Who is Gunther Hasselmann?

Mozart cover

About a week or so ago, I was scouting around YouTube for Mozart Symphony performances by Bruno Walter. While collecting these, I ran across performances of the Symphonies Nos. 1 & 34, which Walter never recorded, credited to Gunther Hasselmann and the German National Symphony Orchestra. They were so excellent in every respect that I tried to find Hasselmann’s set of the complete Mozart Symphonies via a Google search.

I came up empty insofar as physical recordings went, but was astonished to find a cornucopia of Mozart recordings by Hasselmann, available for free streaming, on both Amazon and Spotify. Since Amazon insists on your downloading their app to your device to play the recordings and Spotify doesn’t, I stayed on the latter site and sated myself with his performances of the Mozart Symphonies Nos. 24-41.

They were terrific.

In fact, they were better than terrific. Nearly all of them had just the right balance of drive and elegance. The pacing was primarily straightforward, but with subtle rubato modifications here and there. They also included all written repeats. Although I still find the Walter performances to be a bit more “human”-sounding—I’m not all that fond of historically-informed orchestras in which the strings play with constant straight tone—I’d still have to say that, by and large, the Hasselmann Mozart Symphonies are the best I’ve ever heard. They’re better than the much more famous sets by Karl Böhm, Charles Mackerras and Adam Fischer, whose work sounds (in varying degrees) much fussier than Hasselmann’s. The only real disappointment in the set was the very last symphony, No. 41, where I felt that he took far too slow a pace in the first, third and fourth movements. Otherwise, they were perfection.

So of course I then began to scour the Internet, hoping to find out more about Hasselmann, but all I found were two things. On a Reddit.com discussion on music from 2017, one OwenRedding wrote:

And who is this ‘Gunther Hasselmann’ who is clogging up classical on every vendor I visit? He has risen without trace, and Google only returns results of these recent albums, no history of ‘him’.

To which someone using the handle classicot replied:

Not a clue who Hasselmann is. He’s clogging up Classical in North America, too. They are all on 7 digital, too. It’s telling that the quality classical sites such as Presto in the UK and Arkivmusic in the US have none of them.

All I could find on Hasselmann was that he is supposedly 80 years old, lives in Germany, and is a pianist and author, though no book titles are given.

Following my perusal of the Mozart Symphonies, I then dug into the Piano Concerti. These, too, were excellent performances, but much more mixed in both style and quality. In some of them, Hasselmann is playing a period piano; in others, a modern piano; and in a few performances, he starts on a period instrument for the first movement or two and then switches to a modern one for the last. This clearly indicated to me that these movements, and concerti, were recorded at different times. The orchestra in the early concerti sounds like a HIP orchestra, but as the series moves on this, too changes, and we hear an orchestra of reduced forces but not using straight tone. Curiouser and curiouser!

Baffled, I put out feelers to three professional contacts of mine who have been very kind to me in the past: conductor Theodore Kuchar, who works in Europe; the great German pianist Michael Korstick; and Bis records’ owner and founder, Robert von Bahr. Kuchar passed the links along to some of his professional colleagues, none of whom could identify the actual performers of the symphonies. Korstick was even more blunt, saying that the playing could be anyone. Both he and von Bahr were immediately suspicious, thinking that this was another case of fraud similar to the Joyce Hatto recordings. For those who have forgotten or don’t know, Hatto was a minor British pianist who died, and whose husband then digitally modified recordings by some of the greatest pianists in the world and passed them around as recordings by his late wife. Von Bahr was, along with engineer Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical, one of those who helped to break open the Hatto fraud, and he suspects the same thing of Hasselmann.

Following my perusal of the Mozart piano concerti, I sampled some of the chamber music files. Since I don’t like most of Mozart’s chamber music I can’t pass judgment on the performance quality, but the sound on most of these was very strange: rather claustrophobic and a little muffled, sounding like recordings from the early years of digital sound, the 1980s. So clearly, all of these recordings do not come from the same source and the performances are quite varied. Checking under the heading Theatre Works, the only opera he seems to have uploaded is a performance of the early Mitrodate with a group of singers, some good and some excellent, singing in what sounds to me to be idiomatic Italian (but may not be; I don’t claim to be a linguist). Since this was an opera, I got another friend of mine, Vocal Record Collectors’ Society President Joe Pearce, involved, but he declined to go too far, simple reminding me of the many fraudulent opera recordings that came out over the years, particularly the series issued by Period Records in the 1950s from the pseudonymous “Patagonia Festival.”

