courtesy of Naxos of America
Almost exactly a month ago, the Profil label, which has become the go-to source for recordings of major musical performances from the past, shifted its attention from leading pianists, such as Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, and operatic archives, such as the complete operas of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, to a major conductor, whose career spanned roughly half of the twentieth century. As a student I associated the name of Hans Knappertsbusch with recordings of the operas of Richard Wagner, many of which were documents of performances at the Bayreuth Festival. However, my first contact with him came from a Japanese DVD of films of Great Conductors (the title of the DVD). Knappertsbusch appeared only once, in an excerpt of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (ninth) symphony in D minor.
This was not the first time I had come close to being terrified by the sight of a conductor at work. (The first time came when I saw Georg Solti give a concert performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold with the Chicago Symphony at Carnegie Hall. I had a front row seat, and I was almost afraid to breathe.) However, there was something about the austerity of Knappertsbusch’s bearing and the intensity of his attention to every member of his ensemble that left me quaking in my boots.
I came to appreciate that Knappertsbusch’s intimidating appearance was a product of his recognition that music was the only valid authority and the confidence with which he could then defy any challenge to that authority. Indeed, he is the only conductor from the first half of the twentieth century whose command of Wagner’s music was so impressive that he could get away with refusing to join the Nazi party. Even Adolf Hitler wanted him dismissed; but there were so few top-notch conductors in Germany during World War II that the Nazis ultimately had to concede that German music would not survive without him! Indeed, he even earned a place on the “Gottbegnadeten” list of cultural individuals whose work was too valuable to have their lives put at risk through military service.
If Profil’s recent ten-CD release has a title, it would be Brahms, Bruckner: The Symphonies. This is clearly only a fraction of Knappertsbusch’s repertoire, but it is a good place to start. Four of the CDs are devoted to the four symphonies of Johannes Brahms, along with the three “usual suspects” of shorter works, the two overtures, “Academic Festival” (Opus 80) and “Tragic” (Opus 81), and the orchestral version (Opus 56a) of the set of variations on a theme attributed to Joseph Haydn. Each of the remaining six CDs consists of a single symphony by Anton Bruckner. As usual, I shall apply my “divide and conquer” strategy, using this article to focus only on the Brahms recordings.
By now I may well have lost count of the number of recordings I have of different conductors performing the Brahms symphonies. Thus, while curiosity drew me to this recent Profil release, skepticism tried to gain the upper hand while I was listening to these performances. That skepticism was at its highest when I approached the Opus 73 (second) symphony in D major.
The opening measures of that symphony may well be the most intimidating examples of understatement in the orchestral repertoire. It is as if Brahms wanted his almost trivially simple theme to insinuate itself, rather than subject itself to declaration. The Knappertsbusch recording, made in 1956 with the Munich Philharmonic, could not be more arresting in its subtlety. Indeed, Brahms is extremely judicious about loosening those reins of understatement; and Knappertsbusch knew exactly how to reinforce the shock value of those moments without letting his reading go over the top. There will be many complaints about the technical shortcomings of this recording; but, for those willing to listen to the music lurking behind the somewhat muddled sonorities, this recording may well rise above just about any other recorded account of the symphony.
By the time the album has advanced to the fourth symphony (a concert recording of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne made earlier in 1953), the attentive listener will begin to appreciate the many devices that make Knappertsbusch’s rhetoric so compelling. Even when the recording balance is not at its best, one can appreciate how judicious he is in balancing the different sections of the ensemble. One might say that he is being even more sensitive to sonority than Brahms may have been. Similarly, he takes a very flexible approach to tempo. A lesser conductor might turn that approach into annoying fits and starts; but Knappertsbusch can use subtle shifts in tempo to keep the attentive listener on the edge of his/her seat, anxiously wondering what will happen next.
Those who approach these recordings thinking that they know all there is to know about how Brahms’ symphonies should be performed are in for a rude awakening and will hopefully greet that awakening with unabashed delight!