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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Overture Preziosa, op. 78 (1821) [7:39]
Overture Turandot, op. 37 (1809) [4:15]
Overture Der Freischütz, op. 77 (1821) [9:56]
The ruler of the spirits, op. 27 (1811) [6:26]
Konzertstück in F minor, op. 79 (1821) [15:12]
Overture A midsummer night's dream, op. 21 (1826) [12:27]
Scherzo A midsummer night's dream, op. 61 (1843) [4:49]
Nocturne A midsummer night's dream, op. 61 (1843) [6:42]
Capriccio brillante, op. 22 (1832) [11:03]
Robert Casadesus (piano) (Konzertstück)
Yvonne Loriod (piano) (Capriccio brillante)
Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden/Hans Rosbaud
rec. SWF Musikstudio (Hans-Rosbaud-Studio), Baden-Baden, Germany; 13 January 1955 (Turandot), 10 April 1955 (Preziosa), 17 January 1957 (A midsummer night's dream music), 16 December 1957 (Der Freischütz), 14 April 1959 (Konzertstück), 18 December 1961 (Capriccio brillante) and 20 June 1962 (The ruler of the spirits)
Digitally remastered from the original tapes
SWR MUSIC SWR19040CD [79:40]

It was only a few months ago that I reviewed a first disc of remastered Rosbaud radio recordings (review). This new release now arrives as a second volume and a significant addition to the conductor’s relatively sparse discography. Much of the earlier booklet’s biographical information is repeated verbatim here, and the CD cover design is clearly following a standard template - though it would be good if any putative third volume in this series managed to source a photograph of the conductor in which he looks a little less like a dyspeptic bank manager turning down an application for a loan.

My earlier review made a number of points about Rosbaud’s attitude to recording. I also speculated as to why the sound quality of his broadcasts seems to have been less than ideal even by the standards of the time. Rather than repeat those points again here, I refer anyone who is interested in such issues to that earlier review.

During his lifetime Rosbaud was best known as a champion of contemporary music. He led first performances of works by Bartok, Schoenberg, Hartmann, Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen and others. It’s fitting, therefore, that the only picture of him and the orchestra that’s included in the CD booklet shows them performing Penderecki's Anaklasis. The SWR Classic discs are intended, however, to demonstrate his interest and artistry in other areas of the orchestral repertoire and this new one offers material from the early Romantic era. Moreover, two substantial tracks offer us the opportunity to hear Rosbaud supporting a piano soloist.

In the 1950s, when most of these performances were first broadcast, the old overture/concerto/symphony concert template generally still held sway and, as a result, audiences were much more familiar with a wide range of overtures than we are today. Nevertheless, even 60 years ago some of Rosbaud’s programming must have seemed quite adventurous. Of the four Weber overtures presented here, only that to Der Freischütz was an obvious choice. For the others, instead of the more familiar Euryanthe, Oberon or even Abu Hassan, the conductor seems to have taken pleasure in scheduling rather more rarely-heard fare - Preziosa, Turandot and The ruler of the spirits.

The slow, mysterious opening section of the Der Freischütz overture is especially distinctive in this account, with the conductor building up tension as if he is inexorably winding up a tight clockwork spring. One can almost see the SWF-Orchester players hanging on his every slight gesture with immense concentration until the dam finally bursts at 3:34. That section alone demonstrates Rosbaud’s superb control of dynamics. Orchestral balance also sounds as though it’s well achieved, though, to be honest, the original radio recording’s sonic limitations make it quite difficult to render a conclusive assessment in that respect.

The ruler of the spirits is a far less memorable piece than the Der Freischütz overture. A later revision of Weber’s overture to his unperformed two-act opera Rübezahl, it has too many sections of agitated (melo)drama that don’t lead anywhere in particular. Though Rosbaud and his players attack them with gusto, they are unable to do much with passages that, had they been composed a century later, might have been well-suited to accompany an episode of frenetic action in a silent movie. They do manage to make something, however, of the more attractive contemplative sections, most strikingly at 4:17-5:02.

Weber used the overtures to Preziosa and Turandot to indulge himself in some colourful musical atmospherics - even if his personal experience of, respectively, Iberian gypsies and Chinese court life was precisely zero. Preziosa certainly exploits all the expected “Spanish” musical clichés in its opening though, by the half way mark, we could, I think, be just as easily in Manchester as in Madrid. The Turandot overture’s main - indeed, its only - theme was supposedly an authentic one, having been included as such in Rousseau's 1767 Dictionnaire de musique. The musicians perform the inventively scored overture with some enthusiasm - it was probably fun to play and is certainly enjoyable to listen to once or twice. Even so, they and their conductor can’t transform a sow’s ear into a silk purse. Neither piece is, then, of the first - or perhaps even the second - rank, but they are well enough performed here and certainly demonstrate Rosbaud’s willingness to explore repertoire somewhat off the well-beaten track.

Soloist Robert Casadesus concludes the Weber selections with an account of the F minor Konzertstück. Not having heard the work for some years, I’d forgotten what an enjoyable one it is. Hartmut Lück’s booklet notes rightly describe this as a “magnificent and virtuoso performance”. Casadesus, placed close to the microphone, delivers a richly detailed and nuanced introduction and then, as the tempo increases, brings out a striking degree of passion and drive. The concluding section (10:39 onwards) is especially impressively delivered. Although this is very much M. Casadesus’s performance, Rosbaud and the orchestra add a strong - if sonically slightly recessed - contribution of their own, proving themselves to be skilful accompanists who match the soloist's style to the proverbial T.

The Mendelssohn Midsummer night’s dream tracks on this CD enter, it goes without saying, a very competitive field. Rosbaud certainly drives the overture along quite fiercely at times, though the finely-tuned dynamic control that he exerted to such effect in the Der Freischütz overture is sadly absent here. Indeed, there is something of a consistently heavy tread throughout - an approach that, while justified in the music depicting the rude mechanicals, isn’t what we expect to hear when Mendelssohn is portraying gossamer-light fairies. This performance - not helped by somewhat opaque quality of the recorded sound - simply lacks the requisite degree of transparency, light and air. This, it seems, was a midsummer night when the moon refused to put in an appearance. The succeeding scherzo and notturno are enjoyable enough but are just as lacking in the proper degree of delicacy and grace.

Yvonne Loriod, a pianist most closely associated with the music of her husband Olivier Messiaen, is heard here in an account of Mendelssohn's op. 22 Capriccio brillante. Unfortunately, however, it is one that too often lacks much in the way of brillante at all. Once again, the sound quality of the original broadcast does the composer’s scoring few favours and, while Rosbaud and the orchestra are diligent accompanists, they fail to make any particularly distinctive contribution.

This disc is, then, something of a curate’s egg and, in light of such a decidedly mixed review, some may be wondering whether there was any point to resurrecting and remastering these old recordings at all. It’s worth stressing, though, that many critics hold Rosbaud in the highest regard: only today, while reading the booklet notes for a - soon to be reviewed - Decca Eloquence release Doráti in Holland, I quite fortuitously came across a passing reference to “conductors of the calibre of Otto Klemperer, George Szell, Hans Rosbaud, Charles Munch and Eugen Jochum”. August company indeed!

Even the greatest conductor has, however, the occasional off day. It’s also worth keeping in mind that these tracks weren’t recorded as definitive studio accounts intended to be preserved for posterity; rather, they were one-off ephemeral radio performances that everyone involved would have assumed were unlikely ever to be heard again. In that respect, I suppose, we may consider Hans Rosbaud to be a victim of his own ultimate success.

Rob Maynard



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