Review by: Jed Distler

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

It’s ironic that the late conductor René Köhler (1926-2002) gained posthumous fame, indeed infamy, for what he did not do, which was to accompany concerto recordings credited to Joyce Hatto. And it’s more ironic that Köhler’s actual legitimate recordings, all stemming from BBC broadcasts, previously were available only on LP via the Aries label, an outfit notorious for crediting performances to mostly fictitious performers! For example, older collectors might remember Aries’ ambitious Havergal Brian series, credited to non-existent soloists, conductors, and orchestras. All the more reason to celebrate Rene Köhler Inedits, the first of three double-CD sets encompassing all of the conductor’s surviving BBC material.

Severe personal problems and health issues plagued Köhler (who barely survived the Holocaust) throughout his adult life, and no doubt factored in to his aversion to rehearsals. However, nearly all of Köhler’s BBC programs featured the Polyphonia Orchestra of London, a pickup outfit made up of freelance session musicians. All were quick learners and exceptional note readers who perfectly nailed complex works at first sight, on the air. Granted, tricky tempo changes and transitions often caused the players to grasp at straws. This partly accounted for Köhler’s refusal to wield a baton, preferring instead to indicate “the long line” with his one seeing eye, rather than beat obvious time.

Still, the Mahler Tenth opening Adagio’s terrifying climax gains greater intensity by virtue of the musicians’ staggered, admirably untogether note attacks. Even when the winds and brass come one measure apart for an entire minute in the second movement’s coda, the ensuing canonic effect works to the music’s advantage. In fact, Clinton Carpenter incorporated this inspired mistake when he revised his 1956 orchestration 10 years later.

The Strauss Burleske dates from a 1969 studio broadcast, and appears to be the only professionally recorded evidence of pianist David Helfgott in his prime. Frankly, the Messiaen is bizarre. Köhler’s tempos are twice as slow as the score indicates, while the late composer Cornelius Cardew identifies each and every bird song by name as it occurs in a dramatic narration (similar to Stokowski’s infamous “Sounds of Nature” guide accompanying Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony). Yet even under trying circumstances, Frederic Rzewski delivers a broad yet incisive and richly colored account of the solo piano part.

Leo Erdody’s Fantasia on Detour expands upon that composer’s film score to Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1946 film noir cult classic of the same name. Essentially, it’s six minutes of rhapsodizing on “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me”, the pop song that served as the film’s “leitmotif”. A charming unaccompanied celesta solo midway features none other than Joyce Hatto, who plays it beautifully (yes, it’s really her in this case). The opening Oliver Knussen miniature dates from his teenage prodigy days, and already reveals a sure knack for total serialism. In sum, Inedits Volume 1 may provide more curiosity value than lasting musical satisfaction, yet it certainly helps repair Rene Köhler’s reputation. So will the legendary “lost” Beethoven Eroica promised for Volume 2 in April 2008.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Messiaen: Fiorentino/Paita (Concert-Artist), Strauss: Rubinstein/Karajan (Urania)

OLIVER KNUSSEN - Musica Ficticia IV.1 (re-revised version 1968)
LEO ERDODY - Fantasia on Detour
RICHARD STRAUSS - Burleske for Piano & Orchestra
OLIVIER MESSIAEN - Oiseaux Exotiques
GUSTAV MAHLER - Symphony No. 10 (Clinton Carpenter, 1956 version)

Share This Review: