ROBERT HEGER

1886-1978

Another recording I grew up on was the 1933 abridged Der Rosenkavalier with Maria Olczewska, Klemperer’s onetime girlfriend Elisabeth Schumann and his maybe-almost-girlfriend Lotte Lehmann, conducted by Robert Heger, not exactly a household name in the annals of conducting and one that would, I’m sure, be relegated to some lower pocket by those pigeon-holers of performers according to “tiers,” first, second, and I hope no worse than that. But Robert Heger was a wonderful conductor, one of those fiery craftsmen of the pit who tend to serve more as a “first conductor” at a big-name opera house than “general music director” – and if German or Austrian spend most of their career in German-speaking countries; and don’t make as many commercial recordings as Bruno Walter or Toscanini. Think also of the muscular/poetical Rudolf Moralt — oh, the anguished brass and those palpitating flutes early on in his ‘48 Vienna Parsifal — and there’s Arthur Rother, a great favorite of the baritone Fischer-Dieskau, or the underrated and rather Blech-like Horst Stein, author of the most lyrical Elektra in my experience. Or Heinrich Steiner, whose subtle and rather Harnoncourtian Freischuetz overture “live” from Berlin in ’36 is world class.

And there was the much-maligned Heinrich Hollreiser, who, said the San Francisco Opera’s boss Kurt Herbert Adler quite accurately, could do a wonderful show, a lilting, tingly Wagner say, if you lit a fire under him (aka dressing room pep-talk from the coach) before the performance. Another candidate for frequent contempt was the Met conductor/administrator Paul Breisach whose 1943 Don Giovanni contains passages I’ve never heard better: the delicacy and pathos of the Anna-Ottavio duet early in the first act would be the opening evidence in my case for the defense. I should also mention Bernard Haitink’s teacher Ferdinand Leitner, a g.m.d. to be sure but underrated in view of how mellifluous and undulant a Wagnerian evening he could produce with his Karl Muck-trained baton. And how many Karajan-Solti groupies know the name Joseph Keilberth? Furtwaengler considered him the best of his junior colleagues because he understood the art of climax so well.

But back to the subject of this chapter. Just in from Hamburg in 1965, my wife and I were amazed in the little lobby of the fabled Sacher Hotel behind Vienna’s Staatsoper to see that the evening’s performance, Der Fliegende Hollander, would be conducted by none other than Prof. Robert Heger. Ah, so he wasn’t a mirage, that not-a-Walter-or-Toscanini who had conducted those gemuetlich chunks of Rosenkavalier for a cumbersome 13-disc Victor album thirty-two years before! Alas, we had other plans for the evening (crepes, I think, at the Balkan Grill), for which I now kick myself: to have seen Heger at his impressive exercise would have been something to tell one’s grandkids. Listening again to the ‘33 Rosenkavalier after many a Straussian moon I couldn’t fail to notice the mixture of wistfulness and sexuality in the prelude — but surely you know about the famous “orgasm” in the horns four bars after #4, whoopwhoop etc., it took the music director of the Budapest Opera to explain it to me! Then there’s the sweet-soft atmosphere as the curtain rises, with that nasty old real world held totally at bay, and the perfection of leggiero in the breakfast music. A very Viennese performance in short, recorded in that very town, but for all its laidbackness never rhythmically sloppy – terrible habit we commentators have of putting in these oft-redundant buts; I added this one to distinguish Heger from his slightly less immaculate colleage Franz Schalk.

Substantial “live” performances of Wagner led by Heger have surfaced over the years, much to his credit. The l942 Berlin Tristan is a darting, smoldering performance urgent to the point of what might be called controlled frantic. The scene in the first act wherein Tristan, backed up by Kurvenal, tells Brangaene he’s too busy keeping the ship on course to deal with other matters (i.e.: of emotion), well, that scene comes on like an angry family drama, an energetic soap opera if you will. The classic Berlin Lohengrin from ’42 with Maria Mueller and Franz Voelker is a first class work of art — the prelude comes from Nowhere, plaintive while almost statuesque; paced quite broadly, it moves with majesty and lilt, sad, restrained, always true to its lyrical tone. Then as the first act evolves Heger spreads the music like good sonic toast with a layer of fascinating misterioso. The sizzle and echt-Viennese vibrance of Philharmoniker violins fairly crinkling with a sweetness just short of cloying, these make an Immolation Scene from a 1933 Goetterdaemmerung across the street from Madame Sacher’s hostelry an addictive experience. And how nice the unrushed ardor of the Prize Song in the final scene of a 1943 Berlin Meistersinger, peopled by a rather emaciated sounding wartime chorus of, one figures, senior citizens and 4-F’s.

Strauss. Wagner. Yes, of course. In fact, Heger’s Wagner with its all-there personality seems as trade-markable in the twenty-first century as, say, Beecham’s – I’ve just discovered Sir Thomas’ RPO Good Friday Spell from Parsifal, so aureoled and hyper-intimate, just short of unctuous. But Heger was quite a Puccinian as well. A 1954 Vienna Radio Manon Lescaut stands out for its long and supple line, precision of articulation, and, for this is a performance as emotional as craftsmanly, its quick striking of notes plaintive as well as jolly. The Intermezzo is milked to a turn, gracefully, its heavy regretful steps striking a bull’s-eye at our willing heart-strings.

Back in wartime, D-day very recent history, Heger and the pianist Walter Gieseking retreated to the near-Shangri La of Baden Baden for a concerto program recently surfaced on CD. Find here a younger than springtime performance of the Grieg, full of ardor and élan, even if it begins with a positively terrifying DRUMROLL: this call to arms might have sent a few burghers heading for that nearest exit such as we 21st century audiences are always instructed to “make a note of” before the house lights dim. Enjoy in the second movement the warm, fuzzy strings, nice and sweet. And in the Schumann concerto Heger produces from his Radio orchestra a magical intimacy of tone. Higher “tier” conducting I cannot imagine. Even London and Milan got to experience it now and then, Heger did cross the Channel and train down the gorgeous Gottardo . . .

And a postscript: Just found, the ’51 Munich Opera recording of Tannhaeuser conducted by Heger with a characteristically blazing baton. The overture is almost Mengelbergian, rather more formal in shaping but no less visceral in its gut-kicking intensity. A springy start, then huge warmth in the cellos at good ol’ bar 17, a wonderful crescendo of compassion to follow, then a uniquely lengthened upbeat to ahem, so to speak, the amen of the pilgrims’ procession. The allegro has a feverish sensual abandon: never has this music been more aroused, absolutely kicking off its trousers without care for where they might land. In the final minutes sinful strings buzz hysterically around the hear-no-evil see-no-evil brass. The opera in a nutshell. And imagine: at the very end of the opera Heger manages the rare feat of making Wagner’s rather abrupt final cadence work. Big bangs mustn’t be awkward!