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Max Fiedler (conductor)
German Radio Recordings - Volume 1
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (incomplete) (1880 rev 1881) [12:00]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466 (finale incomplete) (1785) [26:54]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a (1892) [22:03]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97, “Rhenish” (finale incomplete) (1850) [27:48]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op 67 (1807) [34:01]
Heinrich Steiner (piano), Orchester der Reichsenders Berlin, Hamburg Radio Symphony Orchestra (Beethoven)
rec. 1936
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC547 [60:47 + 66:56]

This is another hugely interesting collection from Andrew Rose at Pristine. Max Fiedler was born in 1859 and so is among the earliest conductors whose work we can experience in reasonable sound. Until 2001, when Music and Arts issued a CD of Brahms’ Violin Concerto with Siegfried Borries and Schumann’s First Symphony from radio broadcasts of 1936, his work had been known only from the commercial recordings of Brahms (the Second and Fourth Symphonies, Second Piano Concerto with Elly Ney and Academic Festival Overture – all available in excellent transfers on Pristine PASC 363). Fiedler hailed from Hamburg, like Brahms, and knew the composer sufficiently well for him to ask the younger man to replace him in a performance of his 2nd Piano Concerto (Fiedler declined). He had long been regarded by collectors as a Brahms specialist and his recordings as authoritatively “authentic”. However, Christopher Dyment in his book on conducting Brahms’ symphonies has rubbished this view, considering Fiedler’s style to have more to do with the style of Hans von Bülow than Brahms himself. I cannot help but think that this is at least as much to do with Dyment’s own tendentious views on the “right” way to conduct Brahms as anything to do with what the composer might himself have approved.

The present CD set allows us to widen considerably our knowledge of Fiedler’s conducting style by adding Mozart, Beethoven and even Tchaikovsky to his tally of recorded composers. The set begins with a further Brahms piece, however: the Tragic Overture. Here is perhaps the place to give a warning to prospective purchasers that several of the performances in the set are incomplete. Unlike every other broadcasting organisation that I know of, German Radio broadcasts were recorded in the same way as commercial record companies made records – by recording on wax masters which were then plated and shellac discs pressed from these masters. This allowed multiple copies to be pressed for distribution to different local stations and had the added benefit that the recording quality was much superior to the contemporary acetate recordings which all other broadcasters used. Unsurprisingly, despite these multiple copies, comparatively few recordings survived the second world war, and those which did were not always complete because of lost or broken discs. The Brahms overture stops a couple of minutes before the end of the music (at bar 373 of 429). The performance is good, if without being of exceptional quality. There is a considerable amount of the rhythmic flexibility that Dyment so disapproves of – I love it. More mystery and tension were needed in places, though, for example the passage for horns against high strings beginning at bar 90, but the following “espressivo” is beautifully handled. The return to tempo primo at bar 270ff is very atmospherically done.

Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto allows us to hear Fiedler in music from the classical period. I had expected a more full-bloodedly romantic approach to it (it was about the only Mozart piano concerto that was played with any regularity during the later 19th century because of its “Beethovenian” character), but I think Fiedler moderated his style to the much more modern approach of Lubka Kolessa. This largely forgotten pianist was only 34 when this recording was made (Fiedler was 76), so was from an entirely different generation, she died as recently as 1997. Her playing would have been regarded as stylistically Mozartian right up until the advent of “authentic” performances. She is closer to the style of Brendel, Perahia or Uchida than to Schnabel or Fischer, let alone Busoni or D’Albert, whose styles Fiedler would have grown up with. Her style is quite plain, with little pedal or moulding of the line and strict tempi. The slow movement flows quite swiftly and has little of the dynamic shading which we hear, for example, in the equivalent movement of Schnabel’s K527. The last movement is very sprightly, despite being only “allegro assai”. The first movement cadenza is interesting in being that of Hummel rather then the usual Beethoven one. Unfortunately, from the start of the third movement cadenza there is a missing section from bar 248 to 351.

The Nutcracker Suite which ends the first CD is the most unexpected piece, though to be honest it would have been a long way down my list of repertoire in which I would have liked to hear Fiedler. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and it does give us the opportunity to hear him in something other than the central German repertoire. The performances are very good. The Miniature Overture is perky and characterful and the March quite exciting. You can’t really go wrong with the Sugar-Plumb Fairy, and the Russian Dance is lively enough. The Arabian Dance is haunting without quite having the erotic languor that Stokowski brought to it, and the Chinese Dance sounds a little ragged and under-rehearsed. The Dance of the Flutes is nicely done with an unorthodox increase in tempo in the central section. The concluding Waltz of the Flowers has an infectious lilt.

Fiedler is back on home ground on the second CD with Schumann’s Third Symphony. It is, however, the least successful performance in the set to my ears. The first movement lacks the sense of soaring lyricism and excitement, though I liked the tempo flexibility for the second subject at letters B and O. The second movement is quite slow, though the tempo has a convincing flow, and all the repeats are taken. One of the interesting things about all these performances is that every repeat is taken with the exception of that in the last movement of the Beethoven – not something which we always find in performances of this era. The third movement has a lovely, gentle quality and the fourth movement has a fine, solemn introduction, and although the orchestra is a little ropey in places, there are some magical transitions. The finale is a little too sedate in tempo, lacking a sense of momentum and apotheosis, though we cannot be entirely sure of this because unfortunately the recording ends three pages before the end including the final “schneller” coda.

The most fascinating of the performances for me is the final one: Beethoven’s Fifth. This is a performance in pretty well the opposite style to the standard one of today. There is none of the hell-for-leather, up-to-the-metronome-mark-if-it-kills-us approach of virtually everyone nowadays. This is a performance full of individuality and personal detail with a flexibility which will give members of the authenticity Taliban heart attacks.

The first movement sets out its stall immediately, with a fermata at the end of the first phrase longer than any other I have ever heard (and which is made every time that fermata comes in the movement). It gives a sense of unpredictability, even danger, in that we don’t know when it will end, which seems to me to be absolutely in the spirit of the music. As mentioned earlier, the first movement repeat is taken, something comparatively unusual at the time. The oboe cadenza before the final peroration has a timeless stasis which almost rivals Furtwängler’s 1943 performance. A particular bête noir of the ‘come scritto’ school is the playing of the final re-appearance of the opening bars with a big rallentando. Not only does Fiedler do this, but he puts a little luftpause before it. The second movement is the most lyrical, tender and emotional version I have ever heard. The tempo is slow and fluid, and the line is moulded with tremendous sensitively. There is a marvellous sense of mystery in the succession of chords for strings and bassoons before the flowing movement returns. The fermatas are again held far longer than is usual. The third movement makes far more of the ritardando at the end of the first phrase than usual, giving an ominous feel to the music. The succeeding phrase based on the motto theme has a truculent trenchancy that is very effective. The basses’ scurrying has real élan. The transition into the finale is preceded by another luftpause, and the tempo for the finally is comparatively steady, though not lacking in excitement. There is a slowing for the horn responses to the strings which slightly dissipates the momentum, but this is compensated for by the rest of the movement. Real excitement is generated in the coda and the timpanist plays throughout as though his life depended on it.

This is a fascinating set which should be heard by all. The recording quality is excellent for the date and provenance and Mark Obert-Thorn has done his usual superb job with the transfers. There is a real sense of presence and the only problem with the set is the missing sections – but these are comparatively short, and what we can hear is worthy of great attention. As music-making becomes more and more homogenised in style, these performances triumphantly demonstrate that there is no single ‘correct’ way to perform any piece – as Chairman Mao put it, “Let a thousand flowers bloom”.

Paul Steinson

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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