Written by: Nick Breckenfield
Nick Breckenfield salutes Klaus Tennstedt, who would have been 80 in June 2006, and introduces some concert performances that have recently appeared on Compact Disc…
Klaus Tennstedt died just short of six years ago (11 January 1998) and 2006 sees what would have been his 80th-birthday, on 6 June. Despite being a mainstay of EMI’s catalogue during the late 1970s and early 1980s – giving his complete Mahler cycle (still a favourite amongst the bargain slim-line box sets) and additional performances of Mahler’s First with the Chicago Symphony and, with his beloved London Philharmonic, the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth symphonies – the Fifth and Eighth filmed by the BBC and surely now imperative releases for the 80th-birthday year – it is only now that we are seeing ‘new’ Tennstedt releases.
Profil Edition Günter Hänssler has been unearthing late-70s’ concerts given by Tennstedt with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, while BBC Legends has been looking to London Philharmonic recordings made at both the Proms and the Royal Festival Hall, with a Beethoven 7/Brahms 3 following on from a Proms Beethoven 9, that marvellous Bohemian combo of Smetana’s Bartered Bride Overture, Janáček’s Sinfonietta and Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony and the pairing of Beethoven 1 & 5 with overtures Oberon and Egmont (previously reviewed). In addition, one of the first releases on the London Philharmonic’s own-label was Tennstedt in a Proms’ selection of Wagner orchestral highlights. EMI are also due to release another Beethoven 7, this time in a North German Radio archive series.
So, time for a Christmas round-up of four of the discs recently released. Of course, any Tennstedt fan will want them all, and these releases aren’t just for Christmas! Indeed, they all display this conductor’s extraordinary honesty and his ability to get great performances out of every orchestra he conducted.
Profil Edition Günter Hänssler
Symphony No.3 in D minor [final version, 1888/1889]
Live recording (Bavarian Radio): 4 November 1976
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
While critical opinion nowadays veers away from the final ‘definitive’ version, Bruckner (on at least his third attempt) chipping away at much of what the 21st-century regards as his true voice to please 19th-century blinkered opinion, Tennstedt plays the score for all it is worth. The recording acoustic is quite reverberant, but in such a work that creates a perfect ambience, and Tennstedt allows climaxes to breath, while in the whimsical, delicate Andante quasi Adagio he keeps his grip with a satisfyingly firm bass, underpinning Bruckner’s invention.
There is a determined glint in Tennstedt’s eye as he swaggers through the scherzo, contrasted with the deliberate tread of the trio, played with a chamber-music-like ear, with its delicate flute and oboe quips, then rocking pizzicato. The eerie scrapings opening the finale, enhanced by Tennstedt’s proclivity to accent sound-effects, and the curious, repeated off-beat brass following the strings as if mistakenly out-of-kilter come off full-bloodedly, but Tennstedt can reign all that in with the most exquisite of horn and then woodwind chords as if time is standing still, as before the recapitulation of the opening’s eerieness. Despite its relative brevity in the ‘definitive’ version, Tennstedt whips the coda up to a suitable state of excess.
Profil Edition Günter Hänssler
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100
Symphony No 7 in C sharp minor, Op.131
Live recordings (Bavarian Radio):
2 December 1977 [Symphony No.5]
12 July 1977
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Although he conducted little Prokofiev in London, Tennstedt did conduct certain works of the Russian composer around the world – including the Third Symphony and various concertos, two of which arrived in London in Russian programmes in 1992. He was scheduled to conduct Prokofiev 5 but it fell foul of one of his many cancellations (Bernard Haitink replacing him on that occasion). Seemingly though, his only performance of Prokofiev 7 is the one captured here.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows this conductor, but the performances of these two late Prokofiev symphonies are given larger-than-life performances, that grip you from the very opening bars and refuse to let go until the final chord. They jump from the speaker and stop whatever you were doing, demanding to be listened to.
It might have been better to keep the performances in the order they were played, the Seventh predating the Fifth by five months, as after such a blistering performance of Opus 100, Prokofiev’s last symphony seems rather naïve. Yet the Seventh shows this composer off at his lyrical best, inhabiting the world of the full-length ballet scores, such as Romeo and Juliet, even though the fourth movement boasts a theme that starts off like “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside”!
But the real white heat on this disc is the Fifth Symphony: powerful, urgent, wilful and not for the feint-hearted. This may not be a performance for every day of the week – but it continues to knock my socks off; so an unashamedly, wholeheartedly, ‘must listen’ recommendation.
The remaining two discs in this round-up include performances that I was present at: anyone likewise would probably want to add them to their collection for that very fact alone, but those unlucky enough not to be at the Royal Festival or Royal Albert Halls may need further recommendation.
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Live recordings, Royal Festival Hall:
22 November 1989 [Beethoven]
7 April 1983
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Certainly this BBC Legends disc is worth a ‘hurrah’ or two. The Beethoven 7 is the second of two performances given in November 1989. The first performance had been part of the London Philharmonic’s subscription season (with Glinka’s “Ruslan and Ludmilla” overture and Radu Lupu playing Grieg’s Concerto. The following night it was the Royal Concert, promoted by the Royal Philharmonic Society, and not on subscription – but (of course) I was back, for Nigel Kennedy’s performance of the Brahms Concerto (this was ten months before they took it into the recording studio).
