MAX FIEDLER

1859-1939

Like George Henschel and Arthur Nikisch the kindly-eyed Max Fiedler, Saxon-born, busy in Hamburg, a friend of Brahms, had a term of service with the Boston Symphony, 1908 to 1912. Later he landed in Essen, conducting in this musically-speaking rather obscure territory for many years before winding up his career as a free lance in Berlin during the Thirties, running into trouble with the Nazis for programming the Mendelssohn violin concerto. He died in Stockholm shortly after the ’39 war started, he was guest conducting there regularly and shopping perhaps, like the expatriate Berliner Leo Blech – who had no choice in the matter! – for a Scandinavian haven.

Twenty years ago one could write that Fiedler was a virtually forgotten conductor: yes, he had shared repertorial protein with Richard Strauss, Oskar Fried and Hans Pfitzner during Polydor’s heyday of electrical recording in the last years of Weimar Berlin, but his fabled “78s” of Brahms’ Second and Fourth symphonies, with the Academic Festival Overture acting as encore, skipped the vinyl years so far as I know. Recently the return of these gems on CD — plus the ’39 Brahms Second Piano Concerto with Elly Ney and Berlin broadcasts of Schumann’s Spring Symphony, Mozart’s C minor concerto with Lubka Kolessa and the Brahms Violin Concerto with Siegfried Borries — have awakened aficionados to the treasure. The ultimate Brahmsian has been found — even if he’s only left us the horn call from the First Symphony under his wing-collared portrait.

Fiedler’s way, of course, is not the only way, but his genial, tender, big-boned style — he would ask his basses to dig in to produce a deep Rembrandtian color, and oh how he loved the third horn when with a little extra encouragement it might take full-toned flight in tandem with lyric strings — remains mightily convincing. Proper Fiedlerites understand that his fluid tissue of tempo modification fits hand-to-glove with Brahms’ frequent changes in mood and texture. The modifications are generous, and he doesn’t cover his tracks every time, but be advised that Fiedler was a perfectionist of rhythm, he creates a structure in which freedom equals grace.

No better introduction to Fiedler’s generous gallery of rubati than a stroll (sometimes a run) through his Berlin Philharmonic Brahms Fourth dated 1930 . . . allegro non troppo announces the score and Fiedler noticing the gentle tidal flow of the opening theme in the violins with its lovely downward-then-upward yawns begins no faster than an innocent andante, a non-literalism that sounds for all its “wrongness” utterly right. Felicitous deceptions like this happen all the time. Now Fiedler’s non allegro is a tempo conducive to audible remarks from supporting players and when, at measure 5, the horn department turns from harmony to melody, or at any rate near-melody, providing with the third and fourth horns’ linked and sloping whole notes a kind of beacon in sound, Fiedler the lighthouse keeper lets it shine forth with unusual clarity and size. Iinvolved here is the same third horn smiled upon by a lyrical Fiedler in Brahms’ Second Symphony as it answers more prominently than usual the soaring piano dolce of the first violins at bar 46 in the opening movement.

But Fiedler’s opening tempo in the Fourth is, he knows very well, not a practical long term investment given the thrust of pages to follow, so he finds an escape phrase soon as he can: Brahms provides it in the eighth bar with the arrival of ardent hairpin’d sequences in the violins, this is where Fiedler shifts to allegro in a flash, as if the wind had suddenly come up. A daring shift, but cloaked amazingly by the altered configuration of Brahms’ innocent page.

Now Fiedler is in the ballpark of tempo — well, there’s still some broadening along the way — which will work for that heavens-eyeing theme in cellos and horns at Letter C, a theme he phrases warmly, luxuriantly, passionately, just a wisp of resignation hovering behind its B minor: Brahms is almost Mozartian here, facing the expressive content of the music in more than one direction.

The theme at Letter C would be lyricism enough for any self-respecting second subject in a sonata form movement, but Brahms like Mozart has more, a small colony of thematic inspiration in fact. Following a syncopated intra-subject transition dissolving into the sweetest of sequence-strewn benedictions he floats a wonderfully engaging melody across the orchestral sky, mezzoforte in flute, clarinet and horn, minor turned to major. Fiedler seizes on the wistfulness that seems the core emotion here, furthering his lyric cause with an “allegretto” (infrequently chosen by conductors, alas) perhaps a third of the way up the metronome from that slow tidal opening toward the high gear of his Letter C.

