Slow Flow Beauty: A Tribute To Hans Knappertsbusch (Blu-ray)

Review by: Jens F. Laurson


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 6

This Blu-ray titled “A Tribute to Hans Knappertsbusch” is a tribute by virtue of showing, not telling, what the conductor was about. There’s no documentary element, just two live broadcasts of concerts that Knappertsbusch gave with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Vienna Festival-Week in the storied Theater an der Wien.

Knappertsbusch was adored by the Vienna Philharmonic that shared his penchant for rehearsing as little as possible. He had worked with them for 33 years by the time the first of these concerts took place in 1962. After Karajan had taken over at the State Opera, though, his appearances were limited to concert performances, which made the first act of Die Walküre a particular treat to the Viennese at the second of these concerts, in 1963. Ironically or not, 50-plus years on it is the less interesting of the two events. The cast is fine, but Claire Watson’s hardened Sieglinde is no revelation. Fritz Uhl sings a decidedly creditable but stentorian Siegmund, honking a long “Wööööööööölse” out of the left side of his mouth. And Josef Greindl, a Knappertsbusch- and Bayreuth-mainstay of those days, makes for a heavy, gruff Hunding—as expected but too barked if you prefer your Wagner more refined. In fact, refinement is missing across the board, with the singing high on annunciation and easy on lyricism. The orchestra, which often plays admirably softly, sounds more relegated to accompaniment than you would expect in Wagner or from Kna’. It’s a brittle take of historical interest but devoid of magic.

For magic, turn to the previous year’s program with Beethoven on the front of the bill and the Tristan & Isolde Prelude and Liebestod on the back. The soloists are top-notch: Wilhelm Backhaus and Birgit Nilsson. It’s not Nilsson’s finest hour, but even average Nilsson is something to behold, and the spell she puts on the audience with her trailing pianissimo is exemplary of her qualities. Knappertsbusch shapes the Wagner like God might have the oceans: with patience and minimal but authoritative gestures.

These concerts remind us of how elegant a conductor he was, how aesthetic his movements, and how (surprisingly?) precise and economic. It’s something to admire, as are his Beethoven interpretations. The obvious aspect of the Leonore III Overture is that it’s unbelievably slow. Even the most disparate conductor types—from Furtwängler to Toscanini, from Karajan to Klemperer, from Harnoncourt to Barenboim—seem to have settled on 13-14 minutes; rarely 15. Knappertsbusch makes it an even 20! But this low basic tempo also leaves a lot of room for accelerandos, which Knappertsbusch embraces enthusiastically and that gives the performance a dramatic flair quite independent of the actual speed. His “fast” isn’t fast per se, but it is so boldly and deliberately developed from the very slow basic pulse that it moves the music along with an element of splendid force.

In collaboration with the great and regal 78-year-old Backhaus in Beethoven’s Fourth piano concerto, Kna’ is less extravagant and more accommodating, with soft, gentle interplay between the two titans of their time. With the serenely, gently imposing Backhaus coolly caressing the notes out the Bösendorfer (see if you can find even two slips in the entire live performance!) the concerto is all poise and purpose. The shaping of phrases is sensationally beautiful, but never overtly so. The lightness of Backhaus’ touch and the pianissimos can be as frothy as if he were playing something by Saint-Saëns. (Incidentally, there is a DVD of Backhaus playing the same concerto in Vienna five years later, with the Vienna Symphony under Karl Böhm, which displays the same qualities in color but with a hint of greater fragility.)

Many such recordings from yesteryear are embarrassments, technically and interpretively outmoded, outright faulty, or were never that special to begin with. And while the Vienna Philharmonic’s technical standards (not to be confused with peak ability) are, then as now, not the standards of a modern ship-shape band, they play well for Kna’, which allows his magic to weave itself through the speakers. The dry, restricted mono sound has plenty of presence and works well for the Beethoven, well enough for Tristan, but not for Die Walküre.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: A Tribute to Hans Knappertsbusch
  • Birgit Nilsson (soprano); Claire Watson (soprano); Fritz Uhl (tenor); Josef Greindl (bass); Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
  • Vienna Philharmonic, Hans Knappertsbusch

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