Rosbaud (& Scherchen) Conduct Mahler


MAHLER: Symphonies Nos. 1, 4*-7 & 9. Das Lied von der Erde +/ *Eva-Maria Rogner, sop; +Ernst Häfliger, ten; Grace Hoffmann, mezzo; Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden & Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester; Hans Rosbaud, cond / SWR Music SWR19099CD

MAHLER: Symphony No. 2/ Mimi Coertse, sop; Lucretia West, alto; Wiener Akademie Kammerchor; Wiener Staatsopernorchester / Symphony No. 3/ Soňa Červená, mezzo; German Radio Symphony Orch. & Chorus (Live: October 1960) / Symphony No. 8/ Elsa Maria Matheis, Daniza Ilitsch, sop; Rosette Anday, Georgine Milinkovič, alto; Erich Majkut, ten; Georg Oeggl, bs-bar; Otto Wiener, bass; Wiener Kammerchor, Singakademie & Sängerknaben; Wiener Symphoniker (live: June 13, 1951) / Hermann Scherchen, cond / available for free streaming by clicking on symphony titles above

When I first saw this album listed in the Naxos New Release catalog, I thought about reviewing it but then passed it by. I liked Hans Rosbaud’s conducting and I knew he was particularly noted in his time as a champion of modern, avant-garde music, but thought that his style might be a bit too dry for Mahler, the most passionate late Romantic composer of all time (even beating out Scriabin).

But I was wrong. Rosbaud conducts these works with a surprising amount of drama, and makes them even more fascinating by bringing out the inner structure of the orchestration in an almost 3D manner. It’s kind of like looking at a photo of Mahler through a super MRI; you can still see the flesh, but also the bones and veins and ligaments and joints.  And it’s utterly fascinating. I should mention that these performances were previously released by the Memories-Reverence label (MR2509/12, Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4-6 and MR2513/15, Symphonies 7 & 9 plus Das Lied von der Erde).

I was disappointed, however, to discover that Rosbaud did not record the Second, Third or Eighth Symphonies, and for a while I was puzzled as to why. Then it dawned on me: they all require a chorus and, in the case of the Eighth, a massive one at that (in addition to a massive orchestra and seven vocal soloists).

But then I suddenly remembered to check Hermann Scherchen.

Scherchen was almost Rosbaud’s exact contemporary, born five years earlier and died four years later than Rosbaud, and their professional tastes, styles and experiences were almost identical. Scherchen made his conducting debut in a performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and from that point became a champion of late Strauss, Webern, Berg and Varèse. In his later years he also promoted the music of such younger composers as Xenakis, Nono and Schidlowsky. Like Rosbaud, he also conducted conventional scores, particularly those of Beethoven, producing the first complete version of that composer’s incidental music to Egmont along with vocalist and a recording of the Beethoven Third Symphony at the score tempi (which are terrifyingly fast).

Compare this experience to Rosbaud, who though Austrian rather than German walked a similar path. His first experience as a conductor came in Mainz as music director of the city’s New School of Music in 1921. He particularly championed Schoenberg and Bartók until the Nazis came to power. He was demoted to smaller and smaller positions until after the War when he was cleared and took a post conducting at Strasbourg. He has been hailed by critics as an untiring champion of modern music, with his only like-minded colleagues being Bernstein and, you guessed it, Scherchen. He is particularly noted for having given the first (posthumous) performance of Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron and in fact having his performance issued commercially on LP in 1957.

Thus the resemblances between the two conductors (they were also such good-looking studs!) are far more striking than any differences, which were mainly in phrasing. Scherchen conducted with a traditional legato feel whereas Rosbaud, like Rodziński and Toscanini, had a more “vertical” style, lining up the orchestral sound so as to elicit perfect clarity. In their choice of tempi, however, they were striking similar, thus I have no qualms about combining these two very fine conductors’ Mahler recordings to complete the set of the nine symphonies. (For the record, Scherchen performed more than just these three Mahler symphonies. He also left us recordings of Nos. 1, 5-7 and 9, which makes all of them except the popular Fourth, although his idiosyncratic performance of the Fifth, where he made two large cuts in the Scherzo, is the worst of the lot.)

