• The Dresden Staatskapelle Light Music under Bohm


    Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, vol. 43: Karl Bohm
    Overtures & Entertaining Concert Pieces
    Dresden Staatskapelle/Karl Bohm
    Profil 18035
    Disc One: Total Time: 76:12
    Disc Two: Total Time: 75:43
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    The great Austrian conductor Karl Bohm (1894-1981) rose to prominence as an important interpreter of Mozart, Wagner, and Richard Strauss, as well as a supporter of modern German music.  His style, steeped in the German romantic tradition, would be captured in a long legacy on record.  His recording of Wagner’s Ring cycle from live performances in 1967 is a cornerstone of his recorded legacy and is among the finest available.  With the Berlin Philharmonic he recorded all the Mozart symphonies.  In 1971, he would commit to disc a Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic that is still highly regarded today.  Bohm was among the conductors pegged early on as a possible “star” to sell early recordings of classical music.  Thus, his early discography features a great variety of music from early shellac LPS for Electrola which are the focus here.

    In this new set exploring the great history of the Dresden Staatskapelle orchestra we get a chance to hear the ensemble from its very earliest recordings.  The ensemble has a long history which goes back to 1548!  It was one of Richard Strauss’s favorite orchestras and was the orchestra where Richard Wagner served as Kapellmeister.  Also notable were its first recordings ever of Bruckner (the 4th and 5th symphonies).  Christian Thielemann is its current director.

    This new set in the Dresden’s early recordings were essentially “live” performances requiring a sort of attention to detail and focus that left no room for mistakes, retakes, or editing later.  The result is that there is an extra sense of energy and excitement underlying the performances.  Many longer pieces had to be split across two sides to accommodate the play time that was available on these 30 cm discs.  That makes longer works that real challenge for early recordings, but in this case, many works fit on a single side which adds to an even more fascinating listen to this collection of overtures and lighter pieces.  Sometimes it is hard to believe how engineers managed to find the right balance for these single microphone performances cut directly to cylinders.  The pieces featured here were recorded between 1935-40.  Disc one focuses mostly on music from Germany and Austria while the second disc opens up to music from throughout Europe.

    The repertoire here features a number of classics that continue to be perennial favorites as well as some interesting, but somewhat forgotten, little gems.  To get a sense of how much fun runs through these performances one can begin with the exciting performance of the Die Fledermaus “Overture” by Johann Strauss, Jr. which opens disc one.  Bohm’s approach really has this music sparkling along with a sense of energy and shape that tends to get overlooked.  The rich orchestral quality of the Dresden orchestra also comes through.  The dramatic “Interlude Music” from the composer’s operetta A Thousand and One Nights is a wonderful contrast. The interior of the program features the more popular Mozart overtures to The Abduction from the Seraglio (minus its concert ending) and The Marriage of Figaro.  More serious music of early German Romanticism then follows.  First is a riveting performance of the third “Leonore Overture” from Beethoven’s Fidelio (the trumpet fanfare solo is quite fascinating with its seeming recess in the sound picture) and the Egmont Overture, Op. 84.  The former’s sound suffers slightly from the second disc source which improves as it continues.  Weber is represented with overtures from Der Freischutz and Oberon, respectively.  Smetana’s Bartered Bride “Overture” closes off the CD.  But not before we are treated to the two earliest recordings in the set.  They represent the very first pieces Bohm recorded with the Dresden orchestra.  Albert Lortzing (1801-1851) was a composer and singer who expanded upon the German singspiel by combining elements of French comic opera.  His music was in vogue in Berlin in the 19th Century with the opera Undine (1845) one of his more popular works.  Its “Ballet Music” and a “Clog Dance” from the 1837 Zar und Zimmermann provide a nice transition historically from the Weber and into the nationalist style of Smetana.  The performances are all quite compelling on this release.  Strings sound quite good.  As is more the result of the mike placement than anything, wind passages in big moments can get lost, but they do manage to cut through when needed and it is obvious these players were brilliant technically in order to match the tempi in some of the faster segments.  Here we have the inherited tradition of how this music sounded as handed down to the present generation.

