article 107: FUNKSTILLE

Telefunken was founded in Berlin in 1903 as a company devoted to the development of radio technology. Their main early customer was the German navy. Guglielmo Marconi, the most successful early pioneer in “wireless telegraphy”, was working for the great rival, the Royal Navy, and achieving disturbing results. The brand became a German industrial giant in all electricity-related fields, and still exists in a small way.

The spin-off that interests a musician is the former major record label of that name, which came to prominence in the Nazi era with hit versions of the Horst Wessel Lied, military marches and similar horrors. The spun-off spin-off that interests a harpsichordist is the Telefunken early music sub-series begun in 1958, called Das Alte Werk – a pun on “old works of music” and “the old factory”. The latter refers to the big pressing site in Nortorf, established in 1948. In 1987 came the disastrous sale of the entire music concern to Time Warner, which in its wisdom decided the factory would be the European center for laser-disc production. That flopped big-time, and the alte Werk closed in 1997. A museum devoted to the history of recording is now located there.

The early issues on Das Alte Werk had modest, unified covers in leaf-green with black print, probably in imitation of Deutsche Grammophon’s Archiv series. These have become semi-rarities. The second-hand market is flooded with reissues the came in the wake of success, in three succeeding designs. The first was rather gaudy, with color reproductions of Baroque paintings taking up two-thirds of the front cover. Musik in seiner Zeit (“music in the context of its times”) was the next variant – a laudable, but rather strained effort at cross-disciplinary explanation. Then came the aristocratic gray covers, with smaller, more appropriate artworks. These were the ones I prowled record stores for, all over North America, before I came to Europe for good in 1971.

The Leonhardt Consort, named after its two leading members, Gustav (keyboards and viola da gamba) and Marie (baroque violin), signed on to Das Alte Werk in 1961, and brought out their first recording of Bach cantatas in 1962. The A side was the towering early masterpiece (Bach was probably 22 when he composed it), Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit BWV 106, known as the Actus tragicus. This was the first piece by the Consort I ever heard, in a friend’s dingy New York apartment in the fall of 1969. I can still remember how utterly stunned I was, especially by Leonhardt’s luminous continuo playing. The experience was part of what determined me to audition for him toward the end of that year, during his guest professorship at Harvard. I listened to it for the first time in decades last night. The organ continuo was the only aspect that has stood the test of time. The Actus was clearly of supreme importance to Mr. Leonhardt. Its title was the epigram on his funeral program leaflet at the Amterdam Westerkerk – his own place of worship, and the site of the pauper Rembrandt van Rijn’s tomb. I was told by the family he had planned the ceremony down to the last detail.

Leonhardt’s second Bach cantata issue (1963) insured his playing received even more prominence: two secular works for solo voice, one of which was Amore traditore BWV 203, with its prominent obbligato harpsichord part in the second aria. There, my later teacher is still not free from his old stiffness, and sounds rather pedantic. The first aria, one of the most difficult continuo tasks in the repertoire, is more interesting. Leonhardt has obviously written out everything. I doubt if even Bach could have improvised a realization of such clever intricacy.

For works with orchestra, the violinist Jaap Schröder and his loosely aggregated “Concerto Amsterdam” were recruited. This may have been the best option at the time, but judging by the 1966 release of four Bach cantatas, it was a mistake. One of them was BWV 27, Wer weiß wie nahe mir meine Ende. The work is the reason I got off onto this tangent in the fist place. It contains an aria with obbligato keyboard which I was reminded of while reading H. J. Schulze (see article 105). That scholar points out that the solo part is not transposed downwards, like all Leipzig organ parts had to be. The big organ in the Thomaskirche was stilled tuned to the old Chorton, a whole tone higher than the ca. 415Hz Kammerton which the orchestra employed. Schulze thinks the solo may have been intended for the harpsichord, which as Laurence Dreyfus showed (“Bach’s Continuo Group”, Harvard U. Press, 1987) was always part of the ensemble in the St. Thomas choir loft. But parts for later performances under the composer’s direction are marked “organ”. Schulze thinks the organist might have transposed at sight, to D-flat major (!?). If it was Bach at the organ...maybe so. The fast-flowing solo is full of tricky leaps, and transposing it would be beyond me if I had a week to prepare.

