish National Orchestra from 1957 to 1959. In 1959 Karajan called upon his services as a staff conductor of the Vienna State Opera. This wasn’t quite the honour it sounds, since Karajan liked to have subordinates who would do a tidy competent job – anyone remember Sylvia Caduff? – but who wouldn’t have the stature to set up an alternative power base.
But, while Swarowsky’s conducting appointments were few and short, he was for many years professor of conducting at Vienna Music Academy. Apart from the already-mentioned Abbado, Mehta and Sinopoli, other pupils included Paul Angerer, Miltiades Caridis, Gabriel Chmura, Jacques Delacote, Bryan Fairfax, Adam Fischer, Ivan Fischer, Gianluigi Gelmetti, Theodor Guschlbauer, Mariss Jansons, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, Albert Rosen, Peter Schneider, Mario Venzago, Bruno Weil and Hans Zanotelli. His writings on music and conducting have been collected into a volume, edited by his pupil Manfred Huss, entitled “Wahrung der Gestalt” (1979). A few extracts to be found on internet show him to have been fanatically drawn towards tempo relationships. He lists a separate metronome mark, for example, for every change of gear within an accompanied recitative from “Don Giovanni”.
The impression builds up of a man content to remain a locally based professor – not such a bad thing when the locality in question is Vienna – and for whom conducting was almost a sideline. One episode that contradicts the impression that he lacked career drive, though, is that of his “Ring” recording. This took place during the brief period of the “Prague Spring”, when the opening up of cheap recording facilities in Czechoslovakia enabled him to set down a complete recording of Wagner’s cycle. A pick-up orchestra contained some moonlighting members of the Czech Philharmonic and sessions took place bit by bit as funds permitted. The work was finished just in time, as the illusory Czech freedom was brutally cut short and the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague.
I have not listened to this “Ring”, which actually seems to be more accessible than many other Swarowsky recordings, since I feel I am not the proper person to comment on performances of this work. Looking at various discussions, I find a majority opinion which holds that the ramshackle playing of the pick-up band and the unevenness of the equally pick-up cast rule it out of serious consideration. However, a minority view maintains that Swarowsky’s control over tempo relationships overrides these drawbacks to create one of the most satisfying recordings of all. Given Swarowsky’s concern for tempo relationships, one may surmise that he undertook such an enterprise, though knowing full well that neither his orchestra nor his cast could possibly match the recently-completed Solti and Karajan recordings, because he was convinced that others were getting these relationships wrong and he wanted people to hear the right ones. But, as I stated above, I would not be the proper person to judge whether he succeeded in his intent.
Swarowsky suffered a stroke shortly after recording Mahler’s 4th Symphony with the Czech Philharmonic in 1972. He died on 10th September 1975.
Real and fake recordings, mysterious orchestras
You will find it stated by one of my MusicWeb International colleagues that Swarowsky left very few recordings. As the following discussion will show, I have managed to assemble quite a lot, and I have by no means heard all he made. One thing stands out: apart from the very few recordings for Supraphon with the Czech Philharmonic at the end of his life, Swarowsky worked for minor, low-budget labels – Vox, Urania, Concert Hall – and with less than top-notch orchestras whose identity is not always clear, variously described as the Vienna Pro Musica Orchestra, the Vienna State Philharmonia Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmusica Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna State Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Festival Orchestra and even the “Music Treasures Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra”. Just to make matters more complicated still, one of the prime sources for Swarowsky downloads, David Gideon’s ReDiscovery site, has systematically renamed Vienna Festival orchestra recordings as the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, since Mr. Gideon is convinced the orchestra was basically that. Other commentators, such as René Gagnaux, whose site Mon Musée Musical also has some major Swarowsky offerings, feel it was not so simple. By the later 1950s the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, available practically night and day in the immediate post-war years, had become Karajan’s fiefdom. Nominally, it was no longer so readily available, but Karajan recorded practically nothing with them and they still needed the money ... Another possibility was that, when a recording was to be made, a series of phone-calls was made to members of the VSOO, the VSO plus a few free-lancers. If they were lucky, they might get the Vienna State Opera Orchestra almost intact. Or the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Or they might get a more motley crew. Certainly, the quality of the Viennese bands on these records varies considerably, as does the apparent number of strings, which sometimes seem pretty thin on the ground.
Nevertheless, over the years Swarowsky built up quite a large, if rather bitty, discography. Just how large, though, is another vexed question, thanks to the activities of Alfred Scholz. Scholz had studied conducting with Swarowsky and created a low-budget recording enterprise of his own. He seems to have done most of the conducting himself, but preferred to issue his efforts under other names. Some were pure invention but he evidently felt that a few “real” names would lend veracity to his project. No doubt he concluded that invoking in vain the great names of Karajan or Solti would have brought the full majesty of the law on his head. He judged, correctly as it transpired, that Hans Swarowsky, however dismayed he might have been at the turn of events, was not the man to go in for costly litigation. So some of the later Swarowsky recordings may not be the conductor’s work at all. John Berky’s Bruckner site lists “Swarowsky” recordings of Bruckner’s 2nd and 6th symphonies which, Berky is convinced, are not conducted by Swarowsky. Berky even provides a list of all the Bruckner performances Swarowsky is known to have given, and it seems that he never conducted those two particular symphonies at all. If you fancy doing some detective work, you can download the 2nd from Mr. Berky’s site. Equally suspiciously, I note that a recording is listed of Beethoven’s 2nd and 5th symphonies, one conducted by the Scholz, the other conducted by Swarowsky. One is bound to wonder if Swarowsky really did conduct one of them.
To the best of my knowledge, all the recordings I discuss below are in the clear. As always in this series, my thanks go to the indefatigable bloggers who have made this out-of-copyright material available. ReDiscovery and Mon Musée Musical have already been mentioned. Random Classics, the European Archive and Yayo Salva have also provided interesting material.
It is clear from the first chorus of the Christmas Oratorio that this performance, set down for Concert Hall in the 1960s, will have nothing to do with long legato or thick textures. It dances along buoyantly and radiantly and sets the tone for all that follows. When the Evangelist enters – Kurt Equiluz, who was a much sought-after Bach tenor in those days – he offers a light, conversational delivery. There is none of the preciousness we used to get in the part. Swarowsky has a small chamber organ with the continuo cello, quite unsanctimonious in its dulcet timbre. In recitatives and arias, appoggiaturas are properly supplied when grammatically necessary. There is even a vocal cadenza or two in “Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde”. In spite of the complexity of much of the writing, Swarowsky manages to find a tone of folk-like simplicity in the music.
The soloists are all good. British listeners will be attracted by the name of the soprano Heather Harper and her lustrous tone and easy delivery are all they could wish for. But in truth, there are no weak links. The other soloists are Ruth Hesse (contralto), Thomas Page (tenor) and Keith Engen (bass). I listened enthralled and moved to the end of the fifth part. In the last part, I wondered if the performance falls victim to its own virtues. Swarowsky’s tempo for “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen” seems more of an allegretto than “Largo e staccato” as marked. Heather Harper brings it off but I wondered if the time had not come to dig a little more deeply. Up till now the music has been about shepherds, mangers, angels and the like, but now it touches rawer emotions, or would if allowed to. The final chorus, too, seems rather to jog along when we could go out on a blaze of glory. Some may not agree. Maybe I want to impose on this last part the sort of 19th century grandeur Swarowsky is at pains to avoid.