    Disc two features an additional collection of overtures and preludes but also gives us Mozar’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525 from 1938.  (Originally issued on a 2-disc set with one movement to a side!  There is some occasional surface noise here from time to time).  Here too the musical choices are a blend of familiar classics and interesting rarer pieces.  Humperdinck’s magical overture from Hansel und Gretel receives a gorgeous performance.  This and Reznicek’s Donna Diana overture bookend three Italian opera excerpts by Leoncavallo (I Pagliacci’s “Intermezzo”). Mascagni (the “Intermezzo sinfonico”—in a most beautifully delicate reading— and the “Easter Hymn” from Cavelleria Rusticana sung in Germanwhich includes the State Opera chorus and an organ as well) and the “Prelude” from Verdi’s Aida.  Fun short pieces follow including Berlioz’s “Rakoczy March”, an arrangement of Schubert’s “Marche Millitaire, D. 733”, and Strauss’s Emperor Waltz.  An 8-minute excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, Op. 45 has its own tantalizing moments of what a complete performance of the work might have sounded like.  The sole contemporary work is Theodor Berger’s (1905-1992) Rondino giocoso, Op. 4 (1933).  Berger’s music is all but forgotten today, but no less than Wilhelm Furtwangler was a proponent and advocate for it.  The recording here was made by Columbia.Two Hungarian Dances (nos 5 and 6) by Brahms bring this collection to a close.

    Surface noise has been optimized here with an often crystal clear quality.  Admittedly, it really feels as though one were hearing these on an LP player at times rather than a CD.  (Another side realization is the overall performance attacks and style of playing that often can be heard in the studio recordings in Hollywood in this same period.)  Some sources are in excellent condition while others at times show some wear.

    One of the historical side notes related to recording light classical repertoire that would sell well has its roots in the growing anti-semitism of the time.  In the case of the Electrola company, many of their releases featured the Berlin Staatskapelle which was conducted by Leo Blech who was Jewish.  He was one of the few artists allowed to leave Riga where he had been in exile, under orders by no less than Hermann Goring.  He would end up in Stockholm where he would conduct the opera there.  It is an important side note as this political issue was tied to the Electrola’s commercial need to essentially replace all of the recordings he made with new ones.   An additional side note is also necessary related to Bohm’s somewhat controversial personal life.  Bohm was a supporter of Hitler and the Nazi party, though some are yet unsure whether this was an extent of his own convictions or done to protect his family and progress his career.  This was especially present during his years in Dresden (1934-43), and even opened doors to his being the conductor of the Dresden Opera when Fritz Busch was dismissed.  After World War II, he was required to undergo two years of “denazification” before being allowed to return to conducting and public performing.  And so, we have here the beginnings of the recorded legacy by a decidedly somewhat controversial conductor of the 20th Century, but one whose musical ability is not denied.

    All of this historical reality is not intended to cast a shadow across what exists though in this release.  Profil has brought listeners an opportunity for an historical glance at the early days of a great conductor and one of the stellar orchestras of the early 20th Century.  The accompanying booklet has good information on the orchestra and recordings, less on the music itself though.  It is packages in a container that could hold 4 discs.  The musical legacy here is compelling with exciting performances of light classical works that in and of themselves reveal the taste and commercial viability of art music at the time.  Because many of these works remain popular, it gives even the most casual of classical music listeners an opportunity to explore historical recordings like these and potentially open up a door to many of the other releases in this extensive series.

