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ClassicsOnline Home » WAGNER, R.: Overtures and Preludes (Muck) (1927-1929)
By Dan Davis
By Michael Tanner
International Record Review
By Philip Anson
La Scena Musicale
Karl Muck Berlin State Opera Orchestra: Wagner Overtures and Preludes
Born in October 1859, the son of a talented amateur, Karl Muck was a largely self-taught musician, who in his formative years divided his time between musical activities and philological studies in Heidelberg and Leipzig, graduating in 1880. Opera was quick to exert a special fascination and the proliferation of Central European opera houses allowed him rapidly to develop his musico-dramatic inclinations at an early stage of his career. His first engagements in Zürich, Salzburg, Brno and Graz ultimately led in 1886 to an appointment as Musical Director at the Neues Deutsches Theater in Prague, where he succeeded Gustav Mahler in one of his early posts. The house was managed by Angelo Neumann, an innovative impresario, who had acquired the complete store of equipment from Bayreuth in 1882. It was here that Mucks Wagnerian credentials first came to general notice. Performances of the Ring music dramas were received with particular praise, to the extent that in 1889 he travelled to Moscow and St Petersburg to give the Russian premières. These were to produce a significant effect upon the musical cognoscenti present, notably Rimsky-Korsakov, but also Tchaikovsky who had previously travelled to Bayreuth for the world première cycle in 1876.
This international success led to an appointment in 1892 as principal conductor at the Berlin State Opera, where for the next twelve years Muck substantially consolidated his position as one of the leading exponents of Wagner. As well as guest conducting all over Europe, including at Covent Garden in London, at Bayreuth in 1901 he conducted Parsifal, a work with which he maintained a special affinity and which he continued to conduct there for the next three decades. His strict rehearsal technique and fidelity to the score became the stuff of legend as did his irascible temperament if these demands were not fully met by his collaborators, whether musicians, administrators or recording engineers. The famous 1927 excerpts from Parsifal recorded at Bayreuth (Naxos 8.110049-50) were the product of an arduous and experimental seven-week schedule. They were renowned not only for the sonic capture of the original bells of the Festspielhaus in the transformation scenes, but also Mucks refusal to conduct the Good Friday Music split into three sections for 78rpm side durations. The composers son Siegfried remained on hand to step in at short notice when these outbursts threatened to bring the whole enterprise to an impasse.
Renowned for his slow tempi in Parsifal, Muck has perhaps suffered too much as the arch-propagator of the long-drawn approach now synonymous with the work, despite the swifter tempi reinstated by Boulez in the 1970s. After the first sessions set up by Columbia in Bayreuth, their rival HMV lost no time in luring him back to home ground in Berlin to record an almost complete Act 3 of Parsifal together with the substantial selection of shorter Wagner orchestral works presented here. Mucks steadiness of approach is certainly striking, when contrasted with conductors of the following generation. His special authority also has the signal advantage of being borne of direct contact with Wagners own time. The charisma of Furtwänglers cerebral flexibility and Toscaninis powerhouse incandescence are voiced with experience from a more turbulent world. In more recent times, it is perhaps the Wagner performances of Sir Adrian Boult, much influenced by Artur Nikisch, that bear the closest resemblance to Mucks style. There is a common sense of form, pace and structure that lends nobility and deep-rooted conviction to the music without overstatement or flamboyance, qualities that extended to an affinity with the symphonies of Bruckner, which Muck insisted on performing without cuts.
Come the first decade of the twentieth century, orchestra managers in the United States began to woo the cream of European conductors ever more aggressively for key posts in a burgeoning concert and opera business. The German-born Walter Damrosch inaugurated Carnegie Hall in 1891 with the New York Symphony, Frederick Stock took over in Chicago in 1905, and Cincinatti, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and St Louis simultaneously hosted European conductors. The Boston Symphony, founded in 1881, was the trailblazer however. Already recognised as Americas premier orchestra, when Muck took up his appointment in 1906, he was the fifth European to hold the post in a line that had previously included Nikisch. Apart from a four-year break from 1908-12, when Max Fiedler took the helm, Muck was to lead the orchestra with a distinguished reputation until 1918.
With entry into the First World War in 1917 however, the United States was suddenly to prove damagingly fickle in relationships with its German guests. Institutions that had actively absorbed German culture swiftly underwent a volte-face that began to view even its ambassadors of high art with suspicion and fear verging at times on hysteria. The ensuing witch-hunt victimised many leading artists to the point where active public testing of allegiances became the order of the day. Mucks lineage and severe manner were viewed as stereotypical of German militarism. Accusations of spying and even plotting to bomb Longfellows birthplace were levelled, resulting in demands for him to conduct The Star-Spangled Banner at Boston Symphony concerts. An initial refusal probably spoke more of personal stubbornness rather than any confession of guilt by association, but even subsequent agreement to toe the line failed to prevent a huge public outcry. On 18th March 1918, Muck was arrested and deported to Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia prior to permanently leaving for Europe upon the signing of the Armistice.
The effects of such persecution and rejection can be glimpsed in a pertinent reminiscence made by Alexander Kipnis, interviewed by the critic B.H. Haggin for his book on musicians recollections of their performing experiences with Toscanini: "In Bayreuth in 1928, Muck was greatly changed from the dark-haired, vigorous, proudly erect man I had seen walk out on the stage in 1917. He was grey, shrunken, wrinkled, with a ghost of a smile flickering over his face as he talked pleasantly - not at all the terrifying person one had heard about in his Boston Symphony days." In fact, messy politics associated with Toscaninis relationship with Bayreuth finally ousted Muck from his position of supremacy there in 1930. Thereafter, the rise of Hitler and Fascism in Germany cast an even sadder and haunting shadow upon an ebbing, but distinguished musical career that came to a close in Stuttgart on 3rd March 1940 after the outbreak of the Second World War.
This disc contains all of Karl Mucks electrical commercial recordings, save for his Parsifal excerpts (already available on Naxos Historical 8.110049-50) and a highly-truncated Siegfrieds Rhine Journey which CD timing did not permit me to include. The selections are presented in the order in which they were recorded.
The Meistersinger, Götterdämmerung and Siegfried Idyll sides were the only selections on this disc to appear in quiet U.S. Victor pressings, and they have been transferred from pre-war "Z" and "Gold" copies. The unpublished Lohengrin Prelude was transferred from a vinyl test pressing; the Dutchman and Tristan sides came from German Electrola discs; and the Tannhäuser was transferred from British HMVs.
Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the worlds most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings.
Obert-Thorn describes himself as a moderate interventionist rather than a purist or re-processor, unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustic qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.
There is no over-reverberant cathedral sound in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many authorised commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially released restorations.
The Naxos Historical label aims to make available the greatest recordings in the history of recorded music, in the best and truest sound that contemporary technology can provide. To achieve this aim, Naxos has engaged a number of respected restorers who have the dedication, skill and experience to produce restorations that have set new standards in the field of historical recordings.
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