Max Fiedler (conductor)
German Radio Recordings: Volume 2
Joseph HAYDN (1733-1809)
Symphony No. 88 in G, Hob. I:88 (incomplete) (1787) [19:02]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 9 in C, D944 (The Great) (incomplete) (1828) [44:08]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Double Concerto for violin and cello in A minor, Op. 102 (incomplete) (1887) [14:45]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1853-58) [49:16]
Carl Steiner (violin), Adolf Steiner (cello), Alfred Hoehn (piano)
Orchester der Reichsenders Berlin
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC582 [63:10 + 64:59]
This release, intriguing and (sadly and unavoidably) in parts truncated, follows on from Volume 1 which was reviewed enthusiastically by Jonathan Woolf in June 2019. The discography of Max Fiedler (1859-1939) has been immeasurably augmented via broadcast survivals. Much of this material relates to Brahms, the composer with whom his name is most often bracketed. Here we have the reappearance of the First Piano Concerto with Alfred Hoehn in a 1936 radio broadcast. As well as the radio broadcasts Pristine has a twofer devoted to the commercial Brahms legacy which, sadly, I’ve not heard. As Jonathan points out “There’s no doubt Fiedler is a remarkably interesting conductor, rather more so than the jibe of ‘tempo-rubato’ conductor might suggest (the jibe was Weingartner’s)”. I do however have a 2 CD set of studio recordings “The Original Brahms” on Beulah, which has powerful renditions of Symphonies 2 and 4 plus the Academic Festival Overture; also the fine Brahms Violin Concerto and Schumann First Symphony on Music & Arts reviewed by Jonathan in 2003. It can be bought second-hand or streamed; the sound however ranks below what we have here.
Mark Obert-Thorn (this is his 150th full release for Pristine and a notable achievement), who again has done amazing restorative work, reports that Fiedler has come to be known as something of a Brahms specialist. In part this is because he was one of the few conductors who had a direct link to the composer, to have recorded his works, and in part because his commercially recorded oeuvre consists solely of four Brahms works: the Second and Fourth Symphonies, the Academic Festival Overture, and the Second Piano Concerto, as mentioned above. In the present set, as well as two Brahms concertos, one just a fragment, we have Haydn and Schubert. This completes Fiedler’s recorded legacy.
Initial impressions are that the sound is remarkable despite being live and nearly 85 years old. Obert-Thorn explains that German Radio preserved the performances not on the then-common media of aluminium or acetate discs, but by recording them like a commercial release – on wax masters, plated and pressed on shellac. A small number of copies were struck and sent to radio stations for delayed broadcast. Time and the vicissitudes of war have made them scarce and in some cases fragmented. In Jonathan’s review of Volume 1 he wrote: “These torsos are regrettable, but I am sure collectors would rather have the large amount that does remain rather than condemn what is missing, about which nothing very much can be done, in any case.”
Haydn’s Symphony No.88 is a favourite work of the pre “London Symphonies” with famous recordings including those by Furtwängler and Leonard Bernstein, both on DG. Sadly, there’s no Adagio in the first movement but the Allegro is very powerful which owes much to Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), German conductor and composer who was, like Fiedler, connected with Brahms. It goes with great vigour but there’s plenty of Haydn’s humour and some lovely wind playing; one hardly notices the loss at the start. The Largo is absolutely captivating, ranging from tenderness to eruptions which anticipate his Creation. The playing is totally committed and apart from inevitable and consistently low shellac ‘bustle’, there is no other distraction. The Menuetto, really dances and the Allegretto is so affectionate. The Finale is one of Haydn’s happiest creations; by the way, viewers of YouTube can enjoy Bernstein conducting the VPO, just using facial expressions. Fiedler clearly loved “Papa” Haydn and this is fabulously played with joie de vivre. The retained applause is very short.
Schubert’s Great C Major also misses the start of the first movement but again, one quickly adjusts. These recordings are inevitably going to appeal to those listeners who know these works very well. The first performance that really grabbed me is, perhaps strangely, Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Orchestra on RCA. His version is very fast, but like Fiedler he was influenced by Steinbach, as was Sir Adrian Boult. I referred to Boult’s live recording from 1969, now deleted on BBC Legends, and reviewed back in 2005. Fine, though it is, neither this nor the studio recording, formerly on EMI, singly or in a box of 11 packed CDs, were felt by Christopher Howell to match Boult’s 1934 BBCSO traversal, both of which are referred to in his review. Josef Krips’ versions with the Concertgebouw and VPO on Decca are well regarded as is a very different view from Furtwängler on several DG recordings. For those looking for modern sound look no further than the late Claudio Abbado on DG whose final thoughts were praised by Michael Cookson and John Quinn which resulted in me purchasing it.