But then, while searching YouTube for a Mozart Piano Concerto that was not available on Spotify, I saw the legend: “Provided to YouTube by Horus Music.” Aha! A clue! I looked up Horus Music and found this image on their home page:

Horus Music

Then, on Wikipedia, I discovered further information about them. Horus Music was founded in 2006 to allow “artists, labels and right-holders to send their music to over 200 download, streaming, and interactive platforms including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, VEVO, 7digital, Spotify, Beatport, Deezer, Tidal, as well as offering digital marketing and playlisting opportunities.” They also appear to be quite honest and upright when it comes to protecting performers’ rights, having “spoken openly about the state of the music industry and artists’ rights, and were one of the first distributors to remove their catalogue from Rdio after the streaming service was acquired by Pandora.” In fact, on Queen Elizabeth II’s 91st birthday in 2017, she awarded the company with the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade.

So now we have at least a glimpse into what this is all about. Whoever the actual performers are, all of the recordings are copyrighted under the umbrella name of “Gunther Hasselmann” and disseminated for free streaming all over the Internet. What this means is that, far from making money on these recordings, “Hasselmann” actually had to pay Horus Music to manage all of the uploading and management issues.

Curiouser and curiouser and curiouser!!

Strange as it may seem, I feel there is an historic parallel in the strange story of Kasper Hauser, the 15-year-old youth who appeared out of nowhere on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828. Although there were many, in his lifetime and afterwards, who thought him a liar and a phony, the strange thing about Hauser is that he gained NOTHING by sticking to his story of having been raised in a dark basement room, taught only a little German, and fed only bread and water. He spent some time in jail as a vagabond, and even when he was finally placed with people he didn’t steal anything or further his position except to eventually learn more language skills. His strange encounters in which he was cut on the forehead and, at the age of 21, stabbed deeply in the chest by a stranger in the Ansbach Court Gardens, a wound which he died from three days later, could possibly be seen to be attempts to gain sympathy but, again, did not promote or enrich him. All he got for his efforts were poverty, insults and derision.

In his five and a half years living in the open, no one ever came forth to verify or deny Hauser’s story. Even in an era when news traveled slowly, you’d think that someone would have done so had they had any information; considering his time and place, his story was so strange that it virtually traveled around the world. Here, we have a situation where four years have passed since Hasselmann’s recordings first began appearing online. In the Internet age, four years is an eternity, yet no one who has claimed ownership of them or even anyone who has claimed to be one of the performers. I find that exceedingly odd considering their widespread exposure and the obviously high quality of the symphonic and concerto performances. The piano concerti in particular do a better job than any others I’ve heard of capturing the quality of “chiaroscuro,” of light played against darkness, in the music, and as I’ve said, except for the “Jupiter” these are the best overall performances of the symphonies around.

Here is the link to the Spotify page containing most of Hasselmann’s recordings, including a few outliers of the music of Bach, Schubert and Mendelssohn:

https://open.spotify.com/artist/1k9dSmikIfyap8eIW49qHi/discography

And here is my list of where you can find the symphonies and concerti I listened to, under Orchestral Works:

Vol. 5: Symphonies Nos. 22-25, 27

Vol. 6: Symphonies Nos. 28-30

Vol. 7: Symphony in D, K. 250, “Haffner Serenade”

Vol. 8: Symphonies Nos. 31, 33, 34

Vol. 9: Symphonies Nos. 35 & 36

Vol. 10: Symphonies Nos. 38 & 39

Vol. 11: Symphonies Nos. 40 & 41

Vol. 14: Divertimento in D, K. 131

Vol. 19: A Musical Joke, K. 522; Serenade, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”

Vol. 31: Piano Concerti Nos. 6, 8 & 9

Vol. 32: Piano Concerto No. 10 for 2 Pianos, K. 365

Vol. 33: Piano Concerti Nos. 11-13

Vol. 34: Piano Concerti Nos. 14-19, Concerto 20 1st mvt.

Vol. 35: Rest of Concerto 20; Piano Concerti Nos. 17, 21, 22, 24, 25

Vol. 36: Piano Concerti Nos. 23, 26, 27

As you may note, several of the early concerti are not on Spotify but they are on YouTube. Hasselmann’s partners in the three-piano concerto (No. 7) are listed as Albert Strauss and Gerold Niebuhr. Korstick assures me that there are no known pianists by that name, either.

If any of you reading this have any idea who the performers really are, I’d appreciate your sending an email to artmusiclady (at) outlook.com and letting me know. Perhaps there is someone in Germany, Austria, or even in England (for all I know, “Hasselmann” may even be living in a different country altogether) who has an idea who he really is or, better yet, who these performers really are.

Enjoy!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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