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Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic - Vol. 2
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 (1841, revised 1851) [29:48]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Tod und Verklärung, Op 24 (1889) [22:48]
Wiener Philharmoniker/Hans Knappertsbusch
rec. live, 16 December 1962, Vienna. mono
IDIS 6655 [52:38]

The IDIS label is oddly erratic; some of its recent issues, such as the all-Dvořák programme “Karajan Spectacular” have been excellent. Far too many others suffer from poor source material, carelessly re-mastered. For example, their Barbirolli Elgar disc inexplicably gives us the first track of the Enigma Variations in mono before reverting to stereo. Then there’s the Karajan Die Walküre which contains so many jumps and drop-outs.
 
This issue is less problematic although there are a few negligible drop-outs such as at the beginning of the second movement of the Schumann symphony. The sound overall is very hard and wiry with little depth. Some of that is due less to the recording quality of the original tape than to the fact that the VPO is on this occasion suffering from Knappertsbusch’s notorious reluctance to rehearse. It really needed a warm-up; the strings are often unpardonably screechy and approximate in intonation. There isn’t too much distortion but the opening track begins abruptly, missing any ambient lead-in. This suggests that the recording began marginally later than the playing, so one wonders whether this is a flaw in the original tape or yet another example of careless production by the Milanesi engineering team. Similarly, the conclusion of the Strauss tone poem is cut short before the final C major chord finishes resonating. There is some pretty sloppy ensemble here, too, with timpani and strings out of synch on the opening downbeat of phrases and a general sloppiness in tutti passages. The lack of precision would no doubt have made Karajan tut-tut; there is a near train-wreck around 16:00 into the Strauss towards the end.
 
No; as much as I am a great Knappertsbusch fan this 1962 concert was not his finest hour for all that the audience applause is quite enthusiastic. There is compensating conviction and some powerful moments but for much of the time in the Schumann Kna sounds ponderous and even lumbering; this despite his characteristically swift tempi. For much of the time it sounds to me as though the conductor is on autopilot. The first movement lacks lightness and flexibility of phrasing. This serves to accentuate bare patches in the composer’s writing which in less enlightened times exposed him to the accusation of being a poor orchestrator. Having said that, the conclusion to the Strauss, despite the mess alluded to earlier, is arresting and the music still makes its impact.
 
There are far finer testaments than this to Knappertsbusch’s best work with the VPO from the 1950s and early 1960s, especially in their Bruckner and Wagner.  

Ralph Moore

Masterwork Index: Schumann symphony 4 ~~ Tod und Verklärung

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