MAX VON SCHILLINGS

1868-1933

Peter Heyworth in his landmark but sometimes dour biography of Otto Klemperer is dismissive of the conductor-composer-administrator Max von Schillings, reporting that he was neither an outstanding conductor nor (in his highly visible role as intendant at the Berlin State Opera in the 1920s) an effective administrator. Ah, the tyranny of rankings. And then of course he was on his way to becoming a very good Nazi – but we’re talking music here not politics. Well, one must be careful not to kick the wrong man when he can no longer defend himself: after listening to a batch of Wagner and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in late-Twenties recordings from Berlin I cannot tell a lie, I came away fascinated by what seemed an imaginative and forceful musical mind.

Exhibit A, a Lohengrin first act prelude beginning in a state of high tranquility and remaining, even with a grand climax two thirds of the way along, lyrically closeted: a  performance, then, that comes off as a true communion, as if not for show. Warm it is, but essentially private. The first act prelude from Tristan und Isolde begins with an alternation of the clipped and the syrupy, but that unpromising state of affairs quickly gives way to a fascinating weightlessness and melodioso heat: the lovers are airborne, the passion BUILDS, the music absolutely falls into an embrace at the climax. And in the Forest Murmurs from Siegfried what conductor has caught more vividly the seat-of-the-pants impetuosity of the young hero? The music fairly wails with excitement.

The opening movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral is supposed to represent the “awakening of joyful impressions” upon arriving in the country but the road in some performances suggests a depressing freeway. No surfeit of asphalt here, von Schillings is genial and brisk-but-not-too-brisk, permitting nice passing impetuosities. Update this scene a century or two and I see a keen little boy beginning his vacation in sight of a very pretty lake spied heroically from a great height: soon he’ll be tossing his sneakers into a musty closet in a well-remembered house, shingled and weatherbeaten, near the water. An ardent Scene by the Brook (ah, that must involve the older brother), a happy-go-lucky scherzo, a reasonably scary storm, a sweet postlude, all add up to a Pastoral well within hailing distance of “outstanding.”

In his administrative role at the State Opera von Schillings had to be something of a lion tamer with the zoo of talent all about him. It’s to his credit that when Leo Blech resigned as music director and Klemperer made impossible demands about the position, and neither Alexander von Zemlinsky nor Bruno Walter would bite, he had the courage to sign on the obviously talented but very young (why Heyworth keeps putting him down I don’t know!) Erich Kleiber.