Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester [now WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln]
Recorded 22 October 1951 in the Funkhaus, Saal 1, Cologne
CD No: ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5091 Duration: 66 minutes Reviewed: January 2013
ICA Classics – Hans Rosbaud conducts Mahler’s Fifth Symphony
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Many conductors are celebrated, and whether embracing those active today and/or individuals representative of yesteryear, we would each have a personal list of those we rate. Such a register could well be notable for those names omitted: mine would exclude Furtwängler, Stokowski and Toscanini, for example (while acknowledging some outstanding achievements from each), but include Ansermet, Boult, Celibidache, Giulini, Kubelík, Klemperer and Martinon, for instance. This is cursory, for one’s admirations can be upset and intolerances swept aside. But over the years – time being a great decider – there is the consistency of success and failure to help inform a list of lauded artists. What then of Austrian Hans Rosbaud (1895-1962)? Well, up until now, I would have termed him an admirable musician, committed to the new music of his day (he championed such as Bartók, Hindemith, Messiaen, Schoenberg, Stockhausen and Stravinsky) and selflessly perceptive with the classics. Rosbaud’s natural successor is Michael Gielen (born 1927), a connoisseur’s conductor who is also a profoundly illuminating interpreter of Mahler’s music. I say “also”, for let me clarify that Rosbaud’s conducting of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is extraordinarily compelling and rejuvenating – necessarily reviving, too, because this music has been played to death in the concert hall, and often routinely or showily, and needs just the rehabilitation that Rosbaud brings to it.
Let us remember that in 1951 – when this studio performance was recorded for radio broadcast – Mahler’s symphonies were relative rarities if not as scarce as is sometimes made out. Nevertheless, Rosbaud finds a detail and character in the Fifth Symphony that sends out shockwaves of revelation. So many things are ‘right’ about this reading – the tempos, their relationships, a sense of journey and the vibrant characterisation of the music.
The opening trumpet solo, confidently played and with a just balance between sounding from the barrack square yet realised with sophisticated poise, immediately suggests that something special is about to unfold. And it does. The funeral march itself has indomitable tread, deep eloquence – tragedy made implicit – and then seethes with anger at its mid-point. The second movement is the ‘vehement’ that Mahler requests (Mit größter Vehemenz), Rosbaud whipping up a veritable tempest, the ensuing rhapsody heartfelt and intense, and then the cellos’ soliloquy (in the eye of the storm) is a moment of uneasy yet through-line-related calm. Rosbaud’s way with Mahler stresses the ‘modern’ within in the music – no doubt why Pierre Boulez is such an admirer of this conductor – but there is also room for a little schmaltz and portamento (try the glorious string-playing from 6’26” to 7’05”) as well as some unexpected emphases and rubato, all of which are made convincing.
The following scherzo either lives dangerously – thus thrillingly – or finds another place to languor (without disruption to coherence), the dance-rhythms crisp enough to be by Stravinsky, and the obbligato horn solo is finely taken. With the (now famous) Adagietto, in 1951 played with blissful ignorance of its future in memoriam or film score usage, Rosbaud, with a tempo a little broader than Mengelberg’s definitive version and on a par with Barbirolli and Kubelík, avoids the wallowing of some later conductors while conjuring a rich and intense response from the Cologne strings for the love-letter that this music is supposed to be from Mahler to Alma. For the finale, and its baroque designs, Rosbaud brings stealth and clarity, and no lack of flexibility. The coda is at once rambunctious and triumphant.
The recorded sound is amazing for its year; dynamic, full and vivid – if it were in stereo, this would pass for the 1960s – a bouquet for Dirk Franken for his clear, well-listened-to re-mastering that delivers not only truthful timbres (no tonal discolouration and contamination here) but also a background free of over-processed detritus, although the passage from 0’12” to 0’25” in the finale goes a little awry in balance. In addition, the conductor Kenneth Woods has contributed an insightful booklet note that adds much to this laudable enterprise of restoring pride to the name of Hans Rosbaud. May ICA Classics continue to do so.
There may be some who will take a sniffy disregard for this release, perhaps presuming the orchestra to be provincial in its execution, that a ‘forgotten’ maestro won’t have much to say about this so-familiar symphony, and that a recording this old will be too compromised for such incident-packed music. They would be wrong on all counts! If definitions of a great conductor include being able to X-ray-analyse a score and to then let it live and breathe in performance, the ability to inspire an orchestra beyond itself – the well-coached Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra plays superbly and with total security in complex writing that would then have been unfamiliar and challenging – and to have a view of music that is absorbed from and faithful to the printed page (just add personality and imagination) – then Hans Rosbaud was a great conductor and is here found at the cutting edge of Mahler’s vision.