It will be fascinating to hear the EMI/NDR version of Beethoven 7 compared to this unforgettable performance, which – admittedly with a rather close recording highlighting the Royal Festival Hall’s rather boxy acoustic, although with woodwinds shining brilliantly – comes over splendidly on BBC Legends. Tennstedt’s is an organic approach, but also monumental, yet this is not a slow performance (with first movement repeat honoured, though not the repeat in the finale, it clocks in at just over 36 minutes). Just listen to the way the slow introduction internally builds up momentum to burst into the main Vivace or how the Allegretto gradually gains power and, equally magically, lets the tension dissipate. After the fleet scherzo, the finale opens at breathless speed and builds thrillingly. I can feel myself to this day caught up in the excitement: a wonderful performance, truly worthy of recorded life.
Here, once again, I was worried the works may have been placed the wrong way round – with the Brahms ending quietly it seems more suited to be first on the disc. Yet, after the powerhouse of the Beethoven, the Brahms has a satisfying effect of bringing the listener gently back down to earth! This performance was, incredibly, only the second time he had conducted the work (the first had been in Pittsburgh) and this performance is also to be cherished. (Incredibly it seems that Tennstedt never conducted Brahms’s Second Symphony.)
In Brahms 3 the strings seem better caught than the winds, and the recording a little more open than in the Beethoven. Tennstedt’s organic approach again comes to the fore; he finds the inner connections, making sense between single threads of phrases that then assume greater importance in the overall structure (Brahms’s beloved pitching of quavers against triplets) and themes that grow out of motivic cells. His unerring sense of line is wonderfully captured in the build-up to the first movement’s recapitulation: utterly magnificent.
A cougher is apparent in the Andante, not that you will necessarily notice (music can be a cure for all ills!), while the yearning quality of the strings at the opening of the Poco Allegretto is beautifully caught, melting at every phrase, with the horn rising above when it takes over the theme. Shortly after, the bassoon counterpoint to the main theme is clearly caught, before the movement gently comes to rest. The fourth movement, follows the others in coming to a close quietly, but not before Tennstedt has put the strings through their paces in the heady reaches of the opening bars, in part aping the finale to the Second Symphony. But here the trajectory is different and Tennstedt gives us another masterclass in how to raise and release tension in music, before allowing the music to miraculously evaporate to end in a radiant calm.
Intriguingly, BBC Legends is the only label to recognise that “Klaus Tennstedt appears courtesy of EMI Classics”.
London Philharmonic Orchestra
LPO – 0003
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Prelude to Act One
Rienzi – Overture
Götterdämmerung – Dawn & Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; Siegfried’s Funeral Music
Die Walküre – The Ride of the Valkyries
Tannhäuser – Overture & Venusberg Music
Live recording, Royal Albert Hall, 6 August 1992
London Philharmonic Orchestra
When first released (in mid-2005), the liner notes for this recording stated that it was taken from the Royal Festival Hall, 6 May 1988. Then the London Philharmonic found out that the BBC recording was actually from a BBC Prom that Tennstedt conducted in 1992 (the year before he retired from conducting). Future reprints will give the correct recording information, if not already doing so.
The Royal Festival Hall performance had marked Tennstedt’s return to the London Philharmonic after one of his many absences. It sticks in my memory not only for the ecstatic reaction of the audience to see Tennstedt again, but also for one of the stewards jumping up and down in excitement at first sight of this gangly, vaguely uncoordinated genius, before a single note had been played.
The Albert Hall performance was preceded by a solo organ first half, given by James O’Donnell of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on BACH. By then, presumably, there were fears that a full programme might have been too much for Tennstedt, although – as testified here – he went on to conduct nearly 80 minutes of music, including an encore of The Ride of the Valkyries.
Thereby hangs a tale! On this recording The Ride of the Valkyries comes as the penultimate item, not as the encore. So it is curious indeed that the disc’s running order should not only end with the Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg Music but also be almost completely out of order with the concert’s original play-list, indeed the one Tennstedt favoured whenever he conducted such a programme (that 1988 Royal Festival Hall concert and the repeat slightly later that year in Tokyo, issued on VHS and Laser Disc by EMI, and still awaiting a DVD release).
There Tennstedt started with Tannhäuser, followed by Rienzi, then the Götterdämmerung excerpts, before finishing with Meistersinger and topping it off with the Walküre encore. I am left bemused by the change – especially as Tannhäuser, however well played, does seem to be a very odd climax.
That the performances are worth hearing – and you’ll be expecting this from me, no doubt – goes without saying. Tennstedt’s extraordinary energy, despite his frailties, seem apparent in every bar, as he galvanises his beloved London Philharmonic players to seat-of-the-pants playing, investing Wagner with probably much more than he is worth (I write as a non-Wagner lover!). There is real stage excitement, even in these concert performances.
But – and there is a ‘but’ with this disc – the recording is uneven. Listening once again after the other discs on review, it shows its faults rather more clearly. (Poor digital re-mastering! – Ed.) There is though a greater distance than the recordings from both Bavarian Radio and the Royal Festival Hall, which in some respects offers a more balanced perspective. Meistersinger is suitably spirited, but Rienzi seems opaque and consequently under-powered, with a barely audible first trumpet note. Yet it’s amazing how quick the ear can counteract a dull recording.
The Ring excerpts go with a swagger and reinforce the regret that Tennstedt never committed a complete Ring cycle to disc. The 25-minute Tannhäuser excerpt whips itself into a fine frenzy, and there is much to enjoy from Tennstedt’s music-making here.
However, I suspect on this occasion, there is better recourse to the two releases of Wagner recordings that Tennstedt made with the Berlin Philharmonic, now available as a twofer, and despite early, bright digital edge.