HERMANN ABENDROTH

1883-1956

Something of a stylistic sibling to such free interpretive spirits as Max Fiedler and Willem Mengelberg, Hermann Abendroth with “his eternal cigar and his bicycle” was a fixture at Cologne’s Guerzenich concerts in the Weimar Republic years . . .  one of his predecessors in this prestigious post was the pioneer Brahmsian Fritz Steinbach whose interpretations validated by Brahms himself were never, alas, caught on record, leaving us with some possible “authenticity” unrevealed, and a successor, many years later, was that relaxed and radiant maestro, the lately departed Gunter Wand. However humble and gemuetlich Professor Abendroth’s taste in transportation, however earthy the fragrant smoke in which he was constantly enveloped, this stocky burgher was an important conductor, an auteur conductor for whom the magic of the imagination was king. As his pupil Gunther Herbig has pointed out, Abendroth didn’t care much for the technical side of conducting, his teaching concentrated on the conductor’s means of recreating a work. “His conducting,” Herbig recalls, “had a sort of devastating energy abounding in imprecisions that did not disturb.” An ear for the moment was blended with a knack for cohesion, and doubtless Abendroth would have subscribed to the dictum of Wagner’s colleague the conductor Hans Richter who said: “The pulse of an artist is his only metronome.”

By the way, can you imagine Toscanini, Weingartner or Koussevitzky with cigar and bicycle? But let’s connect with Abendroth’s devastating energy in his “live” Beethoven Eroica from the Leipzig Radio, dated 1-24-49. The opening chords, Furtwaengleresque in their complexity (read not-quite-together on purpose), sound wrenched from a wreckage – this is the sonic equivalent of an item of clothing in “distressed” leather purchased at some expense in a trendy boutique. Then in quick succession the vibrantly pleading upreach of violins followed by an ultra-implacable ticking in lower strings: all this and we’re only twenty measures along in an allegro con brio letting no grass under its busy feet. Then at bar 45 the conversation of winds in their piano dolce corner is intensely wistful, far far from teacup stuff. An allegro in short which is breezy, passionate, spontaneous, tense, formed from the vicissitudes of life itself – very Mengelbergian, that! The balancing act Abendroth performs so nimbly is to embrace the nervous and the graceful as a single if complex entity. Urgency and a touching compassion are close neighbors here, instruments speak their mind. Early in the development the sforzando piano-and-staccato of violins against a concurrent dolce in the winds is highlighted for instance by the unembarrassed jabbing of fiddles. Competing components here and later are functioning vividly at close quarters in the same interpretive boat. Perhaps Hitchcockian-ly? To change the metaphor, Abendroth like an air controller on a blustery night at Tempelhof is in charge.

In the Marcia Funebre, daringly spacious but vibrantly despairing within its seventeen and a half minute course (fifteen or sixteen are customary) Abendroth embraces great depths of pathos, holding at times onto every note as if for dear life. The pomposo playing of the Leipzig horns in the rollicking third movement trio – they sound as if they’re just in from the hunt – provides a delightful foil. Tragedy again in the touching più andante of the finale with its lyric challenge for the solo oboe, here Abendroth is very slow indeed, RESIGNED!

The Max Fiedler connection is much to be noticed in another important Abendroth document, his Brahms’ Fourth recorded with the London Symphony 3-27-27. The Brahms symphonies were Stokowski territory as far as HMV & its American partner Victor were concerned, but somehow this Abendroth Fourth wormed its way into the catalogues and a Stokie recording from ’31 wasn’t released until just recently, 75 years overdue! At all events the opening is very slow, Max Fiedler-style, floating along as if Abendroth had carried across the channel an easygoing Rhineland cousin of Debussy’s Nuages. The tempo does pick up here and there but the prevailing idea is to take one’s time. Nostalgia is much to be noticed, and with such comfortable pacing — what we have really is a cohesive collection of tempos from Crawling to Moderate — and sweet string tone Abendroth provides pipe-and-slippers music, or should we say cigar-and-slippers? Which is not to say that momentum is in any way skimped: the chaise longue listener will not fall asleep.

Nor should any true Brahmsian doze in Abendroth’s amazing andante moderato which, truth to tell, is startlingly but convincingly closer to an adagio. Rumination ahoy! A more searching interpretation one could not find. My one disappointment is that a certain squareness is apparent in the articulation of the stepping-stone violins who play a very-near-to-starring role in that vehicle for singing cellos which is Brahms’ second subject, as fascinating a mating of two instrumental choirs as happens in the whole orchestral literature. One’s never entirely sure which is Top and which is Bottom. Actually the bassoon has a not inconsiderable line too. Aha, a ménage à trois . . . The festive giocoso of the following movement scoots out the door with engaging impetuosity, very staccato, the music poking its head here and there like a determined terrier. The sound of this near-Loony Tune confection hatched with the LSO is not terribly refined but it’s graceful enough: Abendroth is not making a fashion statement. Note to connoisseurs of tempo: the poco meno presto midway in this movement is taken rather more slowly than that, and not ineffectively.

Now with the great passacaglia the time for comic intermezzo-ing is absolutely over and Abendroth strikes an ominous note. But the fourth variation with its rather awkward – and, UM, ingratiating — mix of syncopation and dotted rhythm is allowed to dance. One can almost swing a partner here, briefly. Next a batch of minor tempo adjustments to fit assorted shades of nostalgia and a little heightened animation, after which Abendroth   lands   V E R Y    S L O W L Y   in the tenth variation, that haunting affair constructed with 1) a bar of silence, 2) an arching trio of sustained and slightly shifting chords, 3) a brief and hearbreaking drop into the nether regions in a lone pianissimo chord.

The famous flute solo of variation 12 is quite slow, very delicate, and the underlying syncopation of horns – their part looks in the score like birds spaced on a telephone pole – is absolutely integrated with the flute, as if these horns were the vessel in which the flute is making its little journey. Abendroth’s performance continues on its quite Fiedleresque way (and we musn’t forget the poetry of Carl Schuricht!) in the great trombone variation, no. 14, which is taken very slowly, the effect altogether noble and misterioso. Still skies, here, that run emotionally deep. I have a note in my score that both Abendroth and Fiedler lift the dynamic level in the companion fifteenth variation, as if to highlight HOPE. Meanwhile I have to admit that Brahms’ richer, brighter scoring of no. 15 tends almost automatically to produce a sense of raised volume, even in the face of similar dynamic markings.

Another important sighting for Abendroth specialists is his post-war Leipzig recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, a performance in which, like Erich Kleiber at the Cologne Radio a few years later, he forms that great tone poem or fantasy overture which is the Pathétique’s first movement – with big introduction, lyrical second subject that’s almost a movement-within-a-movement, skirmishing development, tolling coda, etc., it’s virtually a Romeo and Juliet or Paolo and Francesca in everything but name – into a fascinating tissue of characterful tempo modification. Like a master architect Abendroth distributes pregnant hesitancies (beginning of the allegro non troppo at bar 19 for instance) and solemn breath-catchings (at the altered, stumbling recapitulation of the same material, very calm after staccatissimo’d developmental storms at 230) in just the right balance, so his giant system of ritenuti involving dramatic visits to extremely slow tempos doesn’t wear out its welcome. A symphonic feng shui! But the linking force of the performance is that the music is conducted as if by a protagonist immersed in events, not merely a clever musician constructing the flow.

At the end the music seems to march to a scaffold . . . And more good stuff in the Abendroth folder:

From Germany 1-14-33, the dawn before the dark so to speak, two allegros from HANDEL’S CONCERTO GROSSO Opus 6 No. 5, charmingly if a little beefily done with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra. The second of the pair with its running and trilling, the short bow phrasing, its Rhineland lollipop flavor, lights up like sparklers on the Fourth of July . . . and Berlin Radio Orchestra “live,” 1-20-55, an energetic and endearing HAYDN SYMPHONY No. 97, a tad thick in sound perhaps but felicitous: in an extremely vivacious first movement vivace Abendroth notes vibrantly the music’s passing vulnerabilities. The minuet is so robust as to qualify for bull-in-the-Meissen-shop status, but again one can’t resist. Peasant belongs ahead of Poet here – and by the way, Abendroth’s purposely cloddish way with the trio section of the minuet only underscores the proto-Mahlerian quality of its hop. A cigar break can’t be far away.

Leipzig Radio, 3-28-50, this is a wonderful “live” SCHUMANN FOURTH from its melodioso meander at the outset to a manic zip through the presto capping the finale. The lyric theme introduced by violins in the first movement development is so beautifully sung it almost hurts. Catalogers of delightfully abnormal tempos will want to know that Abendroth makes an excellent case for turning Schumann’s second movement, laconically labeled Rather Slow, into something close to a dirge — the opening runs at approximately 40 rather than the composer’s prescription of 66 beats to the minute, not in totally strict time, of course.

Berlin Philharmonic “live,” 9-22-44, sinking feelings are turned into high art in this wistful and erotic version of Wagner’s A FAUST OVERTURE. The introduction sounds absolutely lost, the allegro, Sehr Bewegt, comes on with an intensity worthy of Koussevitzky, the second subject is ravishing. Ah, the band played on . . . And back to Brahms: — Of the several fine and quite similar Brahms Firsts come down to us by Abendroth my favorite is the “live” and maximally charged performance with the Bavarian State Orchestra 1-16-56. A veritable Flying Dutchman of a First, it’s packed with brooding, menace, fevers, fetching kammermusik, hair raising crescendos, the works, all nicely put together. In the finale note a long upbeat to a slowish Big Tune, soon succeeded by a speedway animato that gives Oskar Fried a run for his pfennigs. The orchestra gulps down the notes.