Perhaps “organ” was a misunderstanding; perhaps there was a Positif organ in Kammerton in the Empore at the time; perhaps someone actually transposed the solo at sight. What I wanted to know was: what was the solution chosen in the Telefunken recordings? BWV 27 fell to Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the famous first complete cycle which was launched by TelDec in 1970. Its turn came in 1976. By this time, sad to say – but as I know from multiple first-hand experience – Harnoncourt was going off the rails. I fear he became progressively more drunk with fame and success, and began exaggerating aspects of the new performance practice which had so scandalized his first audiences, especially in Vienna. Nikolaus would often say in rehearsals, when demanding some weird effect, “Das soll ein Skandal sein!” – “that should create a scandal”. His wife, the late violinist Alice, once told me, “We hate Vienna and the Vienna audience,” because of its stodgy conservatism. Creating continuous Skandale would be the appropriate way to crash that particular party. The pair eventually had the city eating out of their hands. But Naoko and I walked out of the Musikverein at intermission at the last performance of Concentus Musicus Wien we ever attended. It was unbearable.

By the time Harnoncourt recorded BWV 27, his interpretations were actually becoming scandalous. His tempi here are mostly too fast or too slow, or swerve in the middle of an aria to heighten some Affekt, in a way which is stylistically unthinkable, but also would have been far beyond what was possible with the Cantorei at St. Thomas. The aria with obbligato keyboard is taken by Herbert Tachezi on a chamber organ. It is nearly inaudible, which is just as well, because the performance is rushed in two senses: too fast, and “get it in the can, fer chissake”.

I had never heard the 1966 LP recording under Schröder’s leadership, so I ordered a used copy. It is a disaster of a different kind. Ensemble playing is almost non-existent; “We have turned every one to his own way,” as the Bible text in a chorus from Handel’s “Messiah” says. The funeral motet BWV 118, with its multiple brass parts, sounds like what I imagine the chaos of a 1740 performance in Leipzig must have been like.

What about the aria with obbligato keyboard? Chaos reigns here, too. Admittedly, the locus topicus – the text which must inspire its musical expression – is a tricky one: “I would like to say ‘welcome’ when Death steps to my bedside”. Bach finds ways to create musical images for “welcome”, “steps” and “death”, which is little short of miraculous. To balance all these was clearly beyond the participants, where sufficient leadership was lacking. One clearly hears a lone anchor...who else but Gustav Leonhardt, imperturbably maintaining flawlessly correct elegance (on the organ, whereas I had hoped for a harpsichord), while oboist Ad Mater does his best to support him at exactly the right andante tempo. But the continuo rushes; the alto soloist Helen Watts – then near the height of her tremendous fame – produces superb tone while constantly dragging, in the best tradition of singers. Leonhardt must have suffered the pains of hell. When the complete cycle commenced he led things himself, and found better orchestral support in what was called “the augmented Leonhardt Consort”.

It seems that in the span of 10 short years, orchestral “historically informed performance practice” went from kinderschoenen (baby’s booties) in Amsterdam to incipient dementia in Vienna. I joined the Amsterdam party at its joyous height in 1971. When Mr. Leonhardt left Telefunken along with his producer Wolf Erichsohn, who wanted to start his own label in cooperation with SONY at the high point of the Japanese economic bubble, I was invited, to my immense surprise, to become his successor at Das Alte Werk: I recorded seven solo CDs for them before they went under in the Time Warner tsunami.

“Telefunken” is greco-teutonic for “distant sparks”. Rundfunk (“sparks all around”) is still the word used for “broadcasting”, which won’t be around for much longer. Funkstille, the title of this opusculum, means “radio silence”. The voices of the pioneers mentioned above are silent now, and meaningful contribution to the understanding of early music is moribund, if not altogether departed. Luckily for whatever future interest the field may inspire, the contributions of those pioneers are a matter of...record.

August 13, 2023

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