In listening to this set, whether as a reviewer or simply as a lay listener, one must realize that Mahler performances and recordings prior to the big “Mahler Revival” of the 1960s, spearheaded by Jascha Horenstein in England and Leonard Bernstein in America, were sporadic at best, even from his supposed acolytes Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Oskar Fried, forgotten today, made the first recording of a complete Mahler symphony in 1924—and it was the difficult, massive Second, not the First or Fourth. The first electrical recording of a Mahler symphony was the Fourth, by Japanese conductor Hidemaro Kanoye in 1930; the next one was another of the Second Symphony by, of all people, Eugene Ormandy with the Minneapolis Symphony in 1935 (a typically Hungarian approach, taut and ignoring most of Mahler’s instructions, but very exciting). Bruno Walter gave us a few performances and recordings of Mahler Symphonies, but only the First, Second, Fourth and Ninth, the latter a one-off performance with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1938 (he performed and recorded Das Lied von der Erde much more frequently). Prior to the 1960s, Klemperer only gave us one recording, of the Second Symphony in the 1950s. Polish conductor Paul Kletzki, once greatly admired but now also virtually forgotten, made two recordings of the First Symphony in the 1950s. The first American performance of the Eighth Symphony, a very famous one, was given by Leopold Stokowski with the New York Philharmonic in 1950 (with excellent vocal soloists). Until Bernstein and Horenstein really opened the doors in the very late 1950s (the latter with a superb performance of the extremely difficult Third Symphony), that was about it. And in the 1960s, in addition to a remake of the Second Symphony, Klemperer only deigned to give us the Fourth (along with Das Lied). Apparently, the “Mahler acolytes” didn’t much care for the composer’s other symphonies.

But not Rosbaud or Scherchen. They dug into Mahler and just kept on plugging away.

The first symphony, by Rosbaud, lived up to my expectations. The orchestral transparency is so clear that it sounds as if one is listening with X-ray ears. Phrasing and tempi are a little quirky, but if you look at the score, it supports these choices. Mahler was extremely detailed when it came to phrasing, throwing in constant instructions such as “Clar. without regard to Tempo I,” “sung very softly,” “in the far distance” and “soft and expressive”—all of the preceding, by the way, just on page 2 of his score—but set no metronome markings. The second movement may indeed seem a bit slow to some modern listeners, but Mahler’s instructions were “move quickly, but not too much.” Rosbaud, whose musical knowledge was vast and deep (one of his hobbies was also reading literature, new and old, in the original languages), took all this into account in his presentation of this work. It may indeed sound just a shade quirky, but as I’ve said many, many times, Mahler is the one composer whose music can withstand a great deal of elasticity because that was the musical tradition he grew up in. The one thing you cannot conduct Mahler with is emotional distance or objectivity, and thankfully, this is something that Rosbaud does not do. His performance has the pulse of life about it.

Among the many little things you hear clearly here than you’ve probably never heard before, not even in modern digital recordings, are the buzz of the low winds at the very end of the slow Trio section of the second movement. It’s a small detail, certainly, but it’s in the score and now you can hear it. This is very much a performance that, as Toscanini would have said, “is like reading the score.” Rosbaud also emphasizes the solo cello at the beginning of the third movement in such a way that it sounds a bit sour—not really out of tune, just a tad strange. But Mahler’s instructions are for the cello to play this opening solo with the damper on the strings, and one player’s amount of damper can often vary from one musician to another. The point is that it sounds Mahlerian, and in Mahler’s world that’s all that matters. (I once saw a few pages of Mahler’s own score of this symphony from the New York Philharmonic’s library, and he wrote even MORE detailed instructions in the margins in red pencil!) The last movement practically explodes, as it should, but again with this incredibly clear orchestral detailing. Part of this is helped by the fact that his orchestra(s) were still using single-F French horns, which virtually disappeared from orchestras, particularly in Wagner and Mahler performances, by the late 1960s.

