Münchner Philharmoniker 125 Years
This anniversary set gets off to a solid start with a weighty, plain-spoken 1953 Eroica and a pastorally accented 1956 Brahms Second from Hans Knappertsbusch at his most forthright. But, you may ask, what about the first half of the orchestra’s history? What of its pre war music directors Siegmund von Hausegger and Oswald Kabasta? What indeed, for a policy move of ‘Don’t mention the war’ prevails; unusual in modern Germany, and unfortunate for an institution once proud to declare itself ‘National Orchestra of the Fascist Movement’, whose scores were emblazoned with swastikas that were finally effaced half a century later.
There is no place here for the card-carrying Kabasta beyond a couple of passing references in the booklet. A ‘documentary history in facts and figures’ outlines the origins of the orchestra under the sponsorship of a wealthy local businessman before pirouetting elliptically into its considerable Bruckner and rather less fabled Mahler traditions which, within the attractively designed box itself, remain undocumented. So does the rehabilitating work of the orchestra’s first post-war music director, Hans Rosbaud.
The Knappertsbusch performances have been previously issued by Golden Melodram, whereas a 1964 Magic Flute from the National Theatre is new to the catalogue – save for the arias and duets sung by Fritz Wunderlich’s Tamino, which were cherry-picked by DG for a ‘Live on Stage’ compilation in 2010. He leads a cast stronger on youth (including Hermann Prey’s Papageno and a peach of a Pamina from Anneliese Rothenberger) than experience (Karl Christian Kohn, unsteady as Sarastro, and a pinched, rhythmically insecure Queen of the Night from Erica Koth). There’s spirited leadership from Fritz Rieger in the pit, offering partial compensation for yards of dialogue and boxy mono sound.
Skipping unaccountably past the decade-long tenure of Rudolf Kempe (1967 76), the compilers next alight on a pair of guest appearances by Christa Ludwig and Eugen Jochum in 1979 and 1981, getting to the heart of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody and Reger’s complementary Hölderlin-setting An die Hoffnung. With one of very few orchestras who could claim to have Reger under their fingertips, Jochum gives an incandescent performance of the Hiller Variations.
It’s a highlight of the box. So is Von deutscher Seele, the evening-long love song to the poetry of Eichendorff by another ill travelling German reactionary of the early 20th century, Hans Pfitzner. More expansive yet more urgent than any rival on disc (mostly conducting the rival band of Bavarian Radio), Horst Stein directs a superbly matched cast of soloists: Luana DeVol, Doris Soffel, Thomas Moser and Alfred Muff. In his invaluable Pfitzner monograph, John Williamson makes a claim for the piece as ‘the finest choral work by a German-speaking composer between Gurrelieder and Carmina Burana’: not so far-fetched now, even the climactic, organ-capped paean to ‘Das Land’.
Pfitzner confessed to Thomas Mann that in his opera Palestrina ‘everything leans to the past; there is a prevailing sympathy with death’. It’s a Bavarian thing; modern-era performances of Requiems and ‘late works’ take themselves very seriously indeed. Even the notably consistent aesthetic of Günter Wand bends to the Munich way in Mozart’s 40th Symphony, with smoother legato and broader tempos. As successor to Kempe, Sergiu Celibidache moulded the orchestra’s sound in his image of perfection; his legacy is suitably represented with Prokofiev, a mink-lined Scythian Suite and Romeo and Juliet extracts of alternately beguiling and bewildering perversity.
Dying suddenly in 1996, Celibidache cast a baleful shadow; none of his successors has lasted long in post. Taking over in 1999, James Levine notably broadened the orchestra’s repertoire, and he coaches a lighter French accent in a Damnation of Faust from the same year, rather successfully issuing a challenge to Mann’s exclusive claim for Goethe’s anti-hero as ‘the representative of the German soul’ with the aid of excellent (local) choral work and an international cast led by José van Dam hamming up Méphistophélès.
Even if the past isn’t another country in Munich, the Philharmonic has adapted to the streaming age with a digital-only label, issuing performances that stand comparison with the representations of their conductors’ work in the box. A 2016 Mozart-anniversary concert led by Zubin Mehta features a Room 101 Requiem fragment (up to the first 10 bars of the Lacrymosa) with an ill-assorted team of soloists and a glutinous Ave verum corpus to close; it’s no match for the digital-only Das Lied von der Erde (celebrating the centenary of the premiere given by this orchestra) with Peter Seiffert and Thomas Hampson rekindling their partnership on Rattle’s studio recording.
Another tenor-baritone partnership, of Toby Spence and Hanno Müller-Brachmann, lends moving detail to Lorin Maazel’s late account of Britten’s War Requiem (digital only); measured but never static, unlike the Verdi Requiem in the box (and previously issued by Sony, 7/15). At his most individualistic, Christian Thielemann leads a ‘Great’ C major Symphony of sporadically mesmerising breadth and power, drawn as if from an invented tradition, whereas a digital-only Mendelssohn Italian is a model of comparatively feline grace.
The box comes up to date with Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony and Rimsky’s Sheherazade with the orchestra’s current chief, Valery Gergiev: very similar to his previous accounts of both works on record, albeit opulent and (again) more expansive, still recognisably played by ‘Celi’s band’. To sum up? It’s essential listening for followers of Reger and Pfitzner. Streaming-friendly listeners will want to investigate the treasure buried online.