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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphonies Nos 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 & Das Lied von der Erde
Eva-Maria Rogner (soprano) (No. 4); Grace Hoffmann (mezzo-soprano), Ernst Haefliger (tenor) (Erde)
WDR Symphony Orchestra, Baden-Baden, Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra (No. 5)/Hans Rosbaud
rec. 1951-61
SWR MUSIC SWR19099CD [8 CD: 467 mins]

This set has already caused quite a stir in many circles, Gramophone Magazine and The Times newspaper making it one of their records of the year, with other critics devoting whole videos on YouTube in paeons of praise. As one, then, who is perhaps not as familiar with Rosbaud’s work as others, I was therefore very curious to hear the contents of this release.

Although Hans Rosbaud (1895-1962) was born in Austria and remained in Germany for the duration of the Nazi years and the war, he kept an extremely low profile, perhaps in part, I would suggest, due his brother being a British spy! That said, he emerged from the war years with his reputation intact and seemed content to work quietly and diligently with German radio orchestras, especially that of the South West German Radio, based in Baden-Baden, until he was catapulted to international acclaim after stepping in at just eight days’ notice to conduct the premiere of Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron, a performance that received a Europe-wide broadcast and subsequent recording. Thereafter, guest slots with the Chicago Symphony, the Concertgebouw and the New York Philharmonic followed, plus recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic, until, eight years after the Moses premiere, he died at the comparatively young age (for a conductor) of 67. As chance would have it, though, and due in no small part to his working and leading broadcast performances with a radio orchestra, he left a considerable recorded legacy which is now being devotedly issued by SWR Classics – fierce and lean Mozart and Haydn are followed by lucid Brahms and Schumann, all the way through to twentieth century music, where the dramatic ferocity of his Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra, for example, offers an interesting alternative to the more Romantic hue of Karajan’s version, or the crystalline purity of Boulez’s, whose own music Rosbaud also premiered (Le Marteau sans maître [The Hammer Without a Master] in 1955). In between, there are some notable dalliances, including a very fine Also Sprach Zarathustra (where he opts to take the opening, somewhat to my surprise for such a straight and literal interpreter, in the jazzier manner), plus Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies passionately played, if more of the Klemperer-Bohm school of Tchaikovsky rather than the white-heat of Mravinsky. He also appears as a pianist in Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Only the Beethoven symphonies, old fashioned and stolid readings, are comparative disappointments. Then, there is this release of Mahler symphonies.

It's presented in the traditional cardboard box with paper sleeves containing all of Mahler’s non-choral symphonies (i.e. minus numbers 2,3 and 8, all of which he did conduct on earlier occasions with different orchestras), but does include the Fourth, as well as Das Lied von der Erde, both of which of course require soloists. Each work is contained on a single disc, with the exception of the Sixth which runs to a few seconds short of 82 minutes and therefore occupies two. There is a booklet with an essay both in German and English by Christoph Schluren, who is admirably passionate in his advocacy of Hans Rosbaud, less so in denigrating other conductors to try and make his points. Likewise, for those of you with limited shelf space, the set is also available on either mp3 or FLAC downloads too.

The recordings were made during the years 1951 – 1961, mainly for radio broadcasts, but in the case of the Fifth Symphony and Das Lied, live in concerts, and while unsurprisingly the sound is mono, it is also remarkably clear and much cleaner than previous issues of the Fifth (ICA) or Das Lied (Tahra). This allows the listener to appreciate the fine playing Rosbaud elicits from the SWR orchestra, as well as the Cologne RSO who make a ‘guest appearance’ for the Fifth Symphony only. True, as some commentators have noted, neither orchestra is able to boast the tonal lustre of other ensembles in Europe during the 1950’s, such as van Beinum’s Concertgebouw or, later on in the decade, Karajan’s bands in both Berlin and Vienna, nor do they possess the virtuosity and panache of the 1950’s Philharmonia Orchestra, but they do play Mahler with a remarkable conviction, accuracy and authority which in itself deserves recognition.

