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Hans Rosbaud conducts French Music
Monique Haas (piano)
Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden
rec. 1950-62, Baden-Baden, Studio IV except Mihalovici Toccata, rec. Kurhaus Baden-Baden
SWR CLASSIC SWR19115CD [4 CDs: 310]

As this long-running SWR series is showing, as if we didn’t already know it, Hans Rosbaud was exceptional in almost all aspects of the repertoire. For this 4 CD set the focus falls on French music, which thereby annexes the French-speaking Honegger and the Romanian-born but long-time French resident, Marcel Mihalovici.

Rosbaud suffered a serious illness in 1959 and was never able thereafter fully to recover, though he was conducting until a week before his death in 1962. Many of the 1960-61 performances are admirable but comparison – where comparison is possible – with examples of the same work recorded before his illness points to quite graphic interpretative differences or contingencies or tempo compromises. Fortunately, in this box most of the performances pre-date 1959 but by no means all. A number of gung-ho critics ride roughshod over this inescapable fact, but it always needs to be born in mind when discussing Rosbaud’s late broadcast recordings.

The first disc is given over to Debussy in which one finds a perfect balance of languor and rigour in the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune as well as a Paray-like directionality in the Nocturnes (no Sirènes here), though clearly Paray, who was recording in Detroit at the same time Rosbaud was in Baden-Baden, had the superior orchestra. The major work in the first disc is obviously La Mer from January 1958, which receives a reading of symphonic breadth and rhythmic vitality, but Rosbaud also presented a colourfully controlled and brilliant Jeux and rarities like the Berceuse heroïque.

Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso glitters evocatively laced with much subtlety of colour whereas gracious phrasal elegance is what’s required – and which is precisely what we get – in Ma Mère l'Oye, of which the final panel, Le Jardin féerique is especially lovely. The remainder of the second disc is given over to Roussel. The Concert pour petit orchestra of 1926 offers three exquisite movements, rhythmically vital, hauntingly grave and then a finale full of giocoso elan, all served up by Rosbaud with considerable animation, despite the 1960 date. Everyone loves the Suite in F major which embraces vigour and wit as well as that increasingly powerful second-movement Sarabande. Roussel’s Third Symphony is also here in which Rosbaud precisely catches the music’s contrapuntal energy, but still more masterly is the way in which he builds up the climax of the slow movement, bringing things to an almost unbearable tensile pitch. Thereafter things are lighter but no less textually clear, Rosbaud ensuring that the ebullient finale remains fat-free and dramatic.

The third disc explores his questing approach to contemporary music. First there’s Ibert’s symphonic suite Le Chevalier errant. Rosbaud was a slightly young contemporary of Ibert and is attuned to his brand of approachable, almost filmic charm in this work, not least in its languid, lovely lyricism and the vivid, fast final scene. Rosbaud substituted winds for the soprano voice in Milhaud’s L'homme et son désir and once again he guides the players through the contrapuntal writing with elucidatory perception, allowing Milhaud’s orchestral felicities to emerge – so many timbres, colours and moods and that nourishing double bass solo which allows the music finally to end quietly and satisfyingly. Fans of Maurice Jarre will know that his Concertino pour percussion et cordes, No 11 of the collective piece known as the Divertimento for Mozart, lasts all of three minutes. The final piece on this third disc is Messiaen’s Chronochromie which Rosbaud premiered publicly about a week later. His care and precision over new scores like this – which I happen not to like in any way, not that it matters – was one of the many admirable things about him as was his insistence on orchestral clarity and discipline.
Honegger’s Third Symphony, the Symphonie Liturgique, is contained in the last disc and the recording dates from 1956, the year after the composer’s death. The first movement barely lets up its gripping intensity in this performance. In the central movement Rosbaud’s strings can hardly measure up to Karajan’s Berliners in this work, or anywhere – but then that was not a Rosbaud priority – but the SWR orchestra’s lines are clear and his winds eloquent. Rosbaud holds the finale quite steadily - in fact he and Karajan take the same tempo – but no one can match Serge Baudo who rips through it.

Rosbaud was a known admirer of Marcel Mihalovici, whose Second Symphony he performed in this 1953 world première (it had been completed the previous year). It’s a sinewy piece, linear and lean with rich contrapuntal writing. The Invenzione movement has a sustained nobility of invention and is followed by a sizzling perpetuum mobile played as fast as possible, and a tricky finale in which the entry points are all well negotiated. This is a fine work that should be better known; Rosbaud’s premiere is something of a triumph. Mihalovici’s Toccata is played by his wife Monique Haas, with orchestra. It’s in two movements and quite percussive with some jazz hues that, in the finale, become charged with youthful energy and tight rhythms. It’s a fresh vehicle for the brilliant pianism of Haas.

Production standards, of recording, transfers and booklet are, as one would expect, customarily high. Acknowledging that this is necessarily something of a niche buy, I can say that Rosbaud brings everything to life with magnificent control and absorbing concentration.

Jonathan Woolf

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, L. 86 (1894)
Nocturnes, L. 91 No 1, Nuages No 2, Fêtes (1897-99)
Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire, L. 77 (Version for Orchestra) (1893/1908)
Berceuse heroïque, L. 132 (Version for Orchestra) (1914)
Jeux, L. 126 (1913)
La Mer (1903-05)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Miroirs, 5 pieces for piano, No 4, Alborada del gracioso (Version for Orchestra) (1904-05 orch 1918)
Ma Mère l'Oye (1911)
Albert Roussel (1869-1937)
Concert pour petit orchestre, Op 34 (1926)
Suite in F major, Op 33 (1926)
Symphony No 3 in G minor, Op.42 (1929-30)

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962)
Le Chevalier Errant – suite symphonique (1936)
Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)
L'homme et son désir, Op. 48 (Version for Orchestra) (1918)
Maurice Jarre (1924-2009)
Concertino pour percussion et cordes (1956)
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Chronochromie, I / 43 (1960)

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955)
Symphony No 3, H186 'Liturgique' (1946)
Marcel Mihalovici (1898-1985)
Symphony No 2, Op 66 "Sinfonia partita" (1952)
Toccata for piano and orchestra, Op 44 (1940)

Published: October 25, 2022

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