After the loss of the Andante in the first movement, we have what is the finest performance of this awesome masterpiece that I’ve heard. There is real Viennese “Gemütlichkeit” but real steel provides the underpinning. One quickly forgets the broken start and becomes absorbed by what is a dedicated performance. I was especially taken with the sheer spirit of the Scherzo and the textures that emerge. Fiedler was 77 when he conducted these performances which is even more remarkable. Pristine Audio have placed the final Allegro Vivace on their website to be sampled. You will soon decide if this for you; I loved it. The way the movement burst into a kind of Alpine dance is enchanting and yet not hard-driven as was the case with Toscanini. Listening to this would suggest that early Mendelssohn must have been influenced but it wasn’t performed until 1839 under Schumann; maybe he saw a score? This is the finest performance on the set and the retained applause seems fully justified. To avoid this review stretching to “heavenly lengths”; I’ll conclude this section by stating that the discs will be returning to my player often.
The Brahms Double Concerto is very incomplete but any patching from other recordings is clearly not possible here. The beginning is very dramatic: “storm-tossed lovers” The Steiner brothers make it seem as if they are exploring new and innovative music, which in the 1930s they still were. There’s a sudden gap at about 3:30 which comes as a shock on first hearing. The brothers’ playing in the sublime Andante is very affectionate but has strength until it ends abruptly at about 3:30; the end of a 78, I presume. Bach’s influence on Brahms, which is most apparent in the finale of Symphony No. 4, is very clear. It’s all a bit tantalising but I’m grateful for what we have. I’m not aware of any other recordings by the Steiner brothers but they were, on this evidence, supreme players. My favourite recording is probably Pierre Fournier and Zino Francescatti with that consummate Brahmsian, Bruno Walter on Sony. Walter (1876-1963) said, late in life, that Brahms’ performances had become “softer edged”; certainly not true in what we have here.
After the halt in proceedings, there is a pause before the German announcer comes in; a nice thing to have retained.
Brahms’ semi-tragic D minor Piano Concerto has been available previously, and Jonathan Woolf reviewed it on the above-mentioned Arbiter disc in 2013. On the present release Andrew Rose has corrected the last three minutes via Capstan software. The soloist, Alfred Hoehn, defeated the magnificent Artur Rubinstein for first prize in the 1910 Anton Rubinstein competition in St. Petersburg. He recorded very little; some Chopin, I believe. Hoehn had a reputation as a poet of the piano with a vast dynamic range which Obert-Thorn confirms is on full display in the second movement of the Brahms. What is interesting, is the “heavenly length” of the first movement. Hoehn takes nearly 24 minutes, whereas Clifford Curzon, with Szell (Decca) is over two minutes faster and Claudio Arrau under Haitink (Philips), just over nineteen. George Szell conducted the concerto three times; Serkin, Curzon and the latter’s teacher Artur Schnabel whose life-affirming reading has been restored by Mark Obert-Thorn on Naxos; he takes just under 21 minutes in the first movement and is outstandingly paced. Mind you, Gilels, in his famous recording with Jochum (DG), which was how I first heard the piece, takes a time similar to that taken by Hoehn. I’ll avoid the notorious Glenn Gould and Bernstein although it does work, despite the orchestra being slightly awry at times. As has been said several times, one assumes that Fiedler/Hoehn is “authentic Brahms” due to the connection with Fiedler and there wouldn’t have been the same limitations due to studio recording. The Adagio is really beautifully played with all the pent-up sadness of the young composer, saddened by the death of his mentor Robert Schumann and by his frustration over the widowed Clara. To be able to go back 84 years is remarkable, longer than this performance was after the composition. The forceful fugal Rondo goes very well and the changes in dynamics are well captured. There are, as elsewhere in these performances, some portamenti (sliding of strings) which just adds to the special nature. This must be one of the earliest extant recordings, preceding the superb Artur Schnabel, again with Szell, by two years. It’s a very fine execution of this continually challenging work which started life as a symphony.
These four works from concerts in 1936 are a great memorial to a first-rate conductor and it’s fascinating to hear, on the second CD, previously unknown soloists. This is a set that’s been a real honour to review. One again Mark Obert-Thorn and Pristine are to be congratulated for their excellent restorations.
David R Dunsmore