To my mind, Rosbaud’s Mahler is perhaps what you would expect Klemperer’s or Boulez’s to have been, if neither conductor wasn’t so unpredictable in their own Mahler recordings (Boulez on DG is warm and genial in the First, white-hot in the Sixth, cold and dispassionate in the Seventh, etc., whilst Klemperer is just downright eccentric in his studio taping of the Seventh for EMI). Nor is this Mahler cut from the cloth of genial late Walter, wise and full of local colour, or the other extreme of the pressure-cooker intensity of Dimitri Mitropoulos. Rather – and somewhat ironically - it is one of Rosbaud’s successors at Baden-Baden, Michael Gielen, who springs most to mind and who likewise shares an almost cerebral and unsentimental approach to this composer, the music presented as itself, no more, no less. As with Gielen, everything is supremely well-paced, logical and with a total command of structure which together carries much conviction, all qualities that were certainly not a given in performances of this music during the 1950’s. After my comparative survey of some two hundred recordings of Mahler’s First Symphony, Sarah W wrote on MWI’s message board: “ I found that l really enjoyed the cold, clear, one-dimensional reading of [Rosbaud’s] Firstt”, which perhaps neatly sums up Rosbaud’s approach to Mahler, or at least the one he exhibited during the 1950’s. One does have to concede that there is a lack of youthful high-spirits and exuberance in the First Symphony, plus maybe a lack of child-like wonder in the Fourth, but elsewhere there is practically everything else. Ironically, it is perhaps not in one of the symphonies, but the song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde, that encapsulates all the facets of Rosbaud’s Mahler. The live radio broadcast here from 1955 is not to be confused with the later studio recording Rosbaud made for Vox in 1958, with the same orchestra and contralto, but this, too, is instructive, for Rosbaud’s Mahler was well enough known at the time to attract the attention of record companies. Likewise, the two interpretations are astonishingly consistent, each movement only differing by a matter of a handful of seconds, with the exception of Der Einsame im Herbst, where the opening is taken at a more leisurely pace in the earlier account. Both versions feature distinguished soloists, Grace Hoffmann, as well as Ernst Haefliger for the radio broadcast, plus the same mezzo and Helmuth Melchert for the studio recording, with the usual attendant pros and cons of studio versus live recordings, as the greater emotional immediacy of the radio broadcast needs to be offset by the needs of both soloists to ‘warm-up’ in their first songs, which isn’t the case in the studio. For the broadcast, the distinguished Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger may be familiar to many readers, being the tenor soloist in the van Beinum recording of the same work, as well as on several live tapings under Bruno Walter, and both he and Melchert are well able to navigate the tricky balance of assertive power and extreme delicacy that this score demands. Likewise, too, Grace Hoffmann featured as Herodias on the classic Decca-Nilsson Salome and here employs her generous and warm tones to telling effect, with the text often floated on long lines most beautifully. Rosbaud’s contribution too is most telling, with much impressive balancing of all the instrumental elements of the score, paying particular care for line and texture. He paces the score conventionally and expertly, avoiding the slowness and heaviness that Klemperer just about gets away with in his classic version on EMI, yet charges into the central section of Von der Schönheit with just as much speed and reckless abandon as Leonard Bernstein did during an infamous filmed rehearsal sequence in Tel Aviv, when he so upset his own soloist, Christa Ludwig. If the end of Der Abschied is more intensely beautiful than intensely moving, then some may prefer a more restrained approach, but, by all accounts, this is a Das Lied that can stand toe-to-toe with almost any other.

Turning to the symphonies, the First evinces similar qualities. There is an earlier, live account from late 1954 with Furtwangler’s Berlin PO (available on Tahra), which is virtually the same interpretation as the one broadcast with the SWR orchestra in 1961, demonstrating the consistency of this conductor’s approach. Interestingly, the long lyrical sections of the final movement are delivered with much more heartfelt emotion in Berlin than I would usually associate with this conductor. I have long wondered whether this could have been a consequence of the timing of the performance, just a few weeks before Furtwängler’s death and whether it was the Berlin orchestra paying homage to their chief, who at the time was seriously ill and tragically, losing his hearing as a result of the drugs being used to treat that illness. Either way, it is notable that the later recording is far more dry-eyed in this respect, although being both better played and recorded, it is the one to have of Rosbaud’s way with this work, even if I feel his achievement here falls short of contemporary studio recordings by Bruno Walter (both with the New York PO and Colombia SO), as well as Kubelik with the Vienna PO, all of which demonstrate greater exuberance and abandon in this most youthful work by Mahler.