  • Turkish Influences In 18th-Century Music: Romberg, Mozart, Haydn

    Romberg: Symphony No. 4/Mozart: Violin Concerto/Haydn
    Julia Schroder, violin.
    Collegium Musicum Basel/Kevin Griffiths
    CPO 555 175
    Total Time:  60:12
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    As the 18th Century drew to a close, the threat of the Ottoman Empire, which had terrorized Europe for almost a century, would come to a close with the Austro-Turkish Wars with the Hapsburg’s bringing them to an end in 1791.  The somewhat dubious treaty would result in partitioning the Balkans and parts of Eastern Europe.  The Turks had come as far as the city gates of Vienna in 1683 and their terror was something well-known to the likes of Viennese composers.  Haydn’s own grandparents were among the few who survived the destruction of Hainburg that very year.  Western music owes some of its percussion to the appearance of the military Janissary bands that made up the armies.  These instruments, melodies, and specific rhythms would lend themselves to a host of Western pieces.  Most notably is Haydn’s own Military Symphony which explores this both from the percussion instruments employed, but also in subtle rhythmic motives in the work.  Of course, more famous are Mozart’s own “Rondo alla turca” from his Piano Sonata, K. 331.  Beethoven also would write music with Turkish influences in his music for The Ruins of Athens.  There are a host of works that are overtly identified with this musical “inspiration” and three of them appear on this new release with a rarer symphony by Andreas Romberg (1767-1821), a familiar Mozart violin concerto, and a Haydn overture.

    The sequencing for the album is a bit backwards with the overture being tracked at the end as more of an encore than the appropriate concert overture.  Instead, we are treated to the brief Symphony No. 4, Op. 51 (“Alla turca”) by Romberg.  He was a court musician for most of his life serving in first Munster and Bonn before playing in the German Theater Orchestra of Hamburg.  He would eventually succeed Louis Spohr as capellmeister there.  Romberg wrote ten symphonies of which 4 were published in his lifetime.  Of them was the work heard here which was first performed December 22, 1798, in Hamburg.  It is notable not only for its additional percussion, but also for a piccolo part.  The music is otherwise a fairly acceptable late-Classical work with the cymbals and bass drum adding an appropriate punch to the lyrical, mostly forgettable theme in the opening “Allegro”.  A little chromaticism also makes an appearance for a nice touch.  Swirling strings help move us along as the music hovers back and forth from major to minor.  Trumpets and horns add a bit more emphasis.  The minuet goes as one might expect with the trio featuring nice wind writing, notable for including the piccolo here too.  Notable here is the rather interesting off-kilter rhythmic idea with some occasional harmonic choices that delight.  The slow movement has good string writing hinting a bit at romanticism in the wings.  A march-like finale brings the work to an exciting close.  While the thematic ideas are not as catchy as one might hope, it is still rather interesting to hear how Romberg is exploring these “new” instruments within the context of the 18th-Century symphony.  The dramatic aspects help with the big cadences showing off things most.  The ensemble certainly lends itself well to a committed performance.

    In more familiar music, Julia Schroder explores Mozart’s most popular Violin Concerto in A, K. 219 (1775) which is noted for when the celli and basses play with the wood of their bow to create a rather interesting percussive effect.  Other similarities to Romberg’s ideas include interesting chromatic crescendos and those shifts into the minor mode coupled with interesting rhythmic accents in the finale.  The piece is among one of Mozart’s most popular (over 100 recordings currently in the catalogue).  It allows for a variety of interesting themes and opportunities for the soloist.  Among them is a striking dramatic moment in the opening movement signaling an almost operatic drama to the work.  The ensemble has a decidedly different audio quality that feels slightly fuller than in the Romberg.  This may be equally due to familiarity and confidence in the Mozart.  Schroder’s playing is quite beautiful in the Adagio interruption and this sets the tone for her lyrical playing style.  There is certainly a sense of joy in this performance that is warmly supported by the orchestra.  While the Romberg required a bit more brashness at times, the Mozart highlights the ensemble’s delicate, and lyrical side quite well.

    Haydn’s opera, L’incontro improvviso (1775) is taken from a story also explored by Gluck.  Set in Turkey and involving the odd comic abduction tale.  The “Overture” is in the Italian form with a special concert ending used here as written by the composer.  It has some interesting Turkish color but the bulk will be used within the opera itself.  It serves its purpose to set us up for the odd adventures to follow.

    All three works here are examples of composers exploring “unusual” and “strange” musical instruments and worlds though each are quite conventional for the period as one might anticipate.  The Mozart is the strongest work of the three and a well-done performance to boot which makes the others nice discoveries of musical history.