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 second Pristine 2-CD set completes the collection of the complete known radio recordings of Max Fiedler. Fiedler is a conductor of great importance, not only for his association with Brahms (which is now being contested by some), but, I think more importantly, because he is one of the few recorded conductors whose work takes us right back into the German Romantic tradition of the late 19th century which stemmed from Wagner. The other most notable exemplars of this style who made recordings of substantial works were almost all much younger; Fiedler was born in 1859, whereas Mengelberg was born in 1871, Abendroth in 1883 and Furtwängler in 1886. Nikisch was born in 1855, but his recorded legacy is quite small with only Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony being a substantial work. The conductors closest in date to Fiedler are Franz Schalk (born 1863) who recorded Beethoven’s Fifth, Sixth and Eighth and Schubert’s “Unfinished” symphonies and Max von Schillings (born 1868) who recorded Beethoven’s Third and Sixth and Schubert’s “Unfinished”, though both of these stem more from the classical tradition most famously embodied by Weingartner (born 1863). All of Schalk’s and von Schillings’ recordings are available in excellent transfers on Pristine. The two sets of radio recordings, along with Fiedler’s complete commercial recordings, which have also been issued by Pristine, are an invaluable insight into late 19th century German performance practice of the Romantic school.
The set begins with Haydn’s Symphony 88, not the sort of repertoire that one would immediately associate with Fiedler. However, unless you are utterly wedded to HIP performances, I cannot believe that you will not find this an excellent performance. Obviously, it is viewed from a 19th century perspective and played through the eyes of Beethoven, but that does not seem to me to be a necessarily reprehensible thing - Beethoven sprang from Haydn more than from any other composer. The orchestra is, of course, of a size which no-one would use today, but this forms part of the aesthetic position of the whole performance and is integral to it. The first side of the original disc set unfortunately no longer exists, so we are missing the whole of the adagio introduction and begin the performance at bar 32. This is particularly sad in that this is a part of the performance that would differ most radically from modern preconceptions of how the music should be played and how its tempo relates to the succeeding allegro. The allegro itself is taken at a cracking pace with tremendous momentum and crisp articulation - there is nothing remotely stodgy about this. The slow movement is much slower than a modern performance, but is phrased with such sensitivity that it seems to me to work beautifully within its own perspective, and the rubato gives it great tenderness and emotional depth. The stormy interjections towards the end of the movement which prefigure Beethoven are powerfully articulated. It would be difficult to disagree that it is played more like Schumann than what we now consider “right” for Haydn, but it convinces me. The minuet is perhaps less convincing to modern ears, being distinctly heavy, even stodgy, but the trio is beautifully lyrical. The final movement is wonderfully fleet, with a real “con spirito” feels and tremendous energy.
The other work on this first disc is Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Unfortunately, this too is missing its slow introduction, a mishap even more regrettable than the Haydn’s loss, as, for many, the tempo relationship between the andante and allegro non troppo of this movement is a touchstone of the stature of a performance. We begin a few minutes or so into the allegro at bar 126, and within a second or two of this we hear a touch of rubato in the rallentando into the woodwind phrase that would never be heard today. This, however, is actually deceptive as an indicator of the movement as a whole, as there is, in fact, very little incidental rubato until the very end of the movement, where there is a huge slowing down and much tempo flexibility. The movement overall shows the same momentum and exhilarating sense of a goal being striven for as the Haydn’s first movement. The second movement shows much greater use of rubato, with regular easings into points of transition, particularly between bars 148 and 159 (tr.6, 5:34 in), where the alternating string and horn notes are given a positively Brucknerian intensity. Listen also to the treatment of the cello line throughout the movement, especially after the great triple forte climax at bar 248 (tr.6, 9:20 in). It cannot be denied that Fiedler comprehensibly ignores the “a tempo” marking from bar 330 (tr.6, 12:37 in) to the end of the movement, and that will worry others more than it did me. The third movement really is “vivace” here, reminding me of Beethoven in what used to be called his “unbuttoned” mood. Tempo is pretty straight with only a substantial easing for the trio, as was common practice at the time. The finale is also at a steady tempo throughout, proof that rubato for Fiedler was not something to be applied indiscriminately at all times, but was tailored to the character of the movement. There is great vitality and momentum in the motoric rhythm, which never falters until the final cadence. I found this to be an utterly convincing performance of Schubert’s masterpiece.
The second CD is devoted entirely to Brahms, though unfortunately the Double Concerto really is a thing of shreds and patches. The first movement plays for just 3 mins 20 when the recording cuts out at bar 77 to restart 166 bars later at bar 243 until the end of the movement (bar 426). The soloists are Carl and Adolf Steiner, about whom I have been able to find nothing except Adolf’s dates (1875-1944) and that a radio performance by him of D’Albert’s Cello Concerto under Abendroth from 1944 has been issued by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. They were apparently brothers and the unanimity of their playing certainly shows evidence of great familiarity. In Pristine’s CD notes, Mark Obert-Thorn writes of the performance: “it is ear-opening in that the approach is so much different from the kind of performance to which we have become accustomed, with the soloists in the first movement seeming to present a story of storm-tossed lovers, rather than duelling virtuosi (see Heifetz/Feuermann, among others)” and this seems to me to hit the nail right on the head. Listening to the cello’s opening recitative, the feel is that of a soulful, subdued lament reminiscent of the opening to Elgar’s Cello Concerto. When, after a brief orchestral interruption, the violin answers and begins a dialogue with the cello, the mood is, as Obert-Thorn says, that of “storm-tossed lovers”, not adversaries vying for the limelight. Fiedler’s conducting of the tutti is entirely at one with their approach. I found this utterly convincing as an interpretation of the work. Only the first 3 mins 38 of the slow movement survive, played with the same tinta (as Verdi would have called it) as the first movement, and nothing at all from the finale. It is a minor tragedy that this performance does not survive complete, but we can at least be thankful that these fragments have come down to us.
