> Hans Knappertsbusch: Beethoven - Brahms [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 8 in F, op. 93
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Symphony no. 2 in D, op. 73
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
Recorded live 18.10.1956, Aule delle Scuole, Ascona, Switzerland
For information visit www.aura-music.com
AURA AUR 165-2 [72’14"]


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Most people know that Hans Knappertsbusch (1888-1965) took very slow tempos and didn’t like rehearsing. He is also affectionately remembered in Germany for his supposedly Beechamesque bons mots, none of which have ever seemed to me, at least through the filter of translation, to be remotely funny. This record bears out the first two characteristics and maybe even the third since the orchestra’s surprise when he launches Beethoven 8 at a tempo some would think leisurely even for the first movement of the "Eroica" is tangible. By the time we have got to the exposition repeat (good to have it from a conductor of this generation) they have evidently realised that this is not his idea of a joke, he really does mean it, and the playing develops a good deal of point. The second subject, for instance, which was flabby first time round, is now drolly characterful. The trouble is, if you don’t rehearse then the first time round for any musical idea risks being a public rehearsal for the second. In spite of some orchestral fluffs this movement ends up as a very impressive statement, weighty but not heavy and very warm-hearted. It is even, when you have adapted to it, urgent in its way. It is a quite different slowness from that of Klemperer.

The inner movements are likewise well-sprung at tempos the slow side of normal, the metronome imitation sounding chunky and droll rather than delicate.

The finale had me gasping. I have only once heard it so slow – almost four-in-a-bar – and that from an amateur orchestra whose conductor evidently judged that the players could do it no faster. Once again, both orchestra and listener need time to adjust and yet in the end it is sufficiently characterful and convincing to have you wondering, at least fleetingly, if it isn’t actually meant to go like this. Much has been made, in the authenticist camp, of Beethoven’s challengingly fast metronome marks, but what about Liszt’s assertion that tempi in his day were about 50% faster than in Beethoven’s own?

A far from flawless Beethoven 8th, then, but one I shall be glad to turn to from time to time as an antidote to certain more joylessly perfect ones.

About the Brahms I am not so sure. Recently I remarked that in Willem Mengelberg’s hands (Teldec 0927 42662 2) this symphony for once corresponded to Brahms’s description of it as music for "a newly-married couple". But I also pointed out that the more majestic, leisurely interpretations we generally hear seem to have roots going back to conductors who had known Brahms. The issue here is not the interpretation which is warm-hearted and moves forward, however slowly, at its own majestic pace. It is simply that in order to enjoy such an interpretation I should need to hear it better played. From the accident-prone opening onwards, the numerous examples of clumsy balance, messy articulation (often corrected when the passage comes again) and above all raucous, ill-tuned playing from the wind and brass all testify to the fact that rehearsals are necessary. The Swiss-Italian Radio recording is very good for the date, but also very close-miked and it homes in on the mess with devastating clarity. A more distant, fuzzy and reverberant recording might have lent it more enchantment.

Knappertsbusch is now a cult-figure. He was not much recorded in his own day since it was known that his studio performances were inclined to be cold, cautious affairs, dim shadows of his live performances. Some Wagnerians have been hard on Decca for their decision to make their historic "Ring" with Solti and not Knappertsbusch. It seems that a strong faction at Decca was well aware that Knappertsbusch was the greater interpreter – in the theatre – but was unlikely to deliver that greatness in the studio (this had happened with his "Meistersinger"), while Solti was a natural recording artist from the beginning. At the time of his death it looked as if Knappertsbusch’s name would live on mainly through his two live Bayreuth Parsifals. Of non-operatic music only his partnership with Clifford Curzon in Beethoven and Brahms and some Bruckner in discredited editions had much catalogue life. But today Knappertsbusch material is eagerly sought out in European radio archives. His "Ring" and several other Wagner operas can now be heard, as can a fair range of concert repertoire. A full Beethoven cycle has not emerged but with only 1, 4 and 9 missing, and the others often in multiple versions, his vision of this composer can be studied. Alternative 8ths come from 1952 (Berlin PO, Tahra), 1959 (Bavarian State O, Orfeo d’Or) and 1960 (NDR SO, Hamburg, Tahra). But in view of the good quality Swiss recording I would not feel impelled to investigate the alternatives.

In the case of the Brahms, the possibility of hearing the same interpretation from an orchestra likely to produce superior playing even with little or no rehearsal is enticing. Recordings are listed from various sources of all the Brahms symphonies, the variations and the two overtures, though there is a possibility that the sole version of no. 1 might be by Klemperer. Just to give you an idea how complicated the situation is with this off-the-air material, a 1959 Vienna PO performance of no. 2 was issued by Wing while a Golden Melodram album apparently contains the same performance attributed to the Munich PO, and there has been some suggestion that it is not conducted by Knappertsbusch anyway. More trustworthy 2nds come from 1944 (Berlin PO, Tahra), 1947 (Suisse Romande, these seem to be Decca 78s never officially transferred to LP or CD but available at various times from Preiser and others) and 1959 (Dresden Staatskapelle, Tahra).

I don’t really know what sort of recommendation this adds up to. Knappertsbusch followers are assured they will find good quality sound and students of Beethoven interpretation will find this of interest. If it’s Knappertsbusch’s Brahms you want then I hope my description of the orchestral standards will enable you to decide whether this matter will be prohibitive for you.

Christopher Howell

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