Whatever, by and large this traversal represents Bach interpretation at its best at a time of transition between the pre-war romantic ethos and Historically Informed Performance. If you’re not completely sold on HIP it could still be the one for you, and the recording itself, as transferred by David Gideon of ReDiscovery, still sounds splendid. The chorus and orchestra are described as the Vienna Chamber Choir and the “Vienna State Symphony Orchestra”.
Swarowsky also set down the St. Matthew Passion for Concert Hall at about the same time and, with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, at least three Brandenburg Concertos.
MOZART AND HAYDN
Swarowsky set down Don Giovanni in 1950 with Mariano Stabile (Don Giovanni), Alois Pernerstorfer (Leporello), Gertrud Grob-Prandl (Donna Anna), Herbert Handt (Don Ottavio), Hilde Konetzni (Donna Elvira), Alfred Poell (Masetto), Hedda Heusser (Zerlina), Oskar von Czerwenka (Commendatore), Kurt Rapf (harpsichord), the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Nixa HLP 2030-4).
I don’t normally comment on sources and quality when I have obtained the recording via a free download, but readers are warned that the transfer of this Don Giovanni accessible at the European Archive is a gift horse whose mouth needs careful examination. The copies used had obviously seen much active service and the stylus skids through the first part of the overture, as well the beginning of two other sides. There’s a Preiser CD transfer that you might be able to find.
The performance is complete but the edition used is pure Prague, that is to say without the considerable material Mozart added later. An appendix gives us the two best-loved arias from Mozart’s Vienna revision – Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” and Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradì” with its preceding accompanied recitative.
When reputable critics of the 1950s – Ernest Sackville-West and Desmond Shaw-Taylor in “The Record Guide” (1955 edition) – say of a Mozart opera performance that “the conductor’s handling of the music is often pedestrian and insensitive, and his tempi unconvincing”, the modern reader might take comfort more than anything else, suspecting the recipe for a proto-HIP interpretation. In some respects they would be right, for Swarowsky keeps things moving pretty swiftly, has the wind well to the fore and produces a lean, unromantic sound. The two finales have a fine impetus. But it has to be said that some tempi are too fast, at least for non-Italian singers. In “Giovinette che fate all’amore” the company struggles to keep up. I say “non-Italian singers” because in the Don Giovanni-Leporello duet “Eh via buffone” we can hear that, though the tempo is certainly very fast, Stabile can make it work while Pernerstorfer is hard-pressed. Similarly, in the sextet Swarowsky occasionally has to hold back his swift, but not unreasonable tempo, to prevent Leporello from falling behind.
Oddly enough, in spite of the “Opera” correspondent’s memories quoted at the beginning of this article, in “Là ci darem” the 6/8 section is allowed to move ahead at the “normal” tempo. However, in the analogous situation in Zerlina’s “Batti, batti” Swarowsky goes by the book and plods through the 6/8 section with the same beat to the half-bar as in the previous 2/4 section. Either the correspondent confused the arias or – more likely – Stabile, with all the weight of his years and authority, got his way in the end while the less experienced Hedda Heusser just had to shut up and toe the line.
There are indeed signs that Stabile and Swarowsky didn’t always see eye to eye. In the Leporello-Don recitatives the Leporello regularly sings appoggiaturas – about the one thing right in his performance – while Stabile will have none of it. In revenge, Swarowsky dashes through the champagne aria at a pace even Stabile can hardly manage and has the mandolin adopt an angry, waspish manner in the serenade. Nevertheless, this is Stabile’s show and the set preserves a famous impersonation, scarcely touched by his relatively advanced years.
Pernerstorfer’s Leporello is a prime liability, singing with a stiff military cut that is all the more obvious in his many exchanges with the Don. The suspicion arises that this stiffness is actually an ill-advised attempt at characterization, since he sings with more flexibility and suavity when he is pretending to be his master. But it remains unsatisfactory nevertheless.
Some famous names grace the two Donnas but, it must be said, it was not for their Mozart that they were famous. And, while Grob-Prandl was in her prime, Konetzni had seen better years. Her best performance comes in the appendix aria, “Mi tradì”. Perhaps because it was outside the opera proper, Swarowsky allows her a relaxed tempo and it’s a nice piece of singing, though barely characterized in any way. But then, she has established a rather passive character throughout. Grob-Prandl offers a more assertive presence – perhaps they should have exchanged roles. She manages for much of the time to avoid the feeling that her voice is too large for the part, but there are some unwieldy moments nonetheless.
Herbert Handt made a reputation as a useful artist, willing to take on parts in lesser-known operas. But it cannot be said that his voice, here, is particularly attractive or expressive. The Zerlina and Masetto make more impression in their recitatives than in their arias. The Commendatore is suitably impressive.
The presence of Mariano Stabile has led to this being one of the better-known Swarowsky recordings but in truth, it is very far from showing him to best advantage. For a proto-HIP Don Giovanni from the 1950s, you’d do better to investigate the Cetra recording under Max Rudolf, with Taddei as the Don.
Mozart playing of a far higher order is to be found in the two Flute Concertos which were set down in 1953 with Camillo Wanausek and the “Vienna Pro Musica Orchestra” (Vox PL8131).
Wanausek and Swarowsky seem to have all the time in the world to let the first two movements of K.313 unfold – the second movement is particularly ravishing. Their tempo for the finale is so slow my jaw dropped when I heard it begin. But it is supposed to be a minuet tempo, after all, and as it wended along its leisurely – but beautifully-nuanced – way I found myself actually engaging more than usual with a movement that can sometimes sound rather pat.
Just to give an idea, here are a few timings. The Gazzelloni is an off-the-air recording I happened to have. It shows that the second movement can go slower still. I’ve added a representative version by a present-day flautist (on BIS) and a typical version – made for Classics for Pleasure – from the late 1970s. Wanausek and Swarowsky are appreciably slower than the others in the first movement, radically so in the finale. These timings don’t take into account the different cadenzas used, which are actually quite short in Wanausek’s case.
Flute Concerto 1 I II III TT Wanausek/Swarowsky 09.12 08:42 09.33 26.57 Gazzelloni/Maag (Rome 1976) 07:52 10:34 06:44 25:10 Bezaly/Kangas 08:14 08:33 06:48 23:38 Adeney/Leppard 08:50 08:24 07:25 24:39
In the second concerto, Wanausek and Swarowsky are slower than my comparisons – by all of one second! I’ve added two versions by the young Aurèle Nicolet which I’ve recently discussed in my articles on Swoboda and Desarzens. The difference between Nicolet’s two second movements suggests that conductors influence these matters more than one might suppose. It will not be surprising to find that Wanausek and Swarowsky have the slowest finale, but it is interesting to note that the Celibidache-conducted one is the fastest. And, if Gazzelloni and Celibidache are unsurprisingly the slowest in the second movement, I have a recording of the oboe version – the same music but a tone lower – by Hans Stotijn and Wilhelm Loibner that stretches this movement to exactly eight minutes.
Flute Concerto 2 I II III TT Wanausek/Swarowsky 07:33 06:29 05:40 19:42 Gazzelloni/Celibidache (Turin) 07:29 07:10 05:02 19:41 Bezaly/Kangas 07:18 06:22 05:24 19:09 Adeney/Leppard 07:00 06:50 05:11 19:01 Nicolet/Swoboda 07:58 04:44 05:24 18:06 Nicolet/Desarzens 07:36 06:29 05:10 19:15
I must say, though, that Wanausek’s and Swarowsky’s unhurried approach, while never heavy, reaps fewer dividends in this concerto, which is inherently more lightweight than K.313. The recording still sounds well.