Surprisingly, there are also two extant recordings of the Fourth Symphony conducted by Rosbaud. The earlier one from 1949 with Kathe Maas as the soloist and the SWR is nigh on impossible to track down these days; it was released on vinyl in the 1950’s only in the US on the now notorious Royale label - notorious for issuing recordings by otherwise unknown conductors in front of ensembles which mysteriously never gave public performances! Once a Bruckner Third Symphony by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra conducted by a certain Gerd Rubahn was proven to be that by Leopold Ludwig and the Berlin PO, the same conductor-orchestra partnership on the cover of the Mahler Fourth Symphony was then investigated and proven to have been given instead by Rosbaud and the SWR Orchestra. No such problems with the provenance of this radio broadcast some ten years later with the soprano Eva-Maria Rogner, in a fine and lucid performance, lacking only a sense of rapture at key moments. As such, and with the competition in this work so formidable even in 1959 with several recordings, both live and in the studio, from around this time by Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, plus the studio accounts of Fritz Reiner with Lisa Della Casa and Leonard Bernstein with Reri Grist all jostling for attention, I feel this version should inevitably be overlooked.

The Fifth Symphony is the earliest recording in the set and is also the only one featuring a ‘guest’ orchestra, namely the Cologne Radio Symphony. They play very well indeed, all things considered – not perfectly, but just compare them for example to the New York PO under Mitropoulos in their live relay of the (far simpler) First Symphony of the same year, to hear what I mean – by comparison, the Cologne orchestra play like gods. In this symphony, Rosbaud’s no-nonsense approach pays significant dividends with the whole thing seemingly welded together into one unified whole. Indeed, it is quite remarkable just how lucid his interpretation is here, not least when one considers that in 1951 there was only one recording available of the work (Walter/NYPO from 1947) so it was hardly well-known at the time, but Rosbaud achieves his results simply by paying scrupulous attention to the score. If perhaps the central scherzo is slightly more flowing than usual, one can sense this is due to the conductor highlighting the dance-like elements of the rhythms and in doing so offering a good contrast to the grimness of the preceding two movements. He plays the Adagietto at a middle of the road tempo (for the early 1950’s) at a shade under nine minutes, inevitably slower than Mengelberg’s super-flowing 7 minutes 15 seconds in 1926, but also slower than Bruno Walter, both with the Vienna and New York Philharmonics, in 1938 and 1947, respectively. Kubelik’s famous performance with the Concertgebouw from the same year as Rosbaud’s, is, though, around a minute slower still, but, Rosbaud’s approach is of a piece with his whole performance that is shot-through with a rare conviction for a Mahler performance from this time. As the symphony approaches the final pages, the whooping horns that herald the start of the final chorale are as exultant and exuberant as any. This is a very fine performance indeed.

Turning to the Sixth Symphony next is instructive, for it puts much into context, especially when you consider that the first studio recording of this work was made by Charles Adler with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in 1952 and, incredibly, the next was made some thirteen years later in 1965 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf. The inevitable conclusion is that this was hardly a repertory piece when Rosbaud and his orchestra set down their own interpretation in a radio broadcast on 6th April 1961 (they also gave a live performance the following day, which was once available on the Datum label). With the Andante placed third and no exposition repeat in the first movement, this is once again an extremely lucid, well-played and superbly structured account of the score, which must have been a revelation to listeners at the time – it is better and more involving than both the aforementioned Adler and Leinsdorf recordings, if without the overwhelming white heat of Dimitri Mitropoulos’s various live accounts from around this time, or Hermann Scherchen’s scorching live performance the previous year with the Leipzig Radio SO (which, it has to be said, is heavily cut). The sound, a mono radio broadcast, isn’t quite the best though from that time for a work which almost demands the most up- to-date sonics, a point made most forcibly by the tam-tam in the final movement, which somehow sounds as if someone is unceremoniously crashing two metal dustbin lids together. Ultimately though I was left hugely impressed, rather overwhelmed by this performance, preferring both the aforementioned Mitropoulos and Scherchen accounts from this era.