Brahms still full of invention as his first movement exposition approaches its close offers overlapping adieux of high winds and horn, a light fanfare over trilling timpani, then quick little motivic fragments pp ma ben marcato. Fiedler makes the pauses around these fragments just a little longer than we expect, like an extra glance at the forbidden. Then his tempo boils up and he’s ready for the cross-cuttings of Brahms’ cinematic development, several brief variations in which lively contrasts are packaged into a pocket drama easily submitting to generous tempo modification. Fiedler has a field day here, convincing us even when he abandons slightly his respect for a totally organic line.

Up and down the tempo goes, like a chart of profit and loss.

Now with Brahms’ elliptically entered recapitulation moving toward the heightened tragic rush of the movement’s coda Fiedler is relatively more pressing than in the exposition. The gruff and terrifying canon made from a chopped-up, graniticized opening theme, we’re at measure 393, he treats as a major obstacle, a jagged wall of sound that must be pryed from the page, as if with a crowbar — and then, sprung  from a magnificent tension, he speeds on, joltless as is his preference, reaching a near-dizzy tempo (40 beats to the minute faster than his bar 1) before Brahms’ coda pounds to its close.

The passacaglia finale of the Fourth with its assorted dramas and microclimates as its variations unfold is always an interesting interpretive challenge: Erich Leinsdorf in his ultra-conservative The Composer’s Advocate preaches a straight and narrow path for this music in terms of tempo (which he himself was quite capable of abandoning!) but life is not so simple, the artistic life at any rate, as Max Fiedler reminds us with his No Expressivity Left Behind performance – and this is not to suggest that his account of the passacaglia is in any way overdone. Although those who say po-tah-to instead of po-ta-to doubtless will, and that is their privilege.

Conductors liberal and conservative alike can’t help noticing that this telescopic wonder has elements suggestive at least of a slow introduction (theme), first subject (variations 1, 2, 3), slow movement (4, 5, 6) scherzo (7, 8, 9), slow again (especially 10 and 14-15, also somewhat 12). In line with this thinking Fiedler strides very broadly through the giant chords of the first eight measures, becoming even slower as he goes, invoking more the energico e passionato of Brahms’ direction than the allegro.

With the first variation he is a little faster, and with the second a little faster again as the music seems to unwind like balls of string toyed with by cool kittens in the wind department. Brahms subtitles the fourth variation largamente and this not illogically produces a slightly slower tempo from Fiedler as he positively dances to the dotted rhythm. (In 2009 I just heard the magnetic Nicola Luisotti take an extremely broad view here.) The stormy weather at variation 7 with equal logic produces a bit of acceleration, then at the long-noted and quiet no. 10 with its magically dark close he is sostenuto as can be, and with the piano dolce espressivo Brahms requests for the famous and much argued-over flute solo he takes his time. The depths of “adagio” are reached, however, in the espressivo of the quiet brass chords in 14 & 15, music that seems to reach for some ineffable cleansing of the soul.

In 1931 Fiedler followed his landmark Fourth with an equally distinguished Brahms Second and it includes one marvelous detail, a secret almost, that I want to share with you. Note that he’s just made of the Second’s opening page a seamless yawn of lyricism. Then, at the deceptively innocent milepost of measure 20, where the melodic motion of the winds gives way to broad support-chords, Fiedler seeing clearly that the crescendo begun in the winds three measures earlier from the level of piano has now peaked, says the score, on nothing more than another piano followed immediately by a diminuendo (!), it seems utterly appropriate, he reasons – and Brahms himself might be leaning over his shoulder here and egging him on — to ask his first violins who are going about their own business, a big p dolce statement, to suggest, ever so subtly, an increase in gentleness just here, a third or more of the way through a poetically suspended note, this judicious and infrequently invoked option having the effect of allowing us to see spread before us the most blessed Elysian CLEARING, the violins shedding critical hairs of weight from their tone, floating more than they did a mini-moment before as they attacked the beginning of their promontorial note. A case here perhaps of May I Nibble at the Neighbors’ Diminuendo? To spell out all the magic of dynamics in a score can tie a composer in knots. So who comes to the rescue? That fellow with a baton or fingers to wave at the orchestra.

Come to think about it, if this commentator with a truckload of phantom nuances in his listening notes may be so bold: a more palpable violin diminuendo at measure 20 would not unhinge the Earth from its moorings . . . More praise for Fiedler: his Brahms Second Concerto with Elly Ney is a lovely performance, imperturbable but never bland, the music cradled, deposited on a number of Cloud Nines, with a finale unrivalled perhaps in my experience for its embracing of the grazioso in Brahms’ allegretto marking.

No less fine is the Berlin Radio Schumann Spring with its drum and bass-oriented textures, Germanic but not pejoratively so. Verdant chords are as mellow as the euphonious thud of a Mercedes door closing. The symphony’s introduction is delightfully suspenseful: spring will burst all over!