Rosbaud Conducts French Music

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DEBUSSY: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Nocturnes: Nuages & Fêtes. Marche éccosaise. Berceuse héroïque. Jeux. La Mer. RAVEL: Alborada del gracioso. Ma mere l’Oye: Cinq pieces entantines. ROUSSEL: Concert pour petite orchestre. Suite en Fa. Sinfonie Nr. 3. IBERT: Le Chevalier errant. MILHAUD: L’Homme et son dèsir. JARRE: Concertino pour percussion et cordes. MESSIAEN: Chronochromie. HONEGGER: Sinfonie No. 3. MIHALOVICI: Sinfonie Nr. 2. Toccata für Klavier und Orchester* / Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden; Hans Rosbaud, cond; *Monique Hass, pno / SWR Classic 19115CD

This unusual collection features famed conductor Hans Rosbaud (1895-1962) in repertoire that one would consider quite foreign for him, that of French composers, although all of the works included here were written at one point or another during the 29th century. We start out with the common—Debussy and Ravel, and none of the works really rarities—but soon move on to the uncommon in Roussel, Jarre and Mihalovici with unusual works by famed composers like Ibert and Honegger tossed in.

The odd thing about Rosbaud was that although he started conducting in 1921, and was appointed by the U.S. occupation forces as music director at Munich in 1945, no one really paid him any attention until he premiered Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron in 1954 on eight days’ notice. This was the performance that made his name, particularly when it was issued on LP in 1957. Rosbaud’s penchant for extreme clarity in his orchestral sound led a great many critics to compare Arturo Toscanini negatively to him simply because Toscanini’s repertoire was far more limited in terms of modern music, including only Ravel, Dukas, Atterberg, Copland, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Barber, Creston, Gershwin, Morton Gould and Roy Harris among respected modern composers, in some cases only one piece per composer. But since Toscanini was born in 1867 and Rosbaud in 1895, it is much fairer to compare him to Toscanini protégés such as Artur Rodziński, Charles Munch and Dmitri Mitropoulos who conducted far more modern works than he did with a similar transparency of sound. I feel that, since Rosbaud was only famous for the last seven years of his career, the conductor you should compare unfavorably to him is Karajan, not Toscanini, since these were the exact years in which Karajan tightened his grip on the classical world as “international music director.”

As with Toscanini, Rosbaud’s extreme clarity of sound may not always have been ideal for Debussy, who preferred his orchestral textures somewhat blurred, not crystal-clear. With that being said, Rosbaud’s performances of these Debussy works are quite good considering their time and place as well as the mono sound. The question is, however, not whether they are good or not but whether they are unique enough to add to one’s collection which probably has numerous versions of most of these pieces. That I cannot answer for you, but he does a pretty good job with them. There is some nice transparency, particularly of the strings and harp, in the Prélude and a nice floating feeling in the first Nocturne, “Nuages.” His performance of “Fêtes” sounds much like Toscanini’s performances of this piece, only a shade more relaxed. Personally, I prefer a more exciting reading of “Fêtes.” Rosbaud also brings out the syncopations in the “Marche ecossaise” better than Toscanini did. The Berceuse héroïque is very beautifully phrased, although at this slow tempo it sounds more berceuse-like and less héroöque.

Perhaps I should point out that the constant comparison that modern music lovers make between Rosbaud and Toscanini is not as fair as it would be if they compared him to three of his

Jeux is unusual, a late piece by Debussy not often programmed in concert because it is ballet music. Very few conductors, even today, play it as a concert piece. Rosbaud’s performance is excellent judged in both tempi and orchestral balance. Although I prefer Bernard Haitink’s recording of it, this is largely due to the superior sound; as a reading of the score, this one is hard to beat.

I own a fairly large number of La Mer performances: Piero Coppola, Haitink, Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, two by Charles Munch and four by Toscanini (BBC Symphony 1935, New York Philharmonic 1936, Philadelphia Orchestra 1942 and NBC Symphony 1950), of which the Haitink, Inghelbrecht and Toscanini 1950 are my favorites. This one is very good, however; Rosbaud has a firm grasp on the work’s structure and, like Toscanini, brings out the inner voices, although he rushes the last section of the first movement too much (yes, even faster than Toscanini’s speediest performance).

Since Ravel calls for less of an opaque sound than Debussy, Rosbaud sounds particularly comfortable in his music, and the Alborada del gracioso is a wonderful achievement, in part due to the really superb sound quality. His trademark angular phrasing and rhythmic approach works especially well in this piece. The sound is also pretty good, though not quite as perfect, in his performances of five pieces from Mother Goose. These really capture the spirit of the music very well.

Although Roussel was six years older than Ravel, his music was more forward-looking, thus Rosbaud is very much at home in these works from 1926-1930, particularly in the Concert pour petite orchestre which he plays with special brilliance. The strings sound just a bit rough in his performance of Roussel’s Suite in F Major, but this might have been due to the way the recording was miked. Toscanini suffered a similar fate with many of his recordings. The Symphony No. 3, though ostensibly in G minor, is actually a bitonal work that is often underpinned by ambiguous harmony, and ni this piece Rosbaud is clearly in his element. He constantly enlivens the rhythms of these Roussel works in a way that even many modern conductors do not, and again his penchant for transparency of orchestral texture pays great dividends.