If the Sixth Symphony was hardly a repertory piece in the 1950’s, the Seventh was an even rarer bird. When this radio broadcast was made by Rosbaud and his orchestra in 1957, there was only one commercial recording available of the piece by Hermann Scherchen and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, made for Westminster in 1953 and, as with the Sixth Symphony, incredibly there would not be a further one until 1964 when Maurice Abravanel made his recording with the Utah Symphony. Indeed, even today when apparently lost ‘radio’ broadcasts get released nearly every month, live recordings of Mahler’s elusive Seventh Symphony before Abravanel’s studio version are still very rare – live performances led by Barbirolli and van Beinum are joined by only two others, coincidentally also conducted by Scherchen and Rosbaud. Unlike the erratic Scherchen (in this work), Rosbaud is remarkably consistent in his view of this symphony, when comparing this SWR reading with the one made some four years prior with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra – the later reading is the finer of the two, better recorded and with a slightly tauter interpretation, more settled and integrated, especially in the first movement which can sometimes come across as episodic in the wrong hands. Both recordings feature remarkably assured and confident playing, not least when you consider that the players could not have been familiar with this music at the time. Rosbaud’s interpretation is once again straight-forward and clear-sighted, notably for generating some remarkable intensity in the second half of the opening movement, as well as for the inner-detail of the central movements, the balance of the mandolin and guitar in the second Nachtmusik expertly done and remarkably clear. In the final movement, Rosbaud also achieves notable cohesion with all the variations as well but, much to my surprise, comparisons with the aforementioned rival recordings do not do him any favours. Eduard van Beinum’s radio broadcast from 1958 also has a similarly ‘straight’ reading which, in spite of slightly disappointing sound and boomy timpani, is nevertheless more involving than Rosbaud’s as a result of a greater orchestra at the top of its game – the flair, drive and sheer panache at which the Concertgebouw despatch this score is remarkable. Likewise, two years later, John Barbirolli, in spite of needing the services of the combined forces of two orchestras (the Hallé and BBC Northern Orchestras) was able to deliver a Song of the Night as a second half of a concert that had Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony before the interval (yes, you read that correctly!) which is brimful of character that Rosbaud can barely hint at. As an example of this, just listen to the final minute of both performances side by side - under Rosbaud’s steely gaze and iron grip, that final peroration lacks the grandeur and ‘lift’ of Barbirolli, in spite of an equally thrilling build up, as well as the undoubted superiority of Rosbaud’s players’ execution. It is always the curse of the reviewer to report that the great is the enemy of the merely excellent, as is the case with this recording of the Seventh Symphony and once again, I was left hugely impressed rather than overwhelmed.

Rosbaud’s swift, but searingly intense reading of the Ninth comes from 1954 and there appears to have been a live performance given at around the same time, that was once available on the Arkadia label. The sound here, one of the earliest in the set is a little dry, but the ear soon adjusts. The first movement has some scrappy string playing on occasion, but is notable for being swift and fiery. To give you some perspective here, Rosbaud is a few seconds short of 23 minutes in this movement, whereas Barbirolli/BPO is just under 27 and Walter/VPO almost 25 minutes – in Rosbaud’s hands, the music is shot-through with searing despair with no regretful lingering in the shadows. Some may rue that the more poetical moments of the music, so expertly teased out by Karajan for example, are passed by without so much of a second glance, but this is clearly not Rosbaud’s way. Conversely, the second movement Ländler is a touch steadier than the more virtuosic norm these days, but the rhythms are sprung so well that it hardly matters and Rosbaud’s interpretation is as grim and sardonic as anyone could wish. In the Rondo Burleske, the central episode anticipating the great melody of the final movement breaks through the surrounding turbulence and clouds like one final, glorious sunset. The last movement, like the first, is remarkable for its intensity, but it has to be noted that at 21 and a half minutes it is a faster than usual account (Barbirolli in Berlin is no slouch in this movement either but takes over a minute and a half longer). This is partly because Rosbaud takes the final few pages swiftly and with a rapt concentration, but I do have to report it is an approach that is singularly devoid of much emotion. Okay, it is much better than going over the top and practically killing the music as Bernstein almost did in his final recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but I think some listeners may find this whole performance a little too dry and analytical, even if the drama of the piece comes over well.

