Saturday, February 28, 2015

Carl Schuricht Pt. 1. A lifelong Beethoven journey.

I can't remember a time when the recorded legacy of Carl Schuricht (1880-1967) didn't fascinate me. He had the good fortune to live a long and exceptionally productive life and his career never lagged, despite holding no permanent position after World War 2. His many Polydor 78 rpm recordings were not widely available in the US, but during the years of his Decca recordings (1946-56), a wonderful selection of which is currently available on CD, the international release of these recordings resulted in his greatest period of recognition by the record collecting community. Apparently this wasn't quite enough to ensure his being a recognized visage by the concertgoers of the time in the states, as the following humorous incident reported by Don Tait as introduction to his perceptive review of the 1957-58 Beethoven Symphony cycle for EMI:

A friend of mine likes to tell about the time he went to hear Carl Schuricht and the Vienna Philharmonic in Cleveland's Severance Hall during one of the Orchestra's first American tours. The players were on stage practicing when a figure came through the stage door and briskly approached the apron. The audience, thinking it was Schuricht who had never conducted in Cleveland before, broke into a storm of applause. It was the concertmaster. He and his colleagues tuned for a while and then fell silent, followed by the slightly chagrined audience; and after a moment another figure came on stage, welcomed by more applause strengthened this time by the conviction that it had to be Schuricht. But it was the librarian. Silence resettled over the orchestra and embarrassed audience, and then the stage door opened and yet another figure entered -- short, unprepossessing, white-haired. The twice-burned audience, thinking he must be yet another functionary (and didn't look magnetic enough to be a conductor), sat on its hands until it was sure who he was - and was even more embarrassed than before when it realized that it was letting Schuricht walk on stage in silence.

There was nothing unprepossessing about Schuricht's music making, certainly! Of the many documented Beethoven performances, there is not a routine one to be heard, from his early Polydor versions of Nos. 1,3,4,6 & 7 from the 1930s and early 1940s to the final preserved broadcast recordings from the mid 1960s. Furtwängler is quoted as having commented "It cannot be performed better than that!" after hearing one of his performances of the Beethoven 5th Symphony. The 1957-8 cycle for EMI is in many ways the best of all, and it could be argued that this represents the highpoint of his commercial discography. The playing by the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire is something to be cherished in this day of homogeneity and internationalism of orchestral styles. The horns will take the most getting used to, with their pronounced vibrato that might have one guessing that this is a Russian orchestra from that period (or earlier). The winds are not recorded in such a forward manner as was often characteristic of the classic Otto Klemperer Philharmonia recordings, but they really play in an unusually forward, colored and supported sound. One does regret that stereo was not yet standard for the French division of EMI. Only the 9th Symphony is in stereo. I seem to remember hearing that perhaps there was stereo equipment in place, and these tapes for possible later issue, were lost. The mono only release made this set an instant also-ran in the gramophone sweepstakes, taken over by a number of early stereo issues, including that of Andre Cluytens and the Berlin Philharmonic for EMI. The vitality of these interpretations is immense, and the lifetime of refinement of Schuricht's approach results in something that is, well...not overrefined! Some may take issue with some of the point making, but it's hard to argue that there is an uncared for or unheard nook and cranny of phrasing or orchestration. That this is apparent through the somewhat distant, compressed sonics is remarkable. I shouldn't overstate the sonic deficiencies, as they are perfectly able to convey the special qualities of the music making, especially in the latest CD version, included in EMI Icon series. The previous issue is by comparison, at a lower level and somewhat muffled. Just to take one example, I'd like to look closely at one extraordinary passage in the last movement of the Eroica. A short excerpt may be played from the link above the score, or the entirety of the movement may be heard here on Youtube, in what is not the greatest sounding transfer from an lp copy. The opening has a quirky emphasis (overemphasis?) of the difference between quarter and eighth notes, and a rather steep ritardando into the fermata. The passage I'd like to illustrate is at the 5:00 mark. Here is the page from the score, with my attempt at highlighting what Schuricht brings out in the texture, which nine times out of ten, is voiced toward the top voice only, or just left in homogenized form.

Something of the patient and painstaking approach Schuricht must have had in rehearsal can be heard on a rehearsal disc included in Vol. 2 of Haenssler Classics 30 CD collection of recordings with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart. Both of the these volumes add a great deal of repertory otherwise unrepresented on commercially issued recordings. At times the orchestra lets us down slightly (a spectacular bar early entry by the cymbal at the Mahler 3rd's first movement recap!), but at other times, their skill and enthusiasm is infectious, including a Beethoven 1st with superhuman nimbleness AND vitality among others. I think it's fascinating to compare the Beethoven performances in those volumes with those of the French cycle. The Eroica itself, in a 1952 Stuttgart rendition, is even more energetic than the the studio version, almost approaching Herman Scherchen tempi and manic-ness. I find that it is just a bit more off the rails in conception and execution, and indeed, the passage I've illustrated above is simply too jumbled to make the wonderful effect of clarity and voicing heard in the studio recording. By all means hear it and decide for yourself. I should mention that nearly all of the Haenssler collections are available over such streaming services as Spotify and Google Music. One bonus that one must purchase to enjoy is a bonus DVD in Vol. 1, which includes a precious film from 1957 of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, and an excellent 40 minute documentary film. I believe the Decca collection is also available for streaming, as well as some of the many Archiphon issues, some of which overlap the Haenssler collections. It's a bit frustrating for the collector who seeks out CD issues from Archiphon, who recently seems to be offering many issues ONLY as downloads or streaming. Included among these is a wonderful Schuricht Ein Heldenleben and an Otto Klemperer Concertgebouw concert from the mid 1950s with what may be his finest Mahler 4th.

I feel like I'm just scratching the surface here, so perhaps I will return with some more thoughts on Schuricht and his legacy soon. I would be remiss in not directing you to this indispensable resource, which has a list of cd issues (no complete discography as of yet) and an in progress concert list and chronology. Also well worth the visit is this short appreciation of Schuricht by Arthur Bloomfield.