Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:


BEETHOVEN The Nine Symphonies and overtures
SCHUMANN The Four Symphonies and overtures
Works for violin and orchestra by BEETHOVEN, BACH, VIVALDI, MOZART, WIENIAWSKI
Konwitschny conducting Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig, Rundfunkchor Leipzig (Schumann and Beethoven symphonies etc), Staatskapelle Berlin (Bach etc); Staatskapelle Dresden (Mozart etc)
ADD recorded 1958-1962 - stereo
11 CDs [74.12+67.02+68.31+63.11+59.41+65.49+77.51+71.39+74.44+68.29+70.47]

Konwitschny (1902-62), himself the son of a conductor, was born in northern Moravia, studying at Brno and then at Leipzig. As a violist he played under Furtwängler with the Gewandhaus. His conducting history began with the Stuttgart Opera from which début he moved successively as director to Freiburg, Frankfurt, Hannover, Hamburg and then to the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester from 1949 where he remained as chief conductor until his death. He held director positions with the Dresden and Berlin State Operas. His Ring at Covent Garden (1959) was reputedly outstanding indeed his strengths were said to lie primarily in the opera house. He died in Belgrade while conducting in a TV broadcast.

A devout Catholic he was an adroit pragmatist operating with expedient aplomb in the service of music in both the Third Reich and in the DDR. His funeral, which attracted full state honours, was extraordinary, in the orthodoxy of East Germany, for including a Requiem Mass.

His taste was for opera but he rapidly secured a firmly founded reputation in the concert hall as documented by this set each disc of which can be had separately. Details from the reviewer if wished.

'Konwhiskey' was his nickname amongst orchestral musicians: before performances of Tristan und Isolde he was reputed to down six bottles of champagne. He would take out his handkerchief during a performance, mopping his brow and then using it to wave to friends in the audience. These eccentricities (at least the last one!) are reminiscent of pianist, Vladimir de Pachmann with his notorious but quite unselfconscious spoken asides to audiences.

Konwitschny's split-second drilled vigour and sheer heat are impressive. While he may have hated rehearsals and was noted for a relaxed hands-off approach he could instantaneously grasp control if the orchestra showed signs of 'slipping'.

If you are familiar with the Berlin Classics roster you will have known or known of these discs as individual entries since the mid-1990s. This is their first excursion together as a major boxed set.


CD1 - Bach and Vivaldi violin concertos

Big band Bach - a bug-bear to any souls who must have the 'authentic' approach. This is unreconstructed Bach (and Vivaldi) wending its way via early twentieth century sensibilities of th sort to be heard in Mark Obert-Thorn's two disc collection of Bach orchestral transcriptions. The Largo of the Bach Double Violin Concerto is of preternatural poise and inevitable flow while the outer movements skim and spin in a rugged floodtide of dialogue. The Oistrakhs (père et fils) light up the Bach and David alone takes the other works (both BWV 1042 and 1052). There is a startlingly aggressive Vivaldi Concerto Grosso in A minor for two violins and strings with a miraculous Larghetto - sample this first.

CD2 - Mozart Violin Concerto K219; Beethoven Romances (2); Wieniawski Violin Concerto No. 2.

The first two discs make unconvincing company for the other nine. Konwitschny is not centre-stage. The personalities of David and Igor Oistrakh are well to the fore. As such I would have expected to find the discs in an Oistrakh box. The performances are lovely but K's conductorial art is below surface level tactfully supporting the soloists and balancing the orchestra against the solo line. In Mozart's cheerful and sentimental K219 the Dresden Staatskapelle are discreet and subordinate to the flow of willowy melody vibrating from Oistrakh's violin. Igor Oistrakh takes over for the romances and the Wieniawski in both of which the Gewandhaus orchestra accompany. His tone is more reedy and penetrating than his father's and he has less to do in the rather dull romances than in the Wieniawski in which nationalist Polish and gypsy themes abound.

CD3 - Schumann Symphonies 1 and 2

These interpretations have flitted in and out of catalogue availability. In the days of LP they were licensed to Philips and were issued on the Fontana label. In the Winter of the vinyl era all four were to be had in a 2-disc gatefold sleeve. Hearing both symphonies in these transfers affirms the received golden opinions I read back then.