In short, this is potentially the problem with the whole set: Rosbaud’s cool and cerebral readings are astonishing for their time, both in terms of orchestral execution as well as the lucid conviction of the interpretations, especially the sheer consistency at which he was able to deliver these qualities over all the works in this set – this alone demands the highest admiration, as does the fact that Rosbaud also conducted all of Mahler’s symphonies, something his contemporaries Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer singularly didn’t do. Similarly, Rosbaud is far more lucid and faithful to the score than the hypnotic, but wayward Willem Mengelberg (on the evidence of that conductor’s sole existing complete Mahler recording of the Fourth Symphony), plus was also much more consistent and disciplined than both Hermann Scherchen and John Barbirolli with this composer too. However, as the late Tony Duggan once perceptively observed, Rosbaud “is not a conductor to go to for effects, or to luxuriate in sheer sound” - except that Mahler, with his demands for massive forces and offstage instrumentalists, needs those qualities in addition to the disciplined playing and conducting which Rosbaud so impeccably delivers every time. In the narrative above, you may think that it is all very well for some curmudgeonly old critic like myself to point to various peer performances that may be more exciting, or have a greater sense of wonder and exultation than the ones featured in this set under Rosbaud – but the fact remains that even at such an early stage in the history of Mahler performances, they do exist and so it gives me pause for thought before I jump onto the bandwagon and start praising this set from the rooftops, as my other fellow critics have done, not least since it is hardly at bargain price. The collector has to ask whether s/he really needs a box of recordings of only some of Mahler’s symphonies, in dry and admittedly clear, but nonetheless unspectacular, mono sound, decently but not fabulously played (by modern standards), with interpretations that are remarkably logical if somewhat unshowy. Maybe, then, this set is best left for the specialist collector, for whom Rosbaud’s Mahler demands to be both heard and appreciated, rather than the more casual buyer, who would be well advised to instead cherry-pick the single releases of the Fifth Symphony and Das Lied which are, in my opinion, the best performances in the set.

In conclusion, people have often commented on why and how the art of Hans Rosbaud has been overlooked, but sometimes Fate has a cruel way with the world of music. As an example of this, Marc Bridle’s recent centenary appraisal ruminated on what would have happened had Guido Cantelli not boarded LAI Flight 451 and was killed as a consequence of it crashing (Cantelli). Likewise, how would things have turned out if Wilhelm Furtwängler had been able to carry on conducting and lived for as long as Otto Klemperer, the latter (incredibly) being just a year older than him? In 1961, Hans Rosbaud was being seriously considered as a possible successor to the rapidly ailing Fritz Reiner as Principal Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, before ill-health overcame him too and he died the following year. How our memories and appreciation of him might have been different had he lived healthily for another ten years is anyone’s guess, but for now, let us be grateful for what we do have and to SWR Classics for their labour of love in making these important and historic recordings available to a wider audience in such improved sound.

Lee Denham

Performance details
Symphony No 1 (52:51)
WDR Symphony Orchestra
11-16 September 1961 (Studio V, Baden Baden)
Symphony No 4 (54:42)
WDR Symphony Orchestra
14 May 1959 (Studio V, Baden Baden)
Symphony No 5 (65:47)
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra
22 October 1951 (recording location unspecified)
Symphony No 6 (82:18)
WDR Symphony Orchestra
6 April 1961 (Studio V, Baden Baden)
Symphony No 7 (76:51)
WDR Symphony Orchestra
18 & 20 February 1957 (Studio V, Baden Baden)
Symphony No 9 (74:19)
WDR Symphony Orchestra
7 January 1954 (Studio V, Baden Baden)
Das Lied von der Erde (62:00)
Grace Hoffmann (Mezzo-soprano), Ernst Haefliger (Tenor)
WDR Symphony Orchestra
18 April 1955 (Cologne)

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