The final work is an extremely important one, as it is the only complete performance in this set, but also another major work by Brahms. It is interesting to note that the first performance of the First Piano Concerto took place in 1860, the year after Fiedler was born. The pianist in this performance is Alfred Hoehn (1877-1845) who studied with, among other famous figures, Fritz Steinbach, a conductor who was particularly admired by Brahms. Hoehn is now almost completely forgotten (partly because he made only two commercial discs, in 1928) but he had a high reputation as a “poetic” player, and this performance certainly confirms that.
I first heard this performance on an Arbiter disc when it was first issued in 2012, and was extremely disappointed. It was so slow in a way that I had only thought arrived generally with the Barenboim/Barbirolli performance of 1967 (there had been the infamous Glenn Gould/Bernstein performance in 1962, but that was a concert broadcast and not officially available on disc until the late 1990s). I did not (and still do not) know of any other performances earlier than that Gould/Bernstein which were as slow. Even more disconcerting than the speed, I felt there was a lack of the sense of momentum which is such a memorable aspect of all the other Fiedler performances. It was therefore with some interest that I sat down to listen to Pristine’s transfer to see if my opinion would change. After some extended, concentrated listening, I found that gradually I was coming round to Fiedler and Hoehn’s approach, and eventually I came to feel that it was an entirely convincing alternative to the view which I had previously taken of the work.
The first movement is, by the standards of its time, very slow, though this became a standard approach during the 1960s, and the tempo ebbs and flows throughout. Its timing of 23:57 is as near to identical as makes no difference to Barenboim/Barbirolli’s 23:28.The opening tutti, which at first had seemed to lack momentum, I came to see as truculent, and the espressivo passage beginning at bar 26 as having a quiet, stoic despair that was very moving. The pianissimo dynamic is maintained right through to the great outburst at bar 64 (tr.4, 3:09 in), which is the more effective as a result. The one tempo fluctuation in the entirety of these two CDs that I really can’t take to is the huge slow-down at bar 82 (tr.4, 3:57 in). At the piano’s entry, Hoehn shows that he does not quite have the strength for the most dramatic parts of this first movement, and the double trills are disappointing. However, his moulding of the passage which soon follows (bars 132-140; tr.4, 6:14 in) and the solo passage from bar 157 (tr.4, 7:27 in) are very affecting. Again, his lack of physical strength vitiates the drama at bar 226 (tr.4, 11:44 in) - he can’t really play the double octaves with the massive sonority they need. Nor does his playing have the rhetoric for the great key change at the start of the development (bar 310; tr.4, 15:08 in), but the sensitivity of his playing of what follows and especially the long solo beginning at bar 381(tr.4, 18:12 in) are masterly examples of 19th century rubato style. The tempo for the second movement seems positively brisk at first after that of movement one, though the tempo slows markedly at the pianist’s entry. His playing here is truly exquisite in its emotional delicacy, and again his rubato is an object lesson. When the orchestra re-enters, Fiedler maintains Hoehn tempo. Listen out for some beautiful detail in the woodwind solos, too. Hoehn is at his absolute best in the section from bar 87 (tr.5, 10:14 in) to the end of the movement, with playing of real Innigkeit. Incidentally, this movement is a full two minutes shorter than the Barenboim/Barbirolli, but never sounds rushed. The finale is quite swift, and unexpectedly Fiedler maintains the tempo at the espressivo middle section (beginning bar 181; tr.6, 3:46 in), again showing that his rubato is always considered, never just an automatic response. The final cadenza is very restrained, which is actually how it is marked (the dynamic markings never go above forte).
The sound quality that Mark Obert-Thorn has been able to obtain from these discs is simply extraordinary. Anyone with experience of listening to Met broadcast recordings of the same vintage, or even BBC in-house recordings, will be astonished at the vividness, depth and naturalness of the sound - and this is not only because of the quality of the raw material. The last few minutes of the Brahms concerto no longer exist in the set used for the rest of the transfer, but fortunately another source exists in much inferior sound. This was also used for the Arbiter issue, and on that issue the sound quality plummeted in every way from the point of the join. In Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfer, there is still a lowering of quality, but it takes the form merely of the sound becoming somewhat mushier with a bit of distortion. He has done a really remarkable job of matching the two sources so closely.
This and the other two Pristine Fiedler sets are indispensable sets for anyone with any interest in the performing styles of the past, and will give great pleasure and instruction to anyone who is prepared to think beyond the fashions of today.
Previous review: David Dunsmore