The already-mentioned and once-revered “Record Guide” by Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor is mostly notable today for its wholesale trashing of many records that have since stood the test of time. But they didn’t always see red, and had this to say about the present disc, to which they awarded two stars:
“The flautist Camillo Wanausek is a player .... whom we have no hesitation in describing, simply on recorded evidence, as great. He is a peerless Mozartian stylist, the shaping and colouring of whose phrases is hauntingly beautiful. His tone is rounded and full, vibrant when passion is called for, but always clean and pure, never plummy or breathy. If anyone doubts this, let him hear the slow movement of the G major concerto, K.313. If this is not Mozartian perfection, then such perfection is unattainable in this world”.
I entitled this section “Mozart and Haydn” rather than the other way round, as would be more normal, because – despite the beauties of the flute concertos – it seems to me that Swarowsky made a better, and more important, showing in Haydn.
He wasn’t quite the first to set down Haydn’s First Symphony – that honour went to the American conductor Jonathan Sternberg – but he was an early and strong advocate for it. A harpsichord continuo in such an early Haydn recording is an unexpected treat, too. Swarowsky seems to want to convince us by sheer vehemence that this youthful piece is already a masterpiece. His tough first movement reaps some dividends. His energetically striding Andante sounds frog-marched at times. One appreciates his rejection of “Papa Haydn”, but here, and maybe in the finale too, a little charm would have brought light and shade to the proceedings.
This performance shared a disc with Haydn’s Symphony no.45 – “Farewell”. Here a very tough, terse – and repeat-less – first movement is followed by a plain-speaking but strongly felt Adagio. The harmonic surprises of the Minuet are brought home forcibly and the Finale certainly establishes that the gradual removal of the players is not just one of Haydn’s jokes. The whole symphony emerges as a masterpiece of protest and certainly responds better to the Swarowsky treatment than no. 1. The orchestra is the Vienna Symphony (Supraphon LPV-78 VM 201).
Swarowsky made a number of other Haydn symphony recordings. Available from Mon Musée Musical, too, is a February 1962 broadcast of Haydn’s Symphony no. 93 with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. It is a magnificently fiery performance, grand but also delicate where required. Considerable work has evidently been done over phrasing and dynamics. Haydn acquires an almost Beethovenian stature. The recording is extremely good.
With Adolf Holler as soloist and the “Vienna Philharmusica Symphony Orchestra”, Swarowsky gave a glorious performance of Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. This late work is invested with a sense of air-borne serenity, made possible by a soloist with the sort of graceful control over dynamics and phrasing we would expect from an oboist or a clarinettist but cannot always take for granted from a trumpeter (Saga XID 5421).
Haydn’s “Nelson Mass” gets a punchy, even stormy reading with the Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra in attendance. Swarowsky’s rejection of anything approaching 19th century sanctimoniousness keeps everyone on their toes. But the blazing conviction he brings to, for example, the beginning and end of the Credo, combines with a reluctance to allow any tempo slower than an allegretto or any dynamics below a mezzo piano. He has a staunch ally in Teresa Stich-Randall, who copes valiantly with the all-important soprano part. Her very straight timbre, without vibrato, is splendidly apt, but contrasts with the vibrato on offer from the choir. The bass, Nikolaus Simkowsky, is secure but ungainly. The mezzo, Nedda Casei, and the tenor, Kurt Equiluz, have lesser roles but sing well. This has a lot going for it, but isn’t quite one of Swarowsky’s revelatory performances (Nonesuch 71173).
What assures Swarowsky of an honoured place in the history of Haydn on record, however, is the performance he set down in December 1950 of Orfeo ed Euridice (L’Anima del Filosofo).
Back in 1955 “The Record Guide” could proclaim this as “one of the most ambitious enterprises in the whole gramophone repertory”. The star of the enterprise was really H. Robbins Landon and the Haydn Society, who reassembled Haydn’s last opera, long believed lost but actually dispersed with bits and pieces of its manuscript scattered around Europe. The first result was this recording, quickly followed by the première production of the opera at the 1951 Florence May Festival. The Florence cast was led by Maria Callas, Tyge Tygesen and Boris Christoff; the conductor was Erich Kleiber. The opera reached the UK in 1955 with a concert performance at the St. Pancras Festival. This was notable for the debut of Derek Hammond-Stroud. Another high-profile production came in 1967 when Joan Sutherland and Nicolai Gedda sang the leading roles – and more, since Sutherland also sang the Genie’s coloratura aria herself – in Vienna and at the Edinburgh Festival. In recent times, Orfeo has been staged in several cities with Cecilia Bartoli as the star. Bartoli has recorded it with Christopher Hogwood. Despite all this, the opera has never quite overcome the general perception that Haydn just wasn’t an opera composer. It has not entered the standard repertoire. Whatever the dramatic shortcomings, this 1950 recording should leave no doubt that, from a musical standpoint, this is late Haydn in consistently inspired form.
The last two decades have seen a thriving industry in the retrieval of “lost” Callas performances. So if no tape of the 1951 Florence production has emerged, I’m sure it’s not for want of looking. Presumably this, and the 1955 St. Pancras performance, if that matters, are lost to us. Sutherland’s 1967 Edinburgh performance has been located and issued. Meanwhile, Christoff repeated his Creonte for Italian Radio in 1957. This RAI performance was given in Milan, conducted by Ferruccio Scaglia. The other principal roles were taken by Onelia Fineschi and Francesco Calabrese. Fineschi is one of the several Italian sopranos who would have achieved far greater recognition in a context not dominated by Callas and Tebaldi. We can only speculate as to how far this 1957 performance may reflect, if dimly, its protagonists’ memories of the Callas/Kleiber production. You can hear on YouTube what purports to be a complete version of the RAI performance. In actual fact, only the first three acts are present, with a few not very serious cuts. On the assumption – perhaps mistaken – that the complete (if slightly cut) performance exists in the RAI archives in rather better sound than we hear on YouTube, an official issue would be worth considering. As a “historical” recording, it seems the most logical comparison for the Swarowsky.
The obvious draw for the RAI performance would be Christoff’s Creonte, of course. Nevertheless, Swarowsky’s Alfred Poell, a Vienna stalwart of the time, is excellent, offering firmly focused, authoritative tone and rounded, musical phrasing. Christoff has his own special timbre but, unusually for singers of the “big black Russian bass” type, this does not preclude refined tonal shading.
The star of the Swarowsky performance is Swarowsky himself. He appears in much more sympathetic light than in his Don Giovanni, reflecting what might be called the Scherchen/Leibowitz syndrome. That is to say, the curious process by which conductors – often pupils of Schoenberg – whose interpretations of standard repertoire often seem designed as polemical tirades against the traditional way of playing the music, become sweet reason itself when undertaking a score where no traditional way exists. Swarowsky does not choose tempi on the basis of some abstract principle – as one suspects he sometimes did in Don Giovanni. Every tempo seems to derive perfectly from the nature of the music itself. There is vitality, elegance, poetry and pathos as needed. Good work has also been done on the pacing of the recitatives. Furthermore, Swarowsky has his wind well forward and obtains light, well-articulated textures from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, far less old-fashioned than we might have expected at that date.
