Tannhäuser at the Vatican

tannhauser liebig

To finish out the week, here is a particularly exciting performance of Wagner’s Overture to the 1845 opera, Tannhäuser. The clip comes from a special 2005 concert at the Vatican in the presence of Pope Benedict. Christian Thielemann is conducting the Munich Philharmonic.

Tannhäuser is based on two German legends, one involving a singing contest at medieval Wartburg Castle, which sits on a rocky outcrop 1,350 feet above the town of Eisenach. The Overture opens with a quietly noble and unassuming chorale. Just before the curtain rises, the chorale reaches a climax with a heroic statement in the trombones.

Orchestral string players associate Wagner with endless, repetitive, and often physically taxing running passages, which provide dramatic counterpoint to the other musical lines. In this clip, you’ll hear plenty of those exciting moments (listen to the flutter of energy coming from the second violins and violas around 6:10 and the violas and cellos at 9:06). Listen to the way string sequences snake around the chorale melody, beginning at 10:45. These inner voices are an essential part of the overture’s drama and intensity.

Historic Tannhäuser Recordings, Munich and Beyond

Here are a few historic recordings of the Munich Philharmonic playing the Tannhäuser Overture:

  • Longtime Munich conductor Sergiu Celibidache’s recording
  • Hans Knappertsbusch’s 1962 recording
  • Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1940 recording with the Berlin Staatskapelle- It’s hard to separate this from the troubling politics of the time and place in which it was recorded, but a great performance, nonetheless.
  • Daniel Barenboim’s 2002 recording with the Berlin Staatskapelle.
  • Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in a 1975 recording.
  • Bonus: Knappertsbusch’s Die Meistersinger Overture with the Munich Philharmonic

Remembering Christopher Hogwood

conductor Christopher Hogwood
conductor Christopher Hogwood

Conductor, harpsichordist, and early music scholar Christopher Hogwood passed away last week at the age of 73. He was an influential advocate of authentic performance practice and the use of period instruments. He helped pioneer a movement which attempted to recreate the original sound and style of baroque and classical music. In 1973 he founded the Cambridge, England-based Academy of Ancient Music. You can explore a collection of his lectures here and view a catalogue of his extensive writing and recordings here. His approach to music, which emphasized musicology, is summed up in the follow quote:

Every piece of music should be looked at as a painting that dissolved off the wall when you closed the gallery door. If all the colors dripped down into a huge pot and you took this pot, along with a recipe of how to reassemble the colors back into Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers,’ you would be very careful to get all the reds and the yellows in the right places, and not to paint it bigger or smaller than it was. I think music carries with it this responsibility.

A comparison of Hogwood’s period performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Romantic 1954 interpretation of Wilhelm Furtwängler demonstrates how different the same music can sound, depending on the philosophy of the performer. 

Youthful Beethoven

Let’s listen to Christopher Hogwood’s sparkling and stylish recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 with the Academy of Ancient Music. The performance features harpsichord and period instruments tuned to a slightly lower “A” than we’re used to.

Beethoven’s first two symphonies are his most youthful and classical, but listen carefully and you’ll hear hints of explosive, revolutionary sounds to come. The music was shocking enough to elicit the following description from a Viennese critic following the premiere:

“a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.

You may also notice the kind of humor we rarely associate with Beethoven. While the symphonies of Franz Joseph Haydn commonly featured stately minuets for the third movement, Beethoven began writing scherzos. The word “scherzo” literally translates as “joke.” Notice the musical cat and mouse games and sudden interruptions which occur between instruments in the Scherzo of the Second Symphony.

The comically boisterous opening of the final movement is like a loud guest who attracts attention at a party for all the wrong reasons. It’s an outburst which opens the door to a spirited and simultaneously ferocious romp. As the motives are tossed around and developed, notice the way they become increasingly compressed between 29:11 and 29:25. Strangely, this movement contains subtle premonitions of the Finale of the Ninth Symphony (31:55). Then there’s the eerie intensity of that moment in the coda where everything drops out except for the string tremolo. What  follows may be the biggest joke of all.

  1. Adagio molto-Allegro con brio (0:00)
  2. Larghetto (12:50)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro (22:45)
  4. Allegro molto (27:10)

Haydn’s Final Symphony

Franz Joseph Haydn was employed in London during the final years of his life. Symphony No. 104 in D major is the last of twelve “London Symphonies”. Here is a live performance with Christopher Hogwood:

  1. Adagio — Allegro (0:00)
  2. Andante (8:56:
  3. Menuetto and Trio: Allegro (17:10)
  4. Finale: Spiritoso (21:33)

Adolf Busch: The Violinist Who Stood Up to Fascism

German violinist, Adolf Busch (1891-1952)
German violinist Adolf Busch (1891-1952)

Tully Potter’s collection of books and CD’s, Adolf Busch- The Life of an Honest Musician, published in 2010, tells the remarkable story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists. In the years leading up to the Second World War, Adolf Busch toured Europe as an exponent of the classic German style of violin playing, which had been associated with Joseph Joachim. The leader of the Busch Quartet, as well as a chamber orchestra, Busch’s approach to violin playing favored musicianship over dazzling displays of virtuosity.

The rise of Hitler in the late 1920s tested the eternally political and backbiting classical music profession. Musicians such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss reportedly didn’t approve of the Third Reich (neither joined the Nazi Party), but both tolerated Hitler, motivated by career preservation. As Potter’s book recounts, the Busch Quartet arrived in Berlin on April 1, 1933, the day the Nazis began a targeted assault on Jewish businesses. Following the evening’s concert, Busch, who was not Jewish, cancelled his entire German tour. He settled in Switzerland and watched as fascism spread throughout Europe. Hitler’s efforts to lure back “the world’s greatest German violinist” fell on deaf ears. 

Eventually, Busch emigrated to the United States. He never regained the reputation he had enjoyed in Europe. American audiences were enthralled with younger, flashier artists such as Jascha Heifetz and Busch’s style of playing may have seemed out of date. Listening now, it’s easier to recognize Busch’s artistry. The recording below showcases a deep and mature musicianship, a straightforward and honest sense of timing and a beautifully pure sound.

Yehudi Menuhin hinted at similar attributes as he remembered lessons with Adolf Busch:

Busch’s teaching was…musical rather than violinistic. If he didn’t have Enesco’s flair or glamour, as a musician he was extremely serious and deep, a passionate fundamentalist who ate, breathed, and slept Bach and Beethoven. He played the violin cleanly and beautifully, if with no Russian or Gypsy touch.*

Here is a 1930s recording of Busch and pianist Rudolf Serkin playing Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100. The duo founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival in 1951.

Here are the second and third movements. Also listen to the Busch Quartet’s dramatic and fiery reading of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet. 

Adolf Busch was also active as a composer. Listen to his Violin Concerto here. Read this review and watch this video to learn more.

*Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz (pg. 327)