We then move to Scherchen’s performance of the Second Symphony, a stereo studio recording from 1958. The soloists are not well known—American contralto Lucretia West and South African soprano Mimi Coertse—but they sing well and that’s all that matters. Like Rosbaud’s first, Scherchen’s Second sounds a bit measured in places (his performance is 14 minutes longer than Walter’s 1948 broadcast) but, again, follows Mahler’s detailed but quirky instructions exactly. And remember, this from a conductor who took Beethoven at or very near his metronome markings most of the time so, again, he was following the composer’s detailed instructions in the score on a phrase-by-phrase basis. Yet like the Rosbaud first, there is incredible orchestral detailing, and it sounds like Mahler. The first movement sets the tone: very slowly at first, but picking up speed as we move into the second section. Interestingly, when the Second Symphony is played this way, it sounds much closer to the First in style than it usually does. Interestingly, this performance is very similar in phrasing and tempo to Klaus Tennstedt’s 1986 live performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the difference being that Tennstedt somehow imparted more energy and a bit more cohesion to Mahler’s maddeningly fluctuating tempo instructions.

We now hear what makes the Rosbaud-Scherchen conception of Mahler very different from those that followed: less consistent tempi, but tempi that coincided with Mahler’s often strange and extreme shifts in tempo and phrasing. One big difference, however, between these two conductors and Bernstein is that the latter often over-italicized details in the score which added extra hysteria to music that was plenty hysterical enough the way it was.

The Third Symphony, though a little slow, is not as extreme in tempo as the performance of the Second though, again, he’s following Mahler’s sometimes contradictory instructions. I especially liked the fact that the posthorn in the third movement was really at a distance from the rest of the orchestra; it gave the music an eerie effect while simply playing what the composer wished. All in all, this is one of the greatest performances of the Third I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a ton of them. The fourth and fifth movements are sung by Czech mezzo-soprano Soňa Červená, a name new to me, who had an absolutely gorgeous, bright voice with crystal-clear diction.

The bottom line is that, if you want to hear Mahler played in a more modern style there are plenty of other recordings you can listen to that fill the bill, but if you want to hear Mahler played as closely as possible to the way Mahler himself conceived it, these are the recordings to acquire, quirky though they may sound to modern ears. All of you historically-informed folks out there should at least investigate the Rosbaud set and the additional Scherchen performances for an idea of how the composer himself worked. Small wonder that Toscanini, who heard Mahler conduct in person, called him “a crazy man.” His style made little sense to those who want their music to be linear in relatively strict time. Mahler was a universe unto himself, and these recordings bear that out better than any others I’ve heard.

We return to Rosbaud for the Fourth Symphony, an excellent performance with, again, 3D orchestral detailing, just slightly missing the feeling in the reference recording by James Levine with the Chicago Symphony. Our soprano soloist, the little-known Eva-Maria Rogner, had a high, sweet voice that was just perfect for the music in the last movement. In the Fifth Symphony, Rosbaud avoids the usual trap of having the opening trumpet figure sound sloppy by merely following Mahler’s tempo directions more clearly. (The problem is that, at the fast tempo that many conductors take it, the trumpeter often slops over the triple-tonguing, causing a mess rather than the crisp sound that Mahler wanted.) But I felt that he could have made that first movement a bit more “tragic”; he really doesn’t get into it until about the five-minute mark, when the music becomes louder, faster and more agitated. The second movement, on the other hand, is angst-filled from the very first bar and never really lets up. The remainder of the symphony is also well executed.

Rosbaud’s Sixth just misses the oppressive and almost manic feeling of Bernard Haitink’s earlier recording for Philips or Bernstein’s later one for DGG, the latter of which is my favorite, but again it is the transparency of sound and the generally accurate interpretation of the score that I appreciate. I was, however, a bit perturbed by the fact that SWR Music put the last movement on a separate CD. Why? The complete performance runs only 81:18, which would clearly have fit onto one disc.

The Seventh Symphony is similarly quite good although, except for the extraordinary clarity, I also hold a fondness for the moody performance that Rafael Kubelik gave with the New York Philharmonic many years ago. Still, it is better than Simon Rattle’s oft-overrated recording, a good reading but scarcely a stellar one. This one, in its own way, is stellar. Rosbaud builds logically, while still following most of Mahler’s instructions, from climax to climax, and always manages to bind his phrases and project a long view of the symphony’s architecture.

