Here are two more winning entries in a new DG series of mono reissues from the 1950's. Like the outstanding Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky discs I recently reviewed, these feature mainstream repertory with fascinating if largely forgotten conductors. Those who don't mind the mono sound--perfectly acceptable in one case, altogether excellent in the other--will find much to enjoy here.
Not Quite A Kapellmeister
\In the West, Franz Konwitschny suffered from the neglect that most Eastern European artists and orchestras experienced during the Cold War years. He did very little conducting outside the Iron Curtain, and his recordings were hard to come by. For the record, he was the longtime music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, had an especially warm relationship with the Czech Philharmonic, and was probably best known for his performances of Wagner operas, at least one of which (Tannhauser) was released on Angel to great acclaim. Like Hans Knappertsbusch, he apparently took a relatively lackadaisical approach to rehearsal, and on the podium was more relaxed and genial than tyrannical or driven. Also like Knappertsbusch, he had a reputation for drinking before his performances, and musicians gave him the nickname, "Kon-Whisky." It was said that he downed six bottles of champagne before every performance; and though that can't possibly be true, I do possess a record of Wagner excerpts (it was released on Urania) so blowzily conducted that it may well have been the consequence of at least six bottles of champagne. And given the ramshackle playing of the orchestra and the surreal recording, it sounds as if the conductor wasn't the only one indulging on that particular occasion.
Though there are many Konwitschny recordings that summon up the image of the kapellmeister he was reputed to have been, there are others that suggest a truly inspired and sensitive musician. This performance of Strauss's Domestic Symphony is surely one of them. Truth is, I've always had mixed feelings about this score. On the one hand, I love the music; on the other, I find the program embarrassing. There might be others who enjoy spending quality time in the company of the Strauss family--their lovemaking, wrangling, and child rearing; but when I listen to this music, I try to block out the program altogether. For that reason, I've always preferred a more or less abstract, virtuosic, large-scaled approach: Reiner's or Mehta's, to take two examples.
Konwitschny, however, makes me reconsider this long-standing prejudice. Few if any performances have rendered the program as scrupulously as he does here. Though the climaxes sound glorious, what makes this performance so tellingly effective is its intimate, chamber-like sense of detail. In fact I've never heard the various episodes so expressively shaded, so intensely characterized. Few conductors have more successfully communicated the tenderness, humor and serenity of this music. It's worth noting that the Dresden Staatskapelle was Strauss's instrument of choice. He shared a 60-year relationship with the orchestra, and premiered no fewer than six of his operas in Dresden. No orchestra plays this composer's music with more authority or conviction, and that essential Straussian character and sound register in every note. In the end, Strauss may well have written more complex and dramatic music elsewhere; but here, for better or worse, his theme is happiness, pure and simple--and that's exactly what Konwitschny gives us, with great warmth and not a trace of excess or sentimentality. As for the filler, Friedrich Witt's Jena Symphony is not a work I know particularly well. With its echoes of Mozart and Haydn and early Beethoven, it's not hard to understand why it was once thought to be the work of the young Beethoven. In any case, the music is enjoyable without being especially memorable, and Konwitschny's rugged, straight-ahead performance seems the perfect fit.
A Stateless Artist
Though he came very close to becoming Fritz Reiner's successor in Chicago (in the end, the pooh-bahs didn't like his Brahms) and spent productive time with the Lamoureux and Monte Carlo Orchestras, the stateless Igor Markevitch was most frequently cast in the role of guest conductor, more in Europe (where he was highly regarded) than in America (where he was largely unknown). Still, in spite of his not having found the home base that Karajan enjoyed in Berlin, he managed to amass an impressive discography that demonstrates wide-ranging sympathies. The French and Russian connections were to be expected of a Russian émigré who spent the 1920's in Paris. As a promising composer who turned to conducting to help pay the bills and first worked for Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, Markevitch was also known for his interpretations of immediate contemporaries, Prokofiev and Stravinsky most of all. He also routinely programmed and recorded then little-known composers -- Gonoud, Roussel, Busoni, Berwald, Glinka, Liadov, Nielsen.
Markevitch was often typecast as a conductor of highly colored, evocative late Romantic scores, such as we find here. And though his recordings of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms (and Mendolssohn and Schubert) all sound perfectly acceptable today, unmannered but never routine, he will probably be best remembered for his performances of well trodden, if not overly familiar repertory such as L'Arlesienne, the suite from Carmen, Scheherazade and Capriccio Espagnol. This is music he did sensationally well, and for exactly the same reasons he succeeds so brilliantly here. Markevitch treats those scores with respect, as if they were indeed truly great (which, in his expert hands, they always seemed to be). He avoids any trace of condescending exaggeration or flamboyance, melodrama or sentimentality. Instead his approach is strict, disciplined, but always expressive.
Sonic Adventures in an Art Gallery
My favorite performances of Pictures at an Exhibition have all been with the magnificent Chicago Symphony -- Kubelik, Reiner, and Giulini--but truth be told, there's never been a shortage of excellent alternatives: Toscaninni, Sinopoli and Bernstein, to name only three. But even in this famous company, Markevitch goes right to the head of the class. As a Russian who spent much of his career in France, he is equally at home with the Gaelic and Slavic aspects of the score. Certainly the delicacy and transparency of Ravel's brilliant orchestration would seem to cut against the grain of the muscular, extroverted character of Moussorsky's original inspiration. But here, Ravel's coolness and Moussorsky's heat both inform a performance that is precise, imaginative, and intense.
There are many highlights: the disquieting restlessness of the gnome and its terrifying final pounce; the ghostly romance of the old castle; the contrasting pictures of lighthearted play ("Tuileries") and exhausting, almost desperate effort ("Bydlo"); Samuel Goldenberg's arrogant swagger so perfectly set off by Schumuyle's insistent whining; the bottomless abyss of the catacombs; Baba-Yaga's aggressive malevolence suddenly taking wing. Markevitch also gives the music of the promenades more psychological depth and prominence than we're used to hearing, even in otherwise masterful performances. Over the course of the work, the spectator becomes ever more changed by the art he's viewing. There's a clear line of development from the thoughtfulness and expectancy of the opening promenade to the sense of transfiguration and spiritual ascent that we hear in "The Great Gate at Kiev." In the end, Markevitch's Pictures celebrates the transformative power of art, which is, I assume, just what Moussorskgy had in mind. As for the fillers, I love each of these pieces unreservedly, and Markevitch does them as well as anyone ever has: a shot of grappa and a double espresso to finish off your banquet of French and Russian delights.
As you would expect, the Berlin Philharmonic plays sensationally. But they sound like a very different orchestra from the one that would accompany Karajan a few years later in his early stereo version of this music for EMI. For Markevitch, there is a boundless power and urgency, a sense of total involvement, that seems missing in Karajan's more blended, cosmopolitan approach. Surely their performance here suggests the instrument they might have become had Karajan not turned them into a muscle car.
The Konwitschny disc accurately captures the sound of those early Decca pressings: shallow, a little congested in the climaxes, but otherwise transparent and detailed. The engineers have usefully recovered more bass than I remember hearing on my records. Though it was recorded only three years later (in 1959), the Pictures sounds lots better. In fact, the recording has a stunning, altogether convincing presence that belies its age or the fact that it's in mono. Every vibrant color on Ravel's orchestral palette registers with a thrilling immediacy. I enjoyed the sound here more than some recent, highly touted SACDs. Play this disc for one of your audiophile friends and see how long it takes before he or she realizes they're listening to a mono recording from 45 years ago.