Karl Muck stuck to his elegant guns: hear in the conducting of this Bayreuth fixture the epauletted clockwork of a lyric martinet. A daunting erectness of orchestral posture emboldens Muck’s musicmaking, a shying away from gestures that might be thought the least meretricious cleanses it, and a taste in tempo modification considerably more conservative than that of Arthur Nikisch or Max Fiedler stamps him as a  minimalist of the baton – like a chef who would serve you chicken poached in broth rather than coq au vin and hold the condiments please.

But don’t confuse Muck with a dull conductor, the aesthetic space his imagination worked in has an ascetic cast without a doubt but that was the outer shell, not the heart of the matter. Muck’s performances tend to grab you even as they dwell on neatness and tact and go about their dangerous business with something of the poise and patience of a monk attending to his daily rituals. Just, for instance, because Muck’s 1928 Berlin recording of Wagner’s Tannhaeuser overture comes on absolutely unruffled doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a KICK to it. Solid, pointed, quite springy in fact, with an almost unique penetration from trim lightweight brass bright as reflections off a hot morning sea – and note too the restrained piano of those lyric cellos launching the music’s third eight bars, as well as the broad and emphatic handling of the piece’s final phase – this is a Tannhaeuser overture to which finesse, poetry and excitement are scarcely strangers.

No great surprise, Muck’s first act prelude from Tristan und Isolde (also 1928) can’t help sounding too enunciatory at first, but with a “feminine” attack on the music’s first and brief fortissimo we enter a world not only of perpetual finesse but a keen delicacy and lift, all this to foster a sense of lost-ness, the ill-fated lovers slipping into some nebulous amorous infinity while the performance remains immaculate of course. Broadly and yes, not without a certain desperation the music achieves a noble,  golden, trembly climax.

Muck was a master of danger, you can hear this acuity in a crisp and rueful overture to Der Fliegende Hollander, and a Rhine Journey from Goetterdaemmerung which with its sense of impending disaster might be renamed Siegried’s Angstfahrt. Then in the prelude to the third act of Parsifal (Berlin ’28 again) the great steel frame of Muck’s style becomes quite terrifying. In starkness of phrasing Muck sets something of a record with the jagged kraeftig emergence of the Pure Fool motif at bar 24. It comes on not only strong but in some of its staccato notes so weightily and sharply accented as to suggest a migraine knocking.

Cold but caring, military but moving, Muck’s Parsifal act 3 – he conducted the opera at Bayreuth every summer from 1901 through 1930, he’d promised Cosima Wagner he’d stay on as long as her son Siegfried was in charge – may represent as accurate a portrayal of the despair settled on the knights of Monstsalvat as any human with or without baton could conjure. This is not to mention the fabulous rosy dignity Muck achieves in those waves of tear-jerker melody at the end of the opera which in some less meretriciousness-wary hands could suggest a bad Thirties movie flowing like syrup to The End.

Muck’s minimal rubato in the first act Meistersinger prelude from Berlin ‘27 makes at times for a bit too much crowding, as if lyric notes were helpless passengers stuffed by “pushers” take-it-or-leave it into a Tokyo-type Metro – and for this some commentators would, of course, salute Muck for his “fidelity to the score,” invoking a phrase that’s a sorry triumph of over-simplification. But who could argue with the passage in Muck’s Siegfried Idyl that spins with such a rich humminess toward the music’s central climax, this following a hero’s horn call taken quite calmly, clarinet and flute nibbling at its sustained notes with a clarity releasing all the merriment Wagner could have wanted in their lustig birdtalk.

For all intents and purposes Muck’s discography begins with W for Wagner; well, maybe T for a celebrated eight minutes of T for Tchaikovsky. A slight alphabetical thickening is thanks to a batch of acoustical recordings he made in 1917 with the Boston Symphony – yes, another conductor who had a term with that august organization.

But a number of the sides were not issued at the time because with the United States’ entry into the Great War a sort of paranoia patriotica which we see overtake our country again and again resulted in an earlierday equivalent of the proscribing of french fries and Meursault in 2003; actually the situation was more painful because Muck, who had by the way been programming American music with the BSO, along with, as a matter of fact, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Debussy, was accused of being a German spy and tossed into a military jail in Georgia. In the event his pre-incarceration recording sessions netted such winners as an urgent, scintillating finale from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, etched with a subtle rubato, and – a surprise dip, this, into Pops land – a very light and jolly account of Wolf-Ferrari’s overture to The Secret of Susanna. Running much closer to the man-in-the-street’s perception of “Prussian”-type musicmaking is a rather vehement and galumphy waltz of the flowers from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. In this case they must be hefty hydrangeas.

But nobody’s without imperfections, even this conductor who could simultaneously beat 4/4 and 6/4 in a Bruckner symphony!