Sound quality is not a problem. The recordings were made by the VEB Deutsche Schallplatten team who secured a rounded, broad-spread and hard-hitting sound which yet finds space to showcase the wily, ardent and yielding playing of the Gewandhaus wind principals. If I have a complaint it is that the engineers did not choose to catch the hoarse power of the French horns in quite the same way that they do in the Leipzigers recording of Beethoven 5. The horns remain distant in the triumphal brass flourish at 2.01 in the allegro of the Spring Symphony.

Konwitschny's Schumann is preponderantly Beethovenian rather than in the flighty Mendelssohnian school. Weighty it may be but this does not hamper its speed and fantasy when called for. In the Second Symphony the introduction is rather ordinary. There should have been more of a Brucknerian sense of peril and expectation but things do warm up as the staccato chordal attack at 2.58 confirms. Overall though there are more softened contours and relaxation than is good for the interpretation - good though it is. This is the Achilles heel of the set made all the more noticeable by the excellence of the other three symphonies.

In the complete Schumann symphonies fellow Ostlanders Sawallisch and the Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI Electrola, 1970s) are reckoned very strong with Kubelik (DG), Hans Vonk (EMI Redline) and Szell (Sony-CBS) well-placed though Szell omits repeats and carries out some judicious adjustments to orchestration. I would not want to be without the Konwitschny sequence.

CD4 - Schumann Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4.

The Rhenish (No. 3) displays Konwitschny's accustomed broad pacing as is evidenced by the Scherzo which has gravitas as well as an affluent sweep. The tragic tread of the Nicht schnell is nicely pointed up by the Lebhaft which fairly sparkles. The Fourth flames with excitement and trademark precision. His way with hushed (almost threatening) tension-building is close to Brucknerian in the Langsam-Lebhaft. In fact it is highly reminiscent of Sibelius. I wonder if Konwitschny ever conducted Sibelius who, through no fault of the Finn, was an extremely popular composer during the days of the Third Reich.

CD5 - Schumann orchestral works: overtures etc

This is the miscellaneous Schumann and spans the overtures to Manfred and Genoveva as well as Overture, Scherzo and Finale. These recordings catch the mellow Konwitschny. This is suave, sincere and essentially lyrical. Tragedy is a presence in these scores but this disc does not underscore that factor. Lovingly done, buttery interpretations - not plodding but more in step with a walk through the forests and meadows of classic Germany than with cliffs, ravines, mortality and fear. The approach in the Concert Piece for four horns and orchestra is uniform. The horns are well placed aurally and make a satisfying contribution. This is playing of the highest order. The soloists are; Peter Damm, Hermann Märker, Werner Pilz and Georg Böhner.

CD6 - Beethoven Symphony No. 1 and No. 2

Symphony No. 1: some hiss. There is no sign that the company have used their usual filtering software. NoNoise technology is a fixture on Berlin Classics' 'Document' line. The approach is vivacious and light of step. Symphony No. 2 is notable for a silvery and airy scherzo and nice perspective effects. Great clarity and 'spring' also on show in the Prometheus Overture.

CD7 - Beethoven Symphony No. 3 Leonore overtures 1 and 2

The Eroica is taken very spaciously and the Marcia Funebre (15.45) is very steady indeed. Note the slow woodwind playing. The splinter sharp staccato in the scherzo is a heartbeat away from Konwitschny's fine work in the Seventh Symphony. He brings a Berliozian impetuosity and fanciful lightness to the great echo-dialogue Finale. The tape of Leonore 2 must have been on poorer stock as it suffered some-bleed through with pre-echo present among the tacet-fff transitions at the start.

CD8 - Beethoven Symphonies No. 4 and No. 5

The engineering team who made these recordings back in the late 1950s merit an award for their work. The Fourth Symphony is of demonstration quality for its delicacy, its warmth and its fullness. Is it this clarity that made me think for the first time how similar Berlioz's orchestral writing is to Beethoven's. Konwitschny and the Gewandhaus players also made me reassess my feelings for the Fourth. Lightning swift thunderclaps, barely harnessed energy, tension and excitement flood out from the loudspeakers: luminous, lucid and lavish. Only the hint of hollowness in the massed violins gives away the age game. If the great wits always have the 'mot juste' Konwitschny, a great conductor, had unerring judgement in his interpretation and direction and his orchestra play like the seraphim possessed. Temptation to wander down leafy paths was a Konwitschny vulnerability but it is successfully fended off.