Less old-fashioned than we hear under Ferruccio Scaglia, for example. Nevertheless, Scaglia has his own validity. Whereas Swarowsky relates the music to Mozart, Scaglia draws parallels with the Gluck of Alceste. And he has the right singers for the job. In the all-important choral contributions the Vienna State Opera Chorus, for Swarowsky, make a better impression than Scaglia’s Milan RAI Chorus, though either way you get more vibrato than would be thought ideal today.
The weakness of Swarowsky’s recording has always been seen as Judith Hellweg’s Euridice. In recitatives and in slower music she actually has an attractive timbre, steady and light, and she phrases well. Thus far, her lieder-like manner is probably closer than RAI’s Onelia Fineschi to modern concepts. The problem is that, in the coloratura section of her first aria, she simply isn’t up to it.
Fineschi has a fuller, gleaming voice with a typical, but well-controlled, operatic vibrato. Furthermore, she has at least something of Callas’s ability to charge the voice with emotion. Her second act aria “Del mio core”, with its preceding accompanied recitative, could hardly be better done – though Hellweg is good here, too. But in her first act aria, come the coloratura and she can’t really do it either.
As Orfeo, Francesco Calabrese’s firm, Italianate timbre – but without ranting – is fundamentally more to my liking than that of Swarowsky’s Herbert Handt. Unfortunately, Calabrese emerges as well-schooled but not very interesting. Handt makes a far better impression than he did as Don Ottavio. The voice itself is soft-grained, but he has clearly thought a lot about how to express the music and his performance is much more involving.
Hedda Heusser, too, makes a better impression as the Genie than she did as Zerlina in Don Giovanni. Her tone is small but sweet and she gets through her virtuoso coloratura aria with only occasional signs of difficulty. Renata Ongaro, in the RAI version, also makes a fair stab at it, but with a less attractive voice.
Walter Berry sings the role of Pluto for Swarowsky. This has been claimed as his recording debut, but admirers are warned that the role is small and confined to recitative.
The recording seems to me fair for the date, though Jonathan Woolf, discussing a different transfer from the one I heard, was more critical. Jonathan also lamented the absence of a libretto. This seems to be an age-old problem with European issues of this set. “The Record Guide” regretted all those years ago that “the handsomely illustrated 88-page textbook issued in America cannot be made available by Nixa”. I found a libretto on the internet, but one relating to a recording (under Bonynge) which would seem to make a lot of cuts not made by Swarowsky, with the result that it is helpful only up to a point (Nixa HLP2029-2).
BEETHOVEN AND SCHUBERT
Swarowsky set down quite a few Beethoven symphonies at various times, though I’m not sure you could piece together a complete cycle of them. I’ve listened to Symphony no.8. It’s an excellent performance in the Weingartner tradition with swift but not hectic tempi, a firm hold on structure, including the first movement repeat, and no eccentricities. Swarowsky is particularly attentive to dynamic shading in the last movement, bringing out Beethoven’s unexpected twists and turns. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra play well and the recording is good mono, though without a very well-defined bass. I suppose the sheer “personality” of some more blazoned names is lacking, but I don’t want to give the idea that this is anonymous or “safe”. The playing really takes wing at times, such as in the later stages of the first movement development. It seems to me preferable to many better-known performances – Monteux and Szell spring to mind among its near contemporaries.
Mon Musée Musical offers a performance of BEETHOVEN’s Grosse Fuge, given in September 1962 with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. The version used is described as “transcribed by Weingartner”, though I am not quite sure what Weingartner’s contribution is supposed to consist of, or indeed, what any “transcriber” could do except decide when to have the double basses double the cellos and when not. Be that as it may, this is an extremely taut, fiery conception, with the more lyrical sections kept firmly moving and little inclination to use the expanded forces for extra weight. For what timings are worth, Swarowsky’s 15:55 compare with Klemperer’s 16:35, Boult’s 18:56 and Hindemith’s 21:35.To be fair, the latter two are live performances and the timing includes a bit of applause. Applause has been removed from the Swarowsky, which is also live. Comparison with string quartets may lead to different results: the Amadeus, for example, are ten seconds shorter than Swarowsky. Swarowsky’s performance is closer than most orchestral renditions to reproducing the effect of the piece in its original string quartet form and I think I would prefer it to Klemperer or Boult. The Hindemith, paradoxically, is an extremely interesting interpretation and his 1962 Rome performance would be worth issuing.
If Swarowsky’s Beethoven, in so far as I know it, seems to follow on from the Weingartner tradition, in SCHUBERT’s Symphony no.9 he throws up a deliberate challenge to received opinion.
The opening of this “Great C major” must have raised a good few eyebrows in its day. The horn gives a non-legato rendering of his theme and the tempo is very definitely in two. The introduction moves along with a full head of steam and does not need to accelerate into the Allegro, which has the half bar barely faster than the preceding quarter-bar. This is still fairly brisk, abetted by lean, energetic articulation. The second subject is kept right up to tempo, sounding bright and perky. The whole movement surges inevitably to a conclusion in which the opening theme is brought back without the slightest slackening of tempo.
If the remaining movements are less “original”, this is because they pose fewer interpretative problems and there is less accumulated romantic dross to blow away. The second movement is forward moving but not so much so as to preclude much sensitive playing. The scherzo is brisk but dancing and the trio fits into this tempo without the suggestion of relentlessness which sometimes results from up-to-tempo interpretations. The finale has terrific dash and fire.
A few general points. Of the versions known to me, the closest is that of Swarowsky’s fellow Schoenberg pupil René Leibowitz. Leibowitz, however, does not entirely avoid the impression that he is out to prove a point, whereas Swarowsky manages to sound natural. Certain venerated interpretations of the early post-war period, such as those of Böhm and Boult – and venerated for their supposed faithfulness to the score – sound romantically old-fashioned alongside Swarowsky, who also maintains the clarity of an enlarged post-Mozartian orchestra, rather than hinting at the Wagner to come. This is not to deny the attractions of Böhm and Boult, or indeed of the out-and-out romanticism of Furtwängler. However, ears attuned to today’s Historically Informed Performances may find a true pioneer in Swarowsky. They will, though, find him a bit short on repeats.
Listeners of whatever persuasion, however, must surely find that Swarowsky is in extraordinarily inspired form here. His tendency to produce good, straightforward – or simply straight – performances that fall short of actual greatness cannot disguise the fact that here, at least, he truly fires up the strangely-named “Music Treasures Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra” (World Record Treasures called it the “Vienna Festival Orchestra”). Quite frankly, this is a terrific, maybe even great, performance (Music Treasures MT 33-A).
Swarowsky also set down four extracts from SCHUBERT’s Rosamunde – the Overture, the Ballet in B minor, the Entr’acte in B flat and the Entr’acte in G
Unlike the complete “Rosamunde” under Dean Dixon which I have discussed in this series, and which opted for a dramatic approach, Swarowsky’s selection has the traditional “Zauberharfe” overture and distils fragile, evanescent atmospheres from the two Entr’actes. Swarowsky has his break with tradition too, though. At the coda of the overture, most conductors take the change of time signature to justify a new, faster tempo. But Schubert doesn’t actually say this, so Swarowsky continues with the same tempo for the half-bar. He does everything possible to avoid heaviness – everything, that is, except to speed up. I take his point, but I can’t help feeling that the music sounds as if it ought to be faster, the sort of brilliant coda it is under most other conductors.
