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Cultural Death: Music under Tyranny
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Leonore Overture No.2 (1805) [13:10]
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Oswald Kabasta
rec. 1942-44
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.63: Movement No.1 only (1878-81) [15:39]
Alfred Hoehn (piano)/Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/Reinhold Merten
rec. April 1940
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14 (1830) [50:10]
USSR State SO/Oscar Fried
rec. 1937-38
various orchestras/conductors
ARBITER 162 [78:43]

There's a complex web of cultural questions behind this release, laid out in some detail in Alan Evans's extensive booklet essay. Oswald Kabasta has always occupied an uneasy place among German conductors of the time, but the greater ramifications of his role in music-making in the country during the Nazi years is pursued in some detail, and makes for provocative reading. Oskar Fried is a diametrically different case and his situation has always been better understood. The third of the triumvirate to be noted in this release is not, however, the third conductor - Reinhold Merten - but rather his soloist, the pianist Alfred Hoehn. Arbiter has already restored Hoehn's 1936 Brahms First Concerto [Arbiter 160] with the Berlin Radio Symphony under Max Fiedler. It's best to absorb the detail and implications of Evans' essay at leisure.

Kabasta's recording of Beethoven's Leonore Overture No.2 was made with the Munich Philharmonic at some point between 1942 and 1944. It's previously unpublished. There's the inevitable surface hiss but the sound quality is typically fine for the time and place, and there's considerable definition and an ability to register even Kabasta's biggest fortissimos. The performance is powerful, dramatic and laudable, Kabasta ensuring that the brass and winds, especially, are forwardly resonant but avoiding over-balancing, I think I can register where the side-breaks are, so perhaps they were difficult to disguise.

The 1940 Brahms Concerto movement with Hoehn, Merten directing the Leipzig Radio Orchestra, was recorded in 1940 and is also new to commercial disc. The spectrum is good but the sound somewhat more distant than the Kabasta. Though he was known as a poetic player, we hear his fiery side here, with some rather pounded-out chords. He is also very splashy in this surviving first movement. Hoehn had a stroke a few months later playing Brahms' Second Concerto and died of a heart attack in 1945.

The only one of the three to have been reissued before is Fried's Symphonie fantastique, recorded on film soundtrack, not disc, in Moscow in 1937-38. I hope one day someone will be able to confirm which year it actually was, as there's never to my knowledge been any consensus. Though it lacks a degree of sonic impact because of the circumstances of its recording, this reading is one of blistering and hallucinatory power. The galvanizing accelerandi and intensely personalised approach to rhythm are undeniably Friedian qualities. The levels of fluctuation in the March to the Scaffold offer a real lesson in overwhelming power and the occasional quirks - he doubles the bells in the finale with a piano - are also imposed in the interests of musical sense and the conveyance of sound and colour. Talking of colour, it needs to be said that there's not much Arbiter has been able to do to boost or clarify the torrid and unflattering sound. Still, forget the occasional ensemble lapses, as you are getting possibly the most cataclysmic recording ever made of this work.

Jonathan Woolf


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