Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Carl Schuricht, Pt. 2. Brahms and tempo rubato.

Carl Schuricht's style in the works of Beethoven reflects, with some quirky exceptions, a classical approach to tempo. By the time of his 1957-58 French cycle these were often fairly swift tempi. One could say that his approach to orchestral balances, phrasing and voicing was reflective of the style he might have heard in his youth, and is reminiscent of that heard in the recordings of Felix Weingartner, Hans Pfitzner and Franz Schalk, where the brass in not allowed to overbalance the rest of the orchestra. In the case of Schuricht, he took the importance of audible voice leading up a few notches from that of his contemporaries. Indeed, one might have to look to certain mavericks like Yvgeny Mravinsky to find a kindred spirit in this regard. In Beethoven his approach to tempi, especially by 1950s, reflected more of a contemporary approach to the swiftness of tempi. Of course, one could say the influence was Arturo Toscanini. I don't suppose anyone was uninfluenced by the fiery Italian's style, so arguments could be made for and against. One of Schuricht's teachers was Max Reger, who himself was very much a modernist with more than a passing nod to traditionalism.

When it comes to romantic repertory, we meet quite a different Carl Schuricht. His Mendelssohn is rather classical, and his Schumann leans both towards classical and romantic styles. His Schumann is rather ruined for me by the massively overdone rewriting of his orchestration, reflecting the widespread attitude of that era that it needed improving. Mahler even published his re-orchestrated Schumann. Although Schuricht's Beethoven takes up some of Felix Weingartner's alterations, his Schumann is a more wholesale rewriting. In his last recording of the "Rhenish" symphony, included in this fine collection of his Concert Hall label recordings, seemingly everything is rewritten! Sometimes it's interesting, (listen to the solo strings at the :20 mark in the 3rd mvt. as heard here), but often it really breaks up the textures. Perhaps I'm unduly sensitive to this issue, dating back to my horror at first hearing the highly touted George Szell Schumann cycle, which features a wholesale and (for me) heavy-handed reworking of the 2nd symphony!

With Brahms, I feel Schuricht has found the best outlet for his combination of classicism and romanticism. Many would argue that he really brings the romanticism to the fore. Tempo rubato is no stranger to early recordings of the orchestral works of Brahms. If you listen to the records of Max Fiedler (listen here), Oscar Fried, and Herman Abendroth you'll hear both subtle and overt tempo modifications within sections and between sections. Even Willem Mengelberg sounds comparatively modern in this regard. Furtwängler is obviously a part of this tradition, and because the musical world seemed to need to "choose" between that exponent of the "modern" idea of unified tempi, Arturo Toscanini, and the mystical German, it's a familiar argument. Furtwängler's tempo modifications in Brahms tend to be more fluid, as often described, as if following the course of a river. More predictably he drives toward climaxes and builds the drama toward the ends of movements. Before one finds too many similarities, I would observe that Furtwängler favors a completely different orchestral balance from Schuricht. Balances are usually a function of the density of sonority sought by Furtwängler, and clarity, while not ignored, is not a priority. He's searching for the maximum contrast between the mysterious whispers to the most thundering, lightning bolt from the heavens cataclysms. If only we had modern recording technology to hear this! Schuricht's approach seems to incorporate tempo rubato in order to clarify the structure, and bring out musical contrasts. Is it a more cerebral style? Perhaps, but there's an vitality, earthiness and beautiful digging into the sonorities and colors of Brahms orchestration. He calls attention to Brahms' brilliance first and foremost. There has been some musicological discussion of the (unfortunately unrecorded) work of the conductor Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), who directed performances that Brahms greatly admired with the Meiningen Court Orchestra. You can read excerpts of an article on this subject here. The consensus seems to be that Steinbach's interpretations utilized much of this style of tempo rubato. Herman Abendroth mentioned Steinbach as an influence to his own style. On the other hand, one of Steinbach's most prominent pupils, Fritz Busch, made a beautiful 1947 Danish State Radio Symphony recording, which is very much in a streamlined, unified tempo approach. Tradition and teachings are all fine to contemplate, but in the end one's temperament and musical personality is the filter through which all passes. Another important figure representing a more romantic style of interpretation was Hans von Bülow. Every generation has had it's battlefield between interpreters of different approaches, each hurling accusations at the other (or is it their fans doing so?), and each subsequent generation reacting both against the past and incorporating it. Perhaps I consider Schuricht important and fascinating because he seems to be joining two different "traditions" of interpretive style in one powerful combination. Being a slightly peripatetic figure, and from various accounts, a self-effacing personality, he didn't leave a school or legacy in the same sense that other towering figures did. He leaves us to discover for ourselves his quiet synthesis.

To get down to examples, I've taken a favorite from Schuricht's discography, the 1953 Decca recording of the 2nd Symphony, with the Vienna Philharmonic playing very beautifully and responsively! I would strongly recommend the purchase of this collection, or listen to it on Spotify or Google Music. There is a Youtube version of the entire recording, in sound that doesn't represent the full fidelity of the original (mono) recording.

To illustrate with some examples from the first movement, Schuricht begins at around quarter=100, but veers as high as quarter=120. Then, at around bar 54 (at the 1:30 mark) he suddenly bursts ahead to nearly a quarter=140! Breathless, and rather breathtaking. Is it appropriate? I leave that to the taste of the listener. Never fear, as he approaches the 2nd theme, at bar 95 (at :14 into the "clip" or 2:10 mark in the whole recording) he pulls back in a beautifully managed maneuver, to around a quarter=95. Beautifully managed in that he employs a very subtle hairpin crescendo (highlighted below), with a color that seduces us into accepting the tempo shift. I say subtle, because very often what we get is a very large hairpin crescendo which tends to overpower the transition.

The next example (at about 1:30 in the musical "clip" or 3:20 in the whole recording) shows one small example of Schuricht's care in voicing once again, highlighting the continuity of the violin line to the celli/bass in bars 129-30, and then a wildly personal dynamic modification in the form of a huge unwritten (and thrilling) crescendo by the brass in bar 135!

Many critics in 1953, and a few in the present day as well, find this performance to be too willful and pulled about. I find it effective, and effective in musical terms, rather than needing to make points by overly stressing the histrionic element. I find that Schuricht always leads me to hear something in this familiar score that I had not expected to hear, and brings a smile of recognition, especially with score in hand. The Decca CD set also includes several Brahms concerto recordings. The violin concerto, with Christian Ferras as soloist is a beautiful performance, which might have benefitted from a few retakes (the ensemble between conductor and soloist is a bit shaky in the first movement). No such concerns in the B flat concerto with Wilhelm Backhaus, who's playing I've rarely enjoyed so much on other recordings. And Schuricht provides a strong collaboration, bringing out many moments of interplay that are nearly always glossed over. All the more amazing that this was achieved within the confines of a monophonic recording.

Thanks to my friend Neil for providing the Schuricht autographs!


  1. If you haven't read it already, you might find Christopher Dyment's comments about Blume, Steinbach, and the whole "tradition" business, etc. to be of interest. They appeared as Annex C, Brahms and Toscanini: An Historical Excursus - The Steinbach Conundrum , pages 295-350, in Dyment's book "Toscanini in Britain", published in 2012. The specific section dealing with Blume appears on pages 320-322. A portion of the Annex, including much of the text about Blume, appears on Google Books (search for Toscanini London Steinbach on Google and page 296 as well as many of the other pages of Dyment's book pop up!). The annex, as a whole, is a wonderful "discussion piece" - and the book itself is a precise, detailed and compelling read.
    With best regards from over here,
    David Mendes

  2. Thanks so much for the pointer to that book. I had not read that, but I just found a copy at my library. Fascinating! I always find Dyment a sharp-eared observer of early recordings and a well-versed historian. I suppose all of these kinds of first hand accounts written in retrospect must be subjected to close scrutiny. Fritz Busch's lovely recording of the Brahms 2nd (1947 Danish) is about as straightforward as one can get, and he was an important pupil of Steinbach. I didn't know Henry Wood was interested in Blume/Steinbach. If I understood it correctly, Dyment considers Max Fiedler to be outside of this "tradition". What I found interesting is that the Fiedler Brahms 2nd's first movment has almost the identical tempo fluctuations as the Schuricht VPO I talked about! In the end, I think it very much comes down to a performer's temperament and personality filtering all that is observed and absorbed!