Against expectations, Swarowsky allows slight tempo changes in the G major Entr’acte, which gets a particularly subtle interpretation. The orchestra is described as the “Vienna Festival Orchestra” and I must say, that if this is really the Vienna State Opera Orchestra or the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, they lent only a small number of strings for the occasion, and ensemble is not tight (World Record Treasures WRT T 24).
MENDELSSOHN, SCHUMANN AND BRAHMS
From MENDELSSOHN’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music Swarowsky gives us the obvious four pieces –the Overture, the Nocturne, the Scherzo and the Wedding March. The “Vienna Festival orchestra” are named once again on this Music Treasures issue.
We are told that Mendelssohn himself conducted his Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture so swiftly that he seemed to be whipping cream. Actually, the description tells us that he beat it in four, not two, so in reality his tempo may not have been so fast by post-Toscanini standards. It sounds as though Swarowsky has heeded this account. His tempo is not a world-beater but his phrasing is remarkably detailed and altogether this is one of the most pointed and vivacious readings I’ve heard. The Brucknerian breadth of the Nocturne took me rather by surprise, but it is so beautifully phrased, never heavy, that again, I enjoyed it more than almost ever before. The Scherzo is once more steady, but very characterful. The tempo allows sinister elements as well as charm. The Wedding March is fairly broad but buoyant and conveys mounting excitement. This is Swarowsky in a moment of rare inspiration. What a pity he did only these four pieces.
I don’t know how recent HIP-inspired performances have changed things, but for many years Swarowsky’s recording of SCHUMANN’s Symphony no.3 - “Rhenish”, with the “Vienna Festival Orchestra”, must have held the speed record for this work. Here are the timings compared with two other famously fast performances:
I II III IV V tt Boult 07:31 05:58 05:17 05:27 04:57 29:13 Dixon 08:45 05:46 04:47 05:27 04:48 29:36 Swarowsky 07:49 04:59 04:43 04:22 05:22 27:17
Swarowsky doesn’t quite match Boult’s mad career through the first movement, but there’s not much in it. His orchestra, like Boult’s LPO, is clearly under duress at times and things can get scrappy. Swarowsky brings it off with bounding vigour and by keeping the sound itself fairly light. In all his first three movements I was conscious of his determination to keep things going. The fourth movement benefits from being kept moving and the finale is light and joyful (World Record Club T19).
I rate all three of these performances very highly, but I do feel that the symphony gains from the extra spaciousness provided by René Leibowitz’s Readers’ Digest recording. This is still fast by many other standards, but by giving the music that much time to breathe, Leibowitz reveals more light and shade in it, avoiding the suggestion that Schumann himself is over-insistent.
Swarowsky set down at least one other Schumann symphony, the First, as well as the Piano Concerto in which he accompanies Walter Kamper. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra plays.
The original record sleeve identified the pianist as Anton Kamper and this is followed by David Gideon, whose fine-sounding transfer on ReDiscovery was my source for the performance. It has also been posted, in much less good sound, on You-Tube, leading to a discussion with some contributors who had actually studied with Kamper in Graz. From this it emerged that Anton Kamper was the pianist’s father and a violinist. Walter Kamper seems to have been thoroughly disliked as a personality and those joining the discussion felt he did more harm than good as a teacher. In one case the student’s parents felt obliged to remove their son from his influence. Having suffered from him personally, the contributors were magnanimous enough to admit that he plays very well on this recording. Though not such an obvious clean-up operation as the Mrazek-Swarowsky Brahms 2, it is nevertheless fluent, limpid and very fresh-sounding. It does not penetrate the shadows like some of the “great” performances, but “greatness” in this work often comes hand-in-hand with irritating mannerisms that are absent here (Music Treasures MT 56-A).
One of Swarowsky’s last endeavours was a complete Brahms symphony cycle with the Suddeutsches Philharmonie. I have heard, however, an earlier recording of the First Symphony with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (First Component Series FCS 50.017). Another 1950s issue has this symphony with Swarowsky conducting the “Vienna Peoples Opera Orchestra” (Summit SUM 5031). Obviously the “Volksoper” is meant, but I have not been able to check if this is the same recording.
Two things strike the listener from the beginning. The first is that the wind – but not the brass – are unusually to the fore, so that their moving parts play a prominent role in the opening paragraph, producing a sound that is full yet lean and unsaturated. This is all to the good. Less to the good is the way in which the following piano passage, in which the wind are accompanied by pizzicato strings, and the answering syncopated string phrases, are not at a noticeably lower dynamic level than the opening. One supposes this is the fault of the recording, though one also notices that the playing remains full-toned and tense, so possibly the conductor is partly responsible too. However, other performances by Swarowsky do not lack dynamic shading.
This lack of a real piano detracts from the effect of a performance that impresses by its rhythmic grip and forward-moving vigour. Tempi are fastish in the outer movements, but not hurried, and are strictly maintained. In the first movement – played without the repeat – there is virtually no slackening in second subject territory, though the risk of rigidity is fairly well avoided by the clear conviction of the playing. In the finale – in which the Beethoven-derived main theme sets off with refreshing briskness – the syncopated passage following the last appearance of the principal theme is rammed home dead in tempo, something I’ve previously heard only from Hermann Scherchen. Nor is the chorale theme allowed to call a halt to the proceedings in the coda, and Swarowsky takes this final stretch at a considerable lick, with real excitement in the playing.
The second movement is relatively broad, grave-toned, but is not indulged. Sharply profiled syncopated accompaniments, when they come, help keep a balance between breadth and a certain classical leanness. The third movement is rather slow, but with striding pizzicato accompaniments there is no suggestion of slackness. No speed change for the trio.
In general this is a performance of driving classical vigour, superior to many better-remembered versions but rendered monochrome by a lack of dynamic range. I’m inclined to hold Swarowsky at least partly to blame for this since in supposed piano passages, not only do the decibels remain more or less the same, but the instrumental colour doesn’t change either, which I think it would if the orchestra had been playing a real piano, albeit one levelled out by the engineers. I should be interested to hear another transfer of this recording.
Swarowsky conducted strong versions of both Brahms piano concertos. The soloist in Piano Concerto no.1 is Friedrich Wührer. The orchestra is, or is claimed to be, the “Vienna State Philharmonia Orchestra” (Vox PL 8000 pub.1953).
Wührer gives a commanding, unfailingly musical account, with good tempi that neither run nor drag. This, in Brahms, is already much. Nonetheless, there is a certain plain-speaking efficiency to his playing which is rather shown up by Swarowsky. Tension-levels tend to be higher when the orchestra is on its own. It is true that the piano seems to suffer more than the orchestra from the early mono recording. Yet at a moment like the orchestral preparation to the first return of the main finale theme, great things are promised which do not entirely materialize when the piano comes in, and I am not sure that it is just a matter of the recorded sound lacking bloom.
Swarowsky, for his part, has a sometimes ragged band, with strings that seem none too numerous and some odd recorded balances. This is a strong, majestic performance. Wührer’s high reputation led me to hope it might be a little more than that.
Recording-wise, the Second Concerto with Eduard Mrazek is in a different world from the first with Wührer. If you listen to the version somebody has put on You-Tube, from a very crackly LP, you may not think so, but if you get it from the ReDiscovery site, beautifully restored by David Gideon from a reel-to-reel tape, you will find the sound really excellent for a recording presumably made in the late fifties or early sixties.