The Scherchen Eighth Symphony only existed online as a muddy, distorted transfer. I was able to brighten the sound and overcome much (but not all) of the distortion, which I’ve uploaded for your benefit. This is one of those Scherchen performances that could be mistaken for Rosbaud: super-clear textures and good tempi throughout. I only recognized three of the singers’ names—second soprano Daniza Ilitch and the two mezzos, Anday and Milinkovič—but except for the overly-bright voice of Ilitsch and the tight-sounding voice of tenor Erich Majkut, all sing well. I was especially surprised by Elsa Maria Matheis, a high, bright-voiced soprano for whom this appears to be her only recording, and Georg Oeggl, an Austrian bass-baritone who apparently died relatively young (in 1954, aged only 54). Another surprising feature of this recording, once you clear up the sound, is that it appears to have been recorded using an early, experimental form of stereo: there is some separation of orchestral sections between the two channels that is clearly audible through headphones. Like Rosbaud, Scherchen binds the whole symphony together structurally; this performance has more continuity to it than any other recording I’ve ever heard, and that includes two by Haitink and one each by Stokowski, Solti, Bernstein, Kubelik, Tennstedt and Thierry Fischer.

Though none of these performances (other than the Scherchen Third) ranks at the very top in terms of interpretation, this is an excellent “historic” (non-stereo) set of the Symphonies, adding to it Scherchen’s Third and Eighth.

The performance of the Ninth Symphony was the only instance where I felt that Rosbaud’s resolutely anti-Romantic approach did a disservice to the music. The first movement in particular, which cries out for, if nothing else, a sensuous legato regardless of the tempo (and Rosbaud takes it on the fast side, which I generally like), sounds impatient and edgy. If this fits into your concept of the Ninth you’ll probably like it more than I did,  but for me this performance sounded like Rosbaud were just bulldozing his way through the symphony. One must remember that this symphony was actually written after Das Lied von der Erde, which was his farewell to earth (he already knew, at that point, that he was mortally ill and would soon die), so the Ninth, which starts out, by the way, with an inversion of the last phrases of Das Lied, was his recognition that he was living on borrowed time. To conduct the symphony this objectively negates the feeling that Mahler put into it, but it is a structurally interesting performance and Rosbaud’s usual textural clarity is evident and, when he reaches the dramatic portions of the symphony, he is not lacking. The “Rondo-Burleske” is particularly good, with a really frantic finale, and the final “Adagio” does have a good legato feel to it with excellent feeling in the closing pages, but overall I didn’t think it as impressive as the other performances.

By contrast, Rosbaud’s conducting of Das Lied is very good, but oddly enough he conducts the tenor arias too slowly in places, which makes the music sag a  bit. Tenor Ernst Häfliger is in fine voice, as he usually was, but the generally dependable mezzo Grace Hoffmann was having a bad day. Her voice flutters unsteadily throughout the performance, sounds more nasal and covered than usual, and has pitch problems, all of which particularly affects the long finale, “Der Abschied,” and. This performances comes from a live broadcast of April 18, 1955.

Overall, then, a good set of the symphonies, mostly in mono. One thing I disagreed with in the liner notes was that, in praising Rosbaud, they had to take a potshot at Karl Böhm, claiming that he had an “ignorant routine glorification.” OK, so Böhm didn’t do nearly as much modern music as either Rosbaud or Scherchen. So what? His recording of Berg’s Wozzeck remains the standard by which all others are judged, and had he had access to the completed third act of Lulu his recording of that opera would likewise be judged a great success. So far as I know he recorded none of the Mahler Symphonies, but his recordings of Kindertotenlieder and the Rückert-Lieder were likewise very good. You don’t need to praise Rosbaud by bashing Böhm over the head. A great many German and Austrian conductors, including but not limited to Furtwängler (why don’t you call his popularity “ignorant routine glorification”?), Rothner, Krauss, Knappertsbusch and both Erich and Carlos Kleiber detested Mahler’s symphonies and never conducted them. Also, it’s not Böhm’s fault that he constantly accepted opportunities to conduct in America and England whereas Rosbaud didn’t except on rare occasions.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Rosbaud (& Scherchen) Conduct Mahler

  1. I only listened to parts of Mahler 5 and 6 in the new Rosbaud set, but it sounded like fake stereo to me. Very processed sound & added reverb. You didn’t notice any fake stereo?


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