Ibert’s Le Chevalier errant is another infrequently-performed work. Written in 1835 for Ida Rubinstein, it’s based on Don Quixote (which, for some reason, was an exceptionally popular theme in the late 1920s and early ‘30s). Ibert originally wrote it as a batter with speaker, but later rearranged it as you hear it here, as a suite for large orchestra.  This performance also has excellent sound; although, again, we are not provided performance dates, it does resemble some early stereo recordings, with a mild but noticeable separation of channels. All of the elements of the score are handled superbly, and like the preceding two discs, Rosbaud seems to be giving this music more of a legato feel and forward momentum than he did in, say, Mozart.

Milhaud’s not-so-common L’Hommeet son désir is also a ballet, and a very early one for Milhaud (1917-18), written for Nijinsky and the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo. If anything, this music is even more modern and forward-looking than the Ibert piece, almost completely atonal with an amorphous rhythm (how on earth did Nijinsky dance to it??), sort of a cross between Debussy (who was still alive at the time), Stravinsky and Schoenberg (it reminded me of Erwärtung, except without a singer). Not surprisingly, the work was not premiered until 1921; it was probably too difficult for the orchestra to play in 1918. About four minutes in, we finally get a steady rhythm but not a particularly danceable one (to my mind, anyway); in fact, there are two or three contrasting rhythms playing against one another. Listening to Rosbaud’s performance reminds me of Toscanini’s comment about Mitropoulos’ performance of Berg’s Wozzeck: How he got all that complex music into his head is beyond me. (Like Toscanini and Mitropoulos, Rosbaud conducted without a score in front of him most of the time.) Not a single section of this piece, which runs continuously for 19 minutes, is “comfortable” listening. This beats La Creation du Monde by a mile in terms of complexity.

Maurice Jarre’s three-minute Concertino for Percussion and Strings was a new work when Rosbaud performed it. All polyrhythms and contrary-motion themes and motifs, it’s challenging to listen to even today. Rosbaud does a splendid job of it. Messiaen’s Chronochromie was also new at the time having been written in 1959-60. If you are one of those who are always looking for the mysticism in Messiaen’s scores, this may not be the performance for you: it is brisk, texturally crystal-clear and rhythmically pert. But I liked it tremendously, in fact, even better than Sylvain Cambreling’s performance in his box set of Messiaen’s orchestral works (which is a sort of touchstone for me in his music). Using percussion a great deal, particularly xylophone and chimes, parts of it always sounded to me like a badly broken mechanical clock. I tell you, you can’t beat those old tunes from the doo-wop era!

Rosbaud’s performance of the Honegger Third Symphony is as intense as that of Charles Munch’s but without the “French” string sound that Munch preferred. Though born in Rumania, Marcel Mihailovici qualifies as a French composer because he was “discovered” at age 21 by George Enescu and encouraged to move to Paris, where he stayed, to study with Vincent d’Indy. His music, too, is resolutely bitonal, and again Rosbaud takes all of this in stride to produce a performance that balances his usual traits of lyricism with intensity and an almost 3-D orchestral texture.

The saddest thing about Rosbaud is that fame came late and he died at age 67, just about the time his career really started taking off. The same fate befell René Leibowitz, who died at age 59, whereas Pierre Boulez, another conductor committed to modern repertoire, made it to age 90 and Robert Craft lived to age 92. Being committed to modern music simply won’t make you a popular musician. (How many people know Herbert Kegel, another German conductor who specialized in modern music?) After conducting the Munich Philharmonic for three years (1945-48), Rosbaud’s contract was allowed to lapse because they wanted to move in a more conservative direction. That’s when he signed with the SWR Sinfonieorchester of Baden-Baden, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

Running through some of Rosbaud’s other recordings, I greatly admired his performances of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, the Schumann Violin Concerto with Henryk Szeryng, Blacher’s Concertante Musik and Piano Concerto No. 2 with the composer’s wife, Getty Blacher-Herzog, Berg’s 3 Pieces for Orchestra, a fabulous performance of Bartók’s Sonata No. 2 for two pianos and percussion with Rosbaud himself on first piano (Maria Bergman plays the second), Schoenberg’s Orchestral Variations, Op. 31, and especially Webern’s 6 Pieces for Orchestra which he conducted with more detail and zip than Robert Craft. He was clearly a major talent, in the same vein as Mitropoulos, Leibowitz and Boulez, his only Achilles heels being Beethoven (which he conducted a bit too slowly and broadly) and 18th-century music, his complete recordings of Rameau’s Platée and Gluck’s Orfeo (the tenor version, with Leopold Simoneau and Suzanne Danco), in which he uses too rich an orchestral sound and didn’t understand the Classical style as well as Monteux or Toscanini did. But he was indeed as advertised, an outstanding conductor, particularly of music from the mid-19th century on into contemporary works of his time, and it’s nice to see him getting his due on recordings. This set is yet another feather in his cap, one that should be heard by all serious music lovers.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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