Regular readers should know by now that I have taken a great interest in the SWR>>music label, which has been releasing recordings made in the German studios of Südwestrundfunk (SWR, “southwest broadcasting”) through digital download. I was therefore delighted to discover, last month, that selected SWR>>music recordings are being made available in physical form through a partnership with hänssler CLASSIC, based in Holzgerlingen. Two of those releases first caught my attention at the beginning of last month, one for the conductor and the other for the soloist.
The conductor who caught my attention was Paul Hindemith. Like most music-lovers in the United States, I knew Hindemith as a composer; and I knew that he also had played viola in a string quartet. Because of his reputation as an “all-purpose” musician, I had assumed that conducting was also part of his skill set; but last month was the first time I became aware that his conducting efforts had been recorded.
On the new hänssler CLASSIC recording, Hindemith is conducting the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (the “house orchestra” for SWR) in a performance of Anton Bruckner’s seventh symphony in E major. The recording was made on June 24, 1958 in an SWR studio in the Degerloch suburb of Stuttgart. It had never previously occurred to me to associate Hindemith with Bruckner. However, the booklet notes by Christoph Schlüren claim that Hindemith conducted this piece often, even after he had moved to the United States.
I must also confess that I was drawn to this particular symphony, because it is one of the few Bruckner symphonies that I have enjoyed at a concert performance. Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducted it with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) most recently at the end of February in 2013 in a performance that was clearly well-informed by his extensive experience in conducting the music of Gustav Mahler. (MTT has also taken an interest in bringing Hindemith’s music back into the SFS repertoire.)
The seventh is also a particularly interesting symphony, because it is probably the closest Bruckner ever got to bringing an explicit programmatic element into one of his symphonies. For those who do not know the story (and Schlüren does not include it in his booklet notes), Richard Wagner was dying while Bruckner was working on the second (Adagio) movement of this symphony; and Bruckner knew about Wagner’s condition. One result is that the instrumentation for the symphony included four Wagner tubas and an extended part for bass tuba (which Wagner had invented to depict Fafner’s transformation into a dragon in his Siegfried opera). The movement also comes to a climax at rehearsal letter W, suggesting the opening of Heaven to receive Wagner’s spirit (with a little help from a dramatic cymbal clash and accompanying triangle).
That cymbal part became a bone of contention in preparing performing editions of this symphony. The work was first performed in 1883 in a version that survives in only one autograph copy, which has not yet been published. The work was only published in 1885 by Adolphe Guttmann, and probably reflected changes introduced by Arthur Nikisch (who had conducted the premiere), as well as Franz Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe. Whether or not Bruckner authorized any of these changes continues to be debated. In 1944 Robert Haas published an edition to undo the changes of Nikisch, Schalk, and Löwe (which included getting rid of the cymbals and triangle). Ten years later, in 1954, Leopold Nowak published an edition that restored the Gutmann version but tried to use brackets to mark the changes. Cymbal and triangle were restored in this edition, but conductors using it sometimes omit the percussion from the climax at rehearsal letter W of the Adagio movement.
Sadly, there is no explicit indication of which edition Hindemith used in the hänssler CLASSIC packaging. The ClassicsOnline Web page for this recording cites the 1885 Gutmann edition. However, the credits listed at the end of the booklet cite the “Bruckner-Verlag” publication. The Bruckner-Verlag edition is distributed by Edition Peters, and the Web page for this symphony names Nowak as the editor. So Hindemith probably used Nowak’s edition of Gutmann’s edition. Don’t expect to find the cymbal clash in the Adagio, though! Nevertheless, this is clearly a performance given by a conductor who has become very comfortable in working with the score for this particular symphony. There is a meticulous sense of precise recognition of detail in Hindemith’s conducting, and the SWR technicians did a most impressive job of capturing that sense in the recording they produced.
The seventh symphony is an excellent “entry point” for those just getting to know Bruckner; and this recording is just as excellent in satisfying both new listeners and those already familiar with the work.