Eduard Mrazek has a shadowy existence. No biographical details emerge but he was one of the pianists in a 1954 version of Orff’s Catulli Carmina under Hollreiser (Vox) and he can be heard in a coupling of the Warsaw Concerto and Cornish Rhapsody, in chamber works by Chausson and in the Berwald Piano Quintets. The latter were set down for Decca and Mrazek plays as a member of the Vienna Philharmonia Quintet. He would seem, then, to have based his career mainly on Vienna and as a chamber musician. Maybe Swarowsky had marked him out as a collaborator for the cholesterol-free Brahms 2 performance of his dreams. As the timings show, they were not quite as fast – except in the second movement – as the famously speedy Rubinstein/Coates version of 1929, but they’re a romp compared with most others. For comparison I’ve shown the timings of the Jenner/Dixon performance which I have praised highly in this series, the Backhaus/Böhm as an interpretation that might have been considered authoritative in Swarowsky’s own day and the Ashkenazy/Haitink for an “establishment” version closer to our own times.
I II III IV tt Rubinstein/Coates 1929 14.30 08:08 09:13 07:53 39:44 Mrazek/Swarowsky 15:07 07:42 09:46 08:37 41:12 Jenner/Dixon 17:05 08:50 12:56 09:22 48:13 Backhaus/Böhm 1967 17:10 08:44 12:18 09:43 47:55 Ashkenazy/Haitink 1982 18:40 09:25 13:08 09:26 50:39
Since Mrazek seems to have worked more as a chamber musician, I should start by silencing any doubts as to his capacity to play this notoriously difficult piece at tempi that would challenge the most travelled virtuoso. He has the technique, with enough to spare to play it all musically with a good, rounded tone.
In the first movement Mrazek and Swarowsky are not really much faster than the norm, but they begin in tempo and keep going. At certain moments, where the opening horn theme returns in the middle of the movement, it takes a bit of getting used to, to hear the notes swirling past when so many pianists drift off into almost Delian self-communion. Arguably, that is what Brahms wrote.
In the second movement, too, the short timing is not only a matter of a brisk tempo, but the result of a lack of rhapsodizing in the middle. The “revolutionary” movement is nevertheless the third. No intimate, prayerful, hesitant inner confidences here. It’s a tender but outgoing love song, almost a serenade. Even Rubinstein, though quicker still, sounds like the usual performance speeded up, rather than a new perspective.
The finale dances, even romps, along nicely. Again, it can be disconcerting to hear the notes swirling past when we’re used to hear certain parts slowed down and oh-so-meaningful.
I praised the Jenner/Dixon as a fine, un-indulgent performance. So is the present one, with the difference that Jenner and Dixon are closer to the traditional maestoso view of Brahms. My feeling is that Mrazek and Swarowsky should be heard, and that listeners should seriously consider whether they are not closer to the mark than some of the bloated performances we hear today. At the very least, anyone who has difficulties in approaching Brahms, who finds him too thick and heavy, might find that Mrazek and Swarowsky have solved his problems for him (World Record Club T50).
Brahms’ Hungarian Dances nos.1, 2, 3, 5 and 6, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (MMS-942), are prime examples of Swarowsky’s rigorous approach. Tempi are well-sprung with a good lilt, and are strictly maintained except where Brahms specifically indicates a deviation. Even then, Swarowsky keeps his elbow-room to the minimum. Since we are so used to hearing the popular nos. 1 and 5, in particular, mauled about unmercifully by conductors out to demonstrate their control of the orchestra, it is salutary to hear them played as written. All the more so when the Hungarian-gypsy atmosphere seems to come across just the same. And yet ... salutary experiences aren’t always very dashing ones and these performances don’t quite make one’s blood boil.
Another “special” from Mon Musée Musical is a group of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer in the composer’s own orchestral version. More precisely, Liebeslieder Walzer op.52 nos.1, 2, 4, 6, 5, 11, 8 and 9, and Neue Liebeslieder Valzer op.65 no.9. The soloists are Ingrid Bjoner (soprano), Ira Malaniuk (contralto), Waldemar Kmentt (tenor) and Otto Wiener (bass). Swarowsky conducts the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. The performance dates from November 1960.
In orchestrating a selection of his Love-Song Waltzes, Brahms was insistent that he still wanted them sung by a vocal quartet, not a chorus. This is a fairly rare opportunity to hear them in this form. Swarowsky gets a thoroughly Viennese-sounding lilt to each one, but doesn’t overdo the schmaltz. The harshly uncompromising side of Swarowsky comes out at the end of each one where, having so sensitively set the mood and pace for each piece, since no ritardando is marked, no ritardando whatsoever is made. It sounds as if the composer has suddenly run out of music. The effect is compounded by the way in which either M. Gagnaux or – more probably I think – the original Cologne engineers cut the sound off abruptly each time without allowing the reverberation to die away. Did applause originally break in after each number? If so, I daresay it would have been less irritating to leave it in.
Another problem is that the engineers seem to have been afraid that just four voices would get swamped by the orchestra, though a glance at the names involved, three at least stalwarts of the Viennese operatic stage in those days, suggests that they needn’t have worried. As it is, the closely miked voices lack space and sound more unvaried than I suspect they actually were. While the orchestra is all too often a distant mush in the background. If you want to study how Brahms set about orchestrating the piano duet accompaniments, this isn’t going to help you all that much.
MORE ROMANTIC SYMPHONIES AND CONCERTOS
I don’t know quite what I expected of Swarowsky in the Symphony by César Franck. Reasonably, I might have expected him to try for the single underlying tempo which Franck himself is said to have wanted. In effect, this results in a flowing introduction and a majestic, but still forward-moving main allegro to the first movement, a broad second movement which maintains an air of mystery in the incorporated scherzo, and a finale which if not dashing is certainly vigorous and gathers up all the themes from the previous movements with a rare inevitability.
Thus far, so good, but the performance goes much further than that. Swarowsky already earns a lot of kudos points by making the structure work like practically no one else – the return of the slow movement theme on the brass at the climax of the finale seems, not an embarrassment but the climax of everything the symphony has been heading for. He also provides very detailed phrasing, realizing Franck’s impetuous hairpin dynamics magnificently. And above all, he gets a blazing conviction from the “Vienna Festival Orchestra” without which this symphony is a non-starter.
I don’t know if Swarowsky will ultimately take the longstanding place in my affections of Boult’s slightly more volatile performance – apparently inspired by hearing Franck’s pupil Pierné conduct the work. And not so long ago I was enthusing about Klemperer’s very different reading. At the very least, this is among the finest performances set down. And what is ultimately so remarkable about it is that Swarowsky does not seem to be applying all his art to make a dodgy structure hold up. He certainly manages to give the idea that, for him, the symphony’s structure is perfect, and it has never occurred to him that it might not be so (World Record Club T23).
Swarowsky recorded the symphony again with the South German PO for Denon.
In the Franck’s Symphonic Variations, Swarowsky is joined by Eva Wollman for a lean and muscular, forward-moving but sensitive reading. As recorded, Wollman sounds a little bashy in fortissimo passages – and she doesn’t make life easy for herself by playing several passages up to tempo where other pianists take their time. Her tone and control of texture are excellent from mezzo-forte downwards, so maybe the sound here doesn’t represent her fairly (Music Treasures MT-39).
