BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3, in E-flat, Op. 55, Eroica; Symphony No. 8, in F major, Op. 93
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/ Hans Pfitzner, cond.
Naxos 110910 (B) (AAD)  (B) TT: 69:40

WAGNER: Orchestra excerpts:  Die Meistersinger: Prelude to Act I.  Die G–tterd”mmerung:  Siegfried's Rhine Journey and Funeral Music.  Parsifal: Prelude to Act I.  Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I.  Der Fliegende Holl”nder Overture. Tannh”user:  Overture.  Lohengrin: Prelude to Act III.
Berlin State Opera Orch/ Karl Muck, cond.

APR 5521 (F) (ADD) TT: 78:00

Along with Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949) was a Nazi trophy composer. They were born just five years apart (Strauss in 1864), died the same year in Bavaria, and conducted as well as composed—not that Pfitzner was in his colleague's class creatively, although both were Wagnerian offspring. He is chiefly remembered today for the opera Palestrina, and for his virulent anti-semitism decades before Hitler's rise to power.

Whereas Strauss led the Staatsoper (unter den Linden) Orchestra when he conducted in Berlin, Pfitzner appeared with the Philharmoniker, Wilhelm Furtw”ngler's orchestra after 1922, which he was able to make to play in his style. In other words he was an authoritative conductor, albeit an old-fashioned interpreter with no patience for exposition-repeats. As demonstrated here, the second themes in sonata-form were his cue to slow down no matter what the score instructed; and while tempo-blocs fluctuated, Pfitzner could sustain momentum once he got inside a section. Some of his insights in the Eroica, first issued in 1929, are fascinating—a bucolic tempo for the trio of the scherzo, and a refusal to sentimentalize or slow down the mighty "Marcia funebre," which he dispatched in less than 15 minutes!

The finale is a valuable study in nuance, more of which can be heard in the Eighth Symphony issued four years later. But these are, in the last analysis, period-piece interpretations, as unlike Strauss'  brisk versions of almost everything before the age of 80, as Pfitzner's music was unlike Strauss'. Most amazing here is clarion sound, despite its age, in digital transfers by David Lennick. During the Weimar Republic, when Berlin audiences regularly heard Furtw”ngler, Otto Klemperer, Erich Kleiber and Bruno Walter conducted their city's orchestras, Pfitzner was a footnote.

Karl Muck, born in 1859, was by then an elder statesman as well as a legendary martinet. His career was pretty nearly over when, in 1927-29, he recorded the contents on this Appian (a.k.a. APR) CD of Wagner excerpts with the Orchestra of the Berliner Staatsoper. They include a magisterial (rather than a quick-march) version of the third act Prelude from Lohengrin, never before issued by HMV/Electrola, which produced the originals. Muck's first act Prelude from Parsifal had become controversially slow, for my taste too much so. But he was still a giant among conductors transatlantically—the boss in Boston from 1906-08 and again from 1912-18, when he was wrongfully interned as an enemy alien until World War One ended.

Muck was a "modern interpreter" in his time and place, as Toscanini was—but more so (all that hot Italian blood and an opera-cum-bandmaster background). No portamento, in other words—sliding from tone to tone for "expression," which tended to sound sleazy, at best sentimental. Muck's tempi were spot-on without sounding hurried (Parsifal excepted), discipline was implicit in the orchestra's ensemble and intonation. These transfers are a shade "toppy," but can be ameliorated if you have tone controls (alas, my vintage 1978 Levinson preamp hasn't). I've heard sturdier bass on audiophile, analog cassette tapes from 1983, but overall this is an estimable restoration of more than historic interest.

Let me add that, in an earlier review of Muck's extended Parsifal excerpts from Bayreuth, I wrongly supposed that he was an influence on Fritz Reiner's baton technique and music making. Excellent notes with this set confirm that Muck had only recently returned to Germany when Reiner left Dresden in 1921, and conducted in Munich and thereafter Hamburg -- not regularly in Berlin, where Kleiber had replaced him as the Staatsoper's music director -- other than summers at Bayreuth. Despite their similarities in musical temperament and baton technique, Reiner's mentor really was Artur Nikisch, who led the Berlin Phil until his death in 1922.

R.D. (July 2000)