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Fritz Busch: The Hamburg Concert
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Overture: Benvenuto Cellini (1838) [10:32]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Variations on a theme of J A Hiller (1904) [41:40]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 4 (1841/1851) [27:15]
NWDR Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Busch
Berlin PO/Paul Van Kempen (Hiller: Variations 7-10)
rec. 25-26 February 1951, Musikhalle Hamburg, July 1951, Berlin

This release by Pristine Audio is of a very significant concert by the great Fritz Busch, made six months before his death, aged only 61, in London. He was not Jewish but had left Germany in 1933 and made his name, as far as many are concerned, with his ground-breaking Glyndebourne performances and recordings of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas.

These recordings have been out several times before and a Tahra CD (447) was very favourably reviewed in 2002 by my colleague Jonathan Woolf. One key difference, and why the timings differ, is that four of the Reger variations were missing and Andrew Rose from Pristine has added them from a contemporary recording by the BPO under Paul Van Kempen. That recording was on Guild and was reviewed by Gavin Dixon. I have the Van Kempen recording, which also has him conducting the Berlioz overture as part of a large DG mono box. As Jonathan mentions in his review, Busch was very reluctant to return to Germany and this concert was only his second. The other was in Cologne and that six years after World War 2 had ended.

The Hamburg concert starts with what is a boisterous and raucous Benvenuto Cellini overture. What is remarkable is how Busch has the orchestra under his spell immediately. The music is magical, as is so much of Berlioz, and the sound generated is remarkable for a live recording nearly seventy years old. It has always been a regret that Busch made so few records, apart from the Mozart and Brahms in Denmark and one or two others. He was clearly born to conduct opera and one can only imagine what gems have been lost. I have heard a version of this overture on Spotify but not had access to the Tahra. This Pristine version must surely be as good as can be achieved. There are fine recordings of the opera by Sir Colin Davis (Philips and LSO) but sadly not one I can find, even of the Overture, by Sir Thomas Beecham; I wonder why? Busch’s version of the overture comes to a triumphant conclusion; applause has been removed.

As Jonathan points out in the first of Reger’s variations he brings a romantic impulse but one that is at all times freely moving and graced with sensitively responsive woodwind and string playing. Busch was a friend of Reger, as was his brother Adolf, of the famous Busch Quartet, whose resurrected pleasures, I’ve enjoyed for 25 years (Warner). The re-mastering has given real depth to the orchestra and I’m glad to report that the splendidly blistering trombones are still present and correct in the fourth variation (track 6) which is exhilarating. Busch avoids the work ever getting stodgy and whilst this is not a great work, he certainly makes strong advocacy for it; I love variations so it was an enjoyable listen. It is perhaps inevitable that there is a change in the sound in the last four variations with the use of the commercial Paul Van Kempen. This was Furtwängler’s BPO/DG recording and it’s pretty impressive for 1951. Incidentally, Furtwängler programmed Reger seventy times but there are no recordings, not even January 1943, which may exist somewhere. From the programme as presented here, there is a warmth from Busch which is distinctive but I urge readers to listen to the full Van Kempen version, very special too. There are clear influences from Brahms in this work and Reger also acknowledged J.S. Bach. The switch back to the live Busch recording for the final Variation and Fugue is very skilful as well as crowning the work with success.

Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 shows that the composer must have been aware of Schubert’s “Great C Major” but the energy is menacing and threatening rather than sunny. The first movement is a tour de force which is totally gripping. The recording is very clear although there is a “bang” about a minute in which may have been a music-stand. The Romance follows very swiftly; I’d have preferred a longer gap. The sweep and clear momentum avoids any slushiness and it’s significant that the first three movements are about a minute faster than Furtwängler’s famous DG recording, newly released in a big box of which I’m hoping to do a brief(ish) overview. The strutting force of the Scherzo is matched with grace and fluidity. The lead into the Finale alludes to Beethoven’s Fifth but throughout there is a clear love of the music; no bravado just charm and aplomb. Anyone sceptical that a “live” recording of nearly seventy years ago could be dynamic, should certainly sample this movement. The symphony comes to an emphatic conclusion, although like Brahms’ Fourth it is not a complete triumph; a satisfactory climax, nonetheless.

This record has exceeded even my greatest expectation and is a marvellous tribute to a great conductor who died far too young having made few records. As ever, many congratulations to Andrew Rose for revitalising these recordings.

David R Dunsmore

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