From such few references as I could find, it emerges that Wollman was born in Vienna in 1902. As well as studying in Vienna she also went to Carlo Zecchi in Rome and Eduard Steuermann at the Julliard School. Her career was Vienna-based and she was an active exponent of contemporary music. She made a few other recordings including, for the American Recording Society, a piano concerto by the Italo-American Antonio Lora, with F. Charles Adler conducting. If still alive she would be 112, but no sources give the year of her death. Does any reader know?
Saint-Saëns’ Symphony no.3 did not enjoy so many recordings in the early LP years but such as there were – Toscanini, Cluytens, Munch, Paray – were exceptionally impressive. Swarowsky offers an urgently propelled performance in which the structure unfolds with Brahmsian logic. The second movement is tenderly, sensitively sung without any hint of Hollywood gloss.
I have an idea that the recording is basically good, with the organ well integrated – and at the same pitch as the orchestra – and well defined timpani. The pressing available to the blogger has unpleasant groove distortion in the first movement. The second side is almost entirely free of this, but has compressed dynamics. This is likely to be the case with all commercial copies. If the original tapes exist in reasonable state, it would be possible to present in more favourable conditions a performance which will appeal especially to listeners who prefer a symphonic – but assuredly not pedantic – approach over a spectacular one. The orchestra is the “Vienna Philharmusica Symphony Orchestra” (Urania US 5105).
In Saint-Saëns’ 2nd and 5th Piano Concertos the soloist is Orazio Frugoni. Swarowsky conducts the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Vox PL 8410, also on Saga).
I had read harsh words about these recordings technically, but the sound, though a little dry, didn’t seem to me prohibitive. Frugoni and Swarowsky provide plenty of dash. In no. 2 I thought some of Frugoni’s phrasing a little snatched-at with, as recorded, a somewhat fisty quality in fortes. Without wishing to invoke the patrician guile of Rubinstein in this concerto, I sampled a performance by the young Malcolm Binns, partnered by Alexander Gibson and the LPO on World Record Club. But here, too, I found some snatched phrasing and, despite the more modern stereo recording, some very fisty-sounding fortes. All this with a slightly more portentous approach that sent me back to Frugoni and Swarowsky with increased appreciation. So perhaps you do have to invoke the patrician guile of Rubinstein for something much better. None of these reservations seem to apply to no. 5, an excellent performance that did yeoman’s service in the years when recordings of Saint-Saëns’ piano concerto were mainly limited to nos. 2 and 4.
Orazio Frugoni (1921-1997) studied at Milan Conservatoire and then at the Accademia Chigiana, Siena with Alfredo Casella and in Geneva with Dinu Lipatti. He left Fascist Italy in 1943, made his American debut in 1947 and taught at the Eastman School of Music from 1952 to 1967. He then returned to Italy and taught in Florence. He made quite a number of recordings in the 1950s, particularly for Vox. Swarowsky was again his partner in works by Chopin and Liszt.
Swarowsky recorded the three early Tchaikovsky symphonies for Urania, again with the doubtfully named “Vienna Philharmusica Symphony Orchestra”. He later recorded a “Pathétique” with the Bamberg SO and there does seem to be a box around of all the symphonies, “Manfred” included, with the Vienna SO.
In Symphony no.2 - “Little Russian” – the most folksy of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, Swarowsky takes a predictably straight view with a strong rhythmic profile to the themes and an overall buoyant chunkiness. Even when the composer hammers away at the same motive for several pages, as he does in the finale particularly, the conductor keeps things bright and balletic. This is the not the Tchaikovsky of the long passionate string melodies but Swarowsky’s strings, though seemingly not very numerous, sing nicely when called upon to do so. Altogether, this symphony sounds better, as a symphony, than it often does.
On the debit side, there is some scrappiness and a few bloopers from the horns to suggest the thing was done on a low budget. The recording, at any rate in the UK Parliament pressing I heard, is acceptable as a means of hearing the interpretation but no more than that. The real problem about this attractive performance for the non-specialist listener is that Igor Markevich set down a not dissimilar view with the LSO at its peak, excellent stereo recording for the mid-1960s and, maybe, a spot added adrenalin.
SMALLER ROMANTIC PIECES
Given Swarowsky’s fundamentally intellectual outlook, we may wonder how much he really wanted to record some of the items discussed in this section. Nor are they necessarily the music to bring out his particular gifts.
An orchestral suite of ten numbers from Bizet’s Carmen, with the “Vienna Festival Orchestra”, offers a strangely higgledy-piggledy selection, beginning near the end with the fate motif, reaching the beginning about a third of the way through and ending in the middle. Beecham actually assayed something similar so Swarowsky is not in bad company. Swarowsky seems to take the view that, if you’re going to play an orchestral selection, it’s better to pretend ignorance of the opera and take the music at face value, as if it were written that way. The result is that the pieces that actually are for orchestra go rather well – a beautifully shaped intermezzo with a coolly expressive flute solo and plenty of swagger, albeit at a slowish tempo, to the Act One prelude when it eventually arrives. On the other hand a pedantically slow Séguidille – though rhythmically well-sprung – and a distinctly un-Spanish Habanera dampen any wish one might feel to hear the entire opera under Swarowsky’s baton. Incredibly, this was coupled with a suite from “Show Boat” under William Strickland (Music Treasures MT-31).
Faced with a selection of six pieces from Les Sylphides, the ballet arranged from piano pieces by Chopin, one’s first question is, what does a conductor whose tendency is to “clean up” the scores do with an arrangement that is, by its nature, a tasteless mishmash? The answer is, he recognizes it for what it is. Swarowsky proceeds as if unaware of what this music sounds like on the piano, treating it at face value as overheated salon music. He indulges in juicy rubatos of the kind he does not allow when conducting Johann Strauss and seems enjoy letting his hair down. The only drawback is that the rubatos sometimes catch the “Vienna Festival Orchestra” out and some of the solo players are no great shakes. The clarinettist, in particular, is clumsy with his cadenzas in the A flat nocturne. This was the filler for Swarowsky’s Schumann “Rhenish”.
LISZT’s tone-poem Les Préludes, issued in tandem with the Franck “Variations Symphoniques”, gives Swarowsky a little more meat to chew on. As in the Franck symphony, attention to tempo relationships and structural logic does not preclude passion, poetry and romantic warmth. The recording does not really cope with the last climax.
We would hardly judge a conductor’s Rimsky-Korsakov credentials on the strength of “The Flight of the Bumble-Bee”, but it must be said that Swarowsky takes nothing for granted. At a tempo that allows every note to tell – though the flute is sometimes hard-pressed even so – and with great attention to dynamics, this is an angry, phantasmagorical hornet rather than an affectionate portrait of the little busy bee. If Hitchcock had envisaged a sequel to “The Birds” entitled “The Wasps”, Swarowsky’s “Flight” would have been just right for it.
Worth hearing, too, is the Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. Abetted by very forward recording of the percussion, Swarowsky eschews the Gallic elegance offered by Anatole Fistoulari (see previous article) and whips up a thrilling, lurid orgy.
In the overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, Swarowsky does not fail to recognize that the tingle factor is an essential part of the music. He produces a sizzling performance, with whiffs of Slavonic passion along the way. The closing stretch is very exciting indeed. Unfortunately the recording buckles under in fortes so this is for Swarowsky buffs – Smetana enthusiasts will after all find other thrilling performances in excellent sound.