In the Fifth the conductor takes as few hostages as in the Fourth. He marshals his tensions carefully at first, so the 'call to arms' can seem a mite languid, but soon he is driving the Gewandhaus like a chariot of the Gods. The brash horn blasts in the first movement are abrasive, rough and virile. The whole is splendid - momentous without rodomontade, freshly imagined in a work that can so easily sound threadbare, sharply accented without affectation, the acceleration of a cheetah without scouting detail.

CD9 - Beethoven Symphony No. 6; Overtures: Leonore 3, Fidelio, Coriolan.

Coriolan raises disappointment that space was not found in the sessions for an Egmont. It, together with the Fidelio and Leonore 3, has all the drama, tension and tragedy you could ask coupled with a machine-precise performance which yet retains humanity. The bed of analogue hiss is at a very low level showing the high quality of tape stock used and judicious setting of equalisation and head alignment. There is an unusual level of hardness to the sound in the fff passages in Leonore 3 - an exception - not at all usual in this set.

The main work is a Pastoral which is effortless without being facile. Leipzig's first oboe is sheer delight in the Allegro (track 4). The conductor's predilection in this work is clear - lovingly traced outlines and a graceful contentment are what speaks out most persuasively. This is heard to best effect in the first and last movements. The music is moved forward with firm conviction as if Konwitschny knew that he could not afford to dawdle overlong in this music.

CD10 - Beethoven Symphonies No. 7 and 8

Seventh Symphony: Vaulting and bounding majesty, but without bombast, boldly thrusting forward, golden tone, steady tempo, and omni-dimensional recording. The horns howl exuberantly. The strings are in ample numbers but age has lent the finest blade of roughened stress to their strength. The woodwind tone is miraculous. These performances speak from an age when the meeting of boundless ambition and humility did not seem a paradox. Kleiber (père et fils) recorded 5 and 7 and each is highly regarded. Konwitschny has that same animalsitic excitement but is neither breathless nor hysterical. High praise also for the Eighth which has all the strengths of nervous tension combined with tautness of control. The dynamic contrasts are as staggering as they are in the Seventh. It is many years since I heard them but I am sure I recall a similar effect from the early 1960s Decca Beethoven Nine conducted by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt.

CD11 - Beethoven Symphony No. 9

The Choral Symphony line up involves Ingeborg Wenglor, Ursula Zollenkopf, Hans-Joachim Rotzsch and, the only international name, Theo Adam. The venue is deeply reverberant making for a disconcerting faint double exposure image. Also the sound does not have the body of say the Eroica though the drum in the Molto vivace sounds well. The Gewandhaus's gutty strings (try 1.15 in the Presto finale) will ruffle feathers but their half victorious and half sinister chorale (3.30 - finale) must be heard. Konwitschny unleashes a startling fury at 6.03. The choir are just as precisely responsive and coordinated as the orchestra. While Wenglor can be a little shrill, Zollenkopf is secure and satisfying of tone. Joy indeed. The Turkish march clinks and clangs with a hint of a smile playing around the lips. The choir's sopranos are stratospherically secure.

It is good to hear these symphonies complete with repeats. When Philips issued them on LP in the 1960s they inexplicably snipped the repeats out. Berlin Classics have not fallen into that trap.


No notes. No background. Only a list of contents on each inner sleeve. Each sleeve is a simple rigid card pocket. The pocket gives track information but no precise dates of recordings or venues. In the case of the two concerto discs it is difficult to work out who is playing what. All eleven pockets sit inside a sturdy flip box.

After travelling back in time to Iron Curtain Germany via these discs we can understand the affection in which Konwitschny was held in Leipzig. For his state funeral procession the streets of Leipzig were lined deep and crowded over a ten kilometre route.

His Leipzig orchestra are dark and firm of tone precisely coached and powered like the 1930s BBC Symphony Orchestra under the young Adrian Boult.

Though these recordings were made at the end of his life his powers showed no signs of dimming. There is a stark contrast when you compare the fallibility of many of Barbirolli's late recordings with these late fruits of Konwitschny's art.

I could have happily sacrificed the concerto discs for some Bruckner symphonies but overall this is a remarkable box the allure of which will be heightened by the bargain price. This set is an even better introduction to the classics than the many cobbled together introductions: real music played as if the music meant something to the players. It is astoundingly well recorded.

Rob Barnett

In case of dificulty these disc can be obtained from

The Complete Record Company Ltd
22 Prescott Place
London SW4 6BT
Tel 020 7498 9666
Fax 020 7498 1828

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