Saturday, 4 November 2017

Gerhard Taschner - Part One

Gerhard Taschner was born in 1922 and died in 1976 at the age of 54. In 1941, at the age of 19, he was chosen by Furtwängler to be leader of the Berlin Philharmonic. In the early 1960s, health problems forced him to abandon his concert career. Like so many from Central Europe in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, his career was stunted and he never found the renown his playing merited. He was, apparently, also a difficult person, once walking out of a rehearsal with Herbert von Karajan in the late 1940s and never going back.

For some reason that escapes me, I find I have no less than twelve CDs of various recordings by Taschner, most of them from broadcast tapes, since he never had a major recording contract. A two CD set contains all of Taschner's 78 rpm recordings from the 1940s and reveals immediately a highly focused tone, impeccable intonation, and a wonderful bow arm. And what a technique! His recording here of the Bach Chaconne (1941) is one of the most interesting I can think of; a long way from “period style”, but enthralling playing by the 19 year old Taschner. I lapped it up, despite the crackly surface noise from the shellac discs. The sonata by César Franck with Cor de Groot in 1943 reveals Taschner to be a superb chamber music and duo player, despite, on occasions, a distracting fast, narrow vibrato, especially prominent in slower music. But this 21 year old player was certainly no mere virtuoso. Within a few years, the very fast vibrato appears to have been tamed and becomes less of a distraction.

I must confess that I had more or less forgotten about these old recordings on my shelves. Meaning to sample different tracks, I soon found that I always had to listen to the whole thing, since Taschner's playing is fascinating, and his musicianship so convincing. Pieces by Paganini and Sarasate (1942 and 44) reveal Taschner to be at least the equal of Heifetz or Kogan in these works (and more interesting than 95% of today's violinists), with a superb sense of rhythm and the best left-hand pizzicato in the business – hearing his Zigeunerweisen makes one realise just how many violinists cheat or smudge when it comes to the pizzicato passages. Some of the shellac disc sides have more crackle and pop than many breakfast cereals, but I am not au fait with the technical possibilities of removing surface noise without impacting the violin sound, and with violinists the sound is important. In April 1948, Taschner turns in an excellent performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, with an approach that makes one think of Jascha Heifetz: authoritative, sensitive, and with a refusal to linger over sentimental passages. The finale underlines Taschner's virtuoso credentials. Berlin in 1948 cannot have been the most pleasant place on earth in which to play music.

A remarkable four CD box from Dabringhaus und Grimm sees Taschner in the early to mid 1950s, with two CDs of short or encore pieces and two CDs of sonatas for violin and piano. Those were the days when musicians were permitted to programme or record short pieces and encore pieces. No more 78 rpms for the Dabringhaus set, but at least Taschner had a little luck in that in the 1940s and early 50s the Germans were probably top of the pile when it came to recording technology, with the Americans and Russians limping way behind during the same period. Holding listeners' interest through around 26 short pieces demands a violinist with an exceptional palette of sound, style and colouring. Heifetz could do it. Kreisler could do it. And on the D&G CDs, Taschner certainly could do it! I intended to sample, but I listened to everything, all through. None of today's highly talented violinists can get anywhere near Taschner's playing of Sarasate's Carmen Fantasia (November 1954, with Martin Krause). You are glued to your speakers or headsets. And out of my 81 (!) recordings of Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, I cannot think of any more thrilling than Taschner's (6th October 1952, with Hubert Giesen). His 1952 recording of Kreisler's Schön Rosmarin may be the best of the 45 recordings of this short piece I possess, since, chameleon-like, Taschner always adapts his sound and his bowing to the different music he plays. Like Laurence Olivier on the stage, or Maria Callas in the opera house, Taschner adapts his sound and his playing to the music at hand. Particularly when listening to a recital of short pieces, one discovers there are many Taschners at work. The style and sound of the Taschner who plays Beethoven sonatas (7th November 1955) is, quite rightly, very different from the sound of the Taschner who plays Brahms' G major sonata (26th November 1955).

The third and fourth CDs in this truly excellent Dabringhaus und Grimm set feature sonatas for violin and piano by Dvorak, Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, Othmar Schoeck, and Maurice Ravel. All the recordings on all four CDs seem to come from German radio archives, and sound quality ranges from not bad, to pretty good. Pianists in the sonatas here are Edith Farnadi and Martin Krause, with Hubert Giesen in the Dvorak. We find Taschner to be a truly first class player of chamber music and duo sonatas. Indeed, of the 34 pieces of music presented on these four CDs, a very high proportion indeed would feature in my three best recordings of the music concerned. You can almost certainly find almost all the 34 pieces played by contemporary players such as Joshua Bell or Nikolaj Znaider. But you will find no playing of the standard set by Taschner. And I know of no one else who has recorded the fascinating “