With the same composer’s Vltava, I am less happy. Whereas most conductors bind together the opening dovetailed wind phrases as flowingly as possible, Swarowsky emphasizes the start of each one. This detailed approach perhaps justifies his slowish tempo which – Swarowsky being Swarowsky – he then maintains almost undeviatingly. Oddly enough, this is most effective just where you might expect it to be least so, in the St. John’s Rapids section. The strongly articulated details, which are normally reduced to a rush of sound, create the effect of a powerful, throbbing force of nature. In spite of this minor revelation, though, if you fancy a steady-as-she-goes Vltava, Boult, for one, seems to me more characterful as a whole.
If there’s a real labour of love among these Swarowsky sweat-meats, it’s probably the Strauss family selection. David Gideon, of ReDiscovery, has added three earlier items issued on Music Treasures of the World to a 1960s Concert Hall LP to make a very full CD of Swarowsky conducting the Strauss family. All are with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. The Music Treasures items were Frühlingstimmen Walzer, G’schichten aus dem Wiener Wald Walzer and Kaiserwalzer, by Johann Strauss II. The Concert Hall selection had Pizzicato Polka; Accelerationen Walzer; Du und Du Walzer; Morgenblätter Walzer; Frühlingstimmen Walzer, Vergnügungszug Polka and Freikugeln Polka by Johann Strauss II and Sphärenklänge Walzer and Ohne Sorgen Polka by Josef Strauss. ReDiscovery also offer a Ritter Pasman Czardas that has spilled onto a Strauss selection under various conductors.
Interestingly, we get Frühlingstimmen twice – it was on both collections. The earlier of the two Frühlingstimmen performances is slightly longer and has more of the traditional “schmaltzy” upbeats and hesitations. Swarowsky would seem to have cleaned up his Strauss style over the years. Indeed, the most obviously “inflected” performance is “Tales from the Vienna Woods”, also from the earlier collection. This has a rather heavy-handed zither player.
For the most part we get, unsurprisingly, straightforward Strauss in the Robert Stolz manner. That is to say, waltzes and polkas that can be danced to, with a rhythm that is infectious but which, once set, rarely deviates apart from an occasional easing into new sections. If you want Strauss with the gags that have increasingly become the norm on New Year’s Day in Vienna this will not be for you, and even an authentic gag like the whistle at the end of the “Excursion Train Polka” is allowed to pass almost unnoticed. Only in the Czardas did I feel that the music actually needed more inflection, but then I like my Strauss in basically strict tempo and I even like the few set down by Klemperer. Outside the dance sections, Swarowsky finds real poetry in the introductions and codas where the opportunity presents itself.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Given Swarowsky’s pedigree as a pupil of Schoenberg and Webern, one might expect a swathe of authoritative recordings of this music under his baton. His late phase produced a Schoenberg “Pelleas” and a Mahler 4th that met with considerable critical favour – whereas a performance of Mahler’s 5th, disinterred more recently from the Vienna Radio archives, was found disappointing, not least by MusicWeb International’s Mahler expert Tony Duggan. It is pretty clear that the works Swarowsky recorded – and that goes for radio recordings too – reflect the priorities of the people who wanted the recordings rather than Swarowsky’s own. Did he conduct a performance in German of Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”, for example, because he was desperate to do so? I’d guess that Vienna Radio thought it time some lip-service was paid to Elgar, or else the ageing Julius Patzak felt the urge to sing the part of Gerontius, and Swarowsky was engaged as the local boy who could make a decent job of practically anything. As John Quinn’s review reports, he made a very decent job of it.
Even further afield were his recordings for the American Recording Society. This organization was busy in post-war Harry Lime Vienna setting down 20th century American works, mostly for the first time. The orchestra, claimed as a hand-picked band of American musicians and called the American Recording Society Symphony Orchestra, has since been identified as the Vienna Symphony Orchestra – those were hard times and they needed money. Most of the recordings were conducted by Americans brought in for the job, such as Dixon and Hendl. I’ve discussed some of Dixon’s contribution in my article on the conductor. For a few works, the ARS turned to local talent, namely Swarowsky and, rather amazingly, Max Schönherr, normally regarded as exclusively a conductor of Viennese light music.
The jury is still out on Henry Dreyfuss Brant (1913-2008), whose Symphony no.1 Swarowsky set down in 1953 (ARS 38). An American composer of Canadian origin, he is listed among America’s experimenters. More specifically, he is credited with the invention of spatial music – many of his works from the early 1950s onwards depend for their effect on having various groups of instruments scattered around the hall, or even around the city, playing different things simultaneously. Too few recordings have been made to enable any rebuttal of the inevitable charge of crankiness. Indeed, even with the finest modern recording techniques it is difficult to see how anyone sitting in his living-room could really assess whether such music is achieving its declared aims. The present early symphony, written in 1945 and revised in 1950, is not going to provide evidence either way. It is a vigorous piece written in a manner only moderately up-to-date for its time.
The first movement, “Sermon”, seems curiously discontinuous, and difficult to relate to its title unless something like Hardy’s “Distracted Preacher” was intended. The second movement, “Ballad”, is an attractive piece on a theme that seems to promise “Shenandoah” but then proceeds its own way. Despite a few quirky interruptions this is a convincingly coherent movement. It is followed by “Skit”, the most “original” section. Fragments of themes are kicked around the orchestra like a football and, with hindsight, some embryonic spatiality can be found here. The finale, “Procession”, contains lots of lively, sometimes rowdy, march music.
Swarowsky and his band give an energetic rendering, while homing in upon any lyricism that may be going. The second movement is tenderly done. It did cross my mind in the finale that, if the rhythms were a tad less literally angular and the tempo a mite faster, the music could be made to swing American-style. But I have no idea whether this was intended or indeed, whether such an approach would actually work in practice. It would be interesting to know what Bernstein would have made of the piece but, if he ever conducted it, no recording appears to have survived. Nor, for that matter, is any other recording at all listed in the “American Symphonies” section of Michael Herman’s extensive “National Discographies” on this site. So the jury had better stay out on this one too. The recording is pretty good, better than the several ARS recordings under Dixon I listened to recently.
Much more likeable is the Serenade which Norman Dello Joio reworked in 1953 from a ballet score, “Diversion of Angels”, written for Martha Graham in 1949. It has moments of spiky vitality, and one passionate climax, but leaves an abiding impression of Knoxville-like innocence. This was my first encounter with it, but I daresay one could grow very fond of its gentle charm. Swarowsky interprets its evolving moods with insight and what sounds like sincere belief (Alco ALP1001). Swarowsky’s other American forays were Mennin’s Concertato for Orchestra and a further piece, “Epigraph” by Dello Joio.
One of my oddest finds while searching out Swarowsky was Prokofief’s Peter and the Wolf told in Spanish by Mario Cabre. This performance was also issued in an English dubbing by Brandon de Wilde. I wouldn’t presume to judge a narration in Spanish, but Cabre sounds a nice chap, friendly but not patronizing, and Swarowsky offers a characterful reading (Ariola 82-165-H).
A LOT OF LOOSE ENDS
The Swarowsky discography, therefore, turns out to be quiet extensive but rather frustrating. Swarowsky no doubt worked out his artistic credo in his teaching, and maybe in his writings for those who read German. As a conductor he seems to have been limited to what he could get and to what people asked him to do. We nevertheless find at least glimpses of a forceful, independent-minded artist. At his best, and at his most individual, he can be bracketed with other “independents” – and Schoenberg-pupils – such as Scherchen and Leibowitz. His Schubert “Great C major”, his Franck Symphony and his Brahms Second Concerto with Mrazek still have plenty to tell us.