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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Knappertsbusch conducts Bruckner
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1890 version, Schalk) [54:08]
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major ‘Romantic’ (1888 version, Loewe)* [60:05]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (1896 version, Schalk) [60:33]
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1892 version, Schalk/Lienau) [85:30]
Wiener Philharmoniker (Nos. 3,4 & 5); Münchner Philharmoniker (No.8)/Hans Knappertsbusch
rec. 3 April 1954 (No.3), March 1955 (No. 4), Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna (Nos. 3 & 4); June 1956, Sofiensaal, Vienna (No. 5); January 1963, Munich (No. 8)
*First international CD release on Decca
ADD mono (Nos. 3 & 4) & stereo (Nos. 5 & 8)
ELOQUENCE 4828800 [4 CDs: 260:26]

Hans Knappertsbusch holds a special place in the affections of Brucknerians; just as the intensity and momentum of his conducting excused him from serious persecution by the Nazi authorities whom he despised, those qualities continue to transcend the disadvantages accruing from his performing and recording – often in indifferent sound - Bruckner’s symphonies in the now discredited Schalk/Loewe versions. His reputation as one of a handful of supreme mid-20C Bruckner conductors, alongside the likes of Furtwängler, Schuricht and Karajan, is secure and internationally acknowledged; I, for example, am the sole UK representative of the jocularly named Australian Knappertsbusch Association, a loose assemblage of devotees whose members range from the Antipodes, to North America and Scandinavia and who convene regularly by email to discuss Kna’s Bruckner recordings. His appeal to modern listeners is cemented by knowledge of his resistance to the prevailing Zeitgeist of 1930’s Germany and further enhanced by his general demeanour: he was tall, blond, blue-eyed, bow-tied and craggy; the swagger of his appearance was crowned by a wide-brimmed, Stetson Homburg “cowboy hat”, and the eccentricity of his personality was complemented by a famously dry, laconic wit and an aversion to rehearsal.

These studio recordings, although all previously available, are here newly remastered and gathered by Australian Decca Eloquence in one bargain set for the first time, thereby making a package irresistible to the Bruckner aficionado. The recordings of the first two symphonies here are monophonic but in good quality mono. An excellent introductory essay by Antony Hodgson successfully identifies and clarifies the features of the now widely-scorned editions of the symphonies Knappertsbusch performed. He steadfastly resisted adopting new versions of the scores edited by such as Haas as they appeared and ignored the 1955 Nowak edition of the Eighth in favour of continuing to use the 1892 Schalk version as performed by Richter in the premiere. The consensus as I understand it among those convinced of Kna’s wizardry in this music is that we just have to let go of any regrets and enjoy what we have; certainly I rarely find my mind wandering into the consideration of textual variants when listening to his recordings; rather, I am soon under his spell and swept along by his mastery.

Compared with what we are now used to hearing, this Third Symphony, with its truncated and abridged first two movements and cuts in the finale, is somewhat shorn, but Kna knows exactly what to do with the music throughout. The opening is replete with menace, immediately capturing the requisite combination of tense mystery and restless grandeur, then pushing ahead relentlessly and never letting tension sag, even during those essential Brucknerian pauses. The mono here sound is surprisingly rich and free of distortion and orchestral tutti are impressive; the climax to the movement is breathlessly thrilling.

The Andante…quasi Adagio is all naturalness and grace despite the urgency with which Kna pushes the music along; he allows the phrases to surge and recede without any undue pulling about of the tempo and the Viennese strings sing sweetly in a tune reminiscent of the Largo in Dvořák’s New World Symphony. There is a lovely contrast in the Scherzo between the demonic pulse of the ostinato tune and the waltz rhythms of the Ländler. The first theme of the finale has terrific drive and release then the second subject is all lilting charm; it is as if time stands still under Kna’s direction then suddenly he whips up the pace and we are away, riding triumphantly into a Wagnerian D major sunset.

This might not have quite the raw energy of the live recording made with the Bavarian State Orchestra six months after this studio account but it is more refined and accurate, and certainly not lacking in tension.

Lasting just on the hour, the mono recording of the Fourth Symphony here is considerably faster than Furtwängler’s performances of the "Romantic". For once, Knappertsbusch’s horns do not let him down and crack as they do in the openings of the two other live recordings we have of him conducting this symphony; indeed, the playing of the VPO here is in general better than that of the BPO in 1944 and their later selves in 1964. The brass are in their pomp and hieratic splendour rather than mystery is the defining characteristic of this account. Kna is rather brisk throughout that first movement but grip and concentration are his trademarks – qualities which never go amiss when traversing Bruckner’s sprawling constructions.

The Andante is delicate and ideally paced; an oasis of serenity amid the turbulence of the movements either side of it, until its glorious apogee. The Scherzo is infused with nervous energy, a rambunctious, rollicking ride through the forest interrupted by a Trio which suggests taking a nap in a warm glade. The Finale is nervy and menacing, recapturing the mood of the symphony’s opening and underlining the conductor’s over-arching concept of its structure. The blazing coda is extraordinarily gripping despite the limitations of the mono sound which is nonetheless the best of its type, such that the listener hardly registers its restrictedness.

This is designated as the “First international CD release on Decca” but has previously appeared on several CD labels, including Preiser, Testament and Andromeda.

The Fifth is the most mutilated of the symphonies here: the Scherzo is cut, the Finale truncated and the symphony as a whole generally reorchestrated to include more brass, flute and timpani, especially in the last movement. Knappertsbusch’s recording of it is controversial; for many, his customary fleetness and expressivity in Bruckner here tip over into exaggeration and distortion. Some cognoscenti consider this to be Bruckner’s greatest symphony, nos. 7, 8 and 9 notwithstanding, and are dogmatic about how it “should” be performed. Kna obviously decided that this enigmatic work needed momentum and his speeds are consistently fast, with the result that the music seems constantly to be heroically striving and moments of repose are minimised. Thus the Adagio skips along rather too blithely and at times you can hear the strings resisting their conductor’s rapid pace and dragging behind the beat, but the Scherzo decidedly benefits from his propulsion. Certainly the speed of the opening of the finale means that it lacks gravitas but one could argue that the cheeky “Laurel and Hardy” interjections and the subsequent flute noodlings introduced by Schalk militate against undue solemnity and in any case Knappertsbusch succeeds in moving the whole movement inexorably towards a splendid, cosmic apotheosis.

Decca’s stereo sound is rather “flat”, depriving the Viennese strings of some of their famous sheen, but is still clearly superior to its mono predecessors.

On balance, despite its idiosyncrasies and the comparatively prosaic Adagio, if I am going to listen to the Schalk version, I still prefer Knappertsbusch’s impatient, headlong rush and grasp of the long line here over more ruminative approaches which find themselves at odds with that more streamlined score.

At 85 minutes, this account of the Eighth Symphony is not particularly ponderous by modern standards and one never feels that proceedings drag – but of course it is performed in the version which sustained Schalk’s cuts. If anything, I would like a little more air around the occasional phrase - including the rising main theme in the Adagio, but perhaps I have been listening to too much Giulini and Celibidache. The playing of the Munich orchestra can be a little rough and blaring, with some sloppy entries and a rasping edge on the strings, but the sonority of the brass is glorious and the playing in general benefits from a kind of singing quality which prevents any leadenness. Perhaps that lightness and sense of spontaneity here are consequences of Knappertsbusch's famous disdain for rehearsal. Originally issued on LP by Westminster in 1963, the stereophonic sound here is still impressive; this is surely the recording which, in terms of both sound and artistry, best captures Knappertsbusch's affinity with Bruckner, especially in the soaring Adagio, whose massive climax, complete with the solitary cymbal clash and a gratefully audible harp, is so artfully prepared for by his sustained phrasing. The finale is alternately rollicking and yearning, the relationship between its contrasting sections beautifully gauged and managed, and the timpani are wonderfully sharp and prominent throughout until the mysterious muttering of the C minor coda is transmuted into a blazing, triumphant, C major conclusion proclaiming Bruckner’s homage to “the Master of Bayreuth”.

The booklet reproduces in colour the artwork of the four original LPs but this set offers much more than nostalgia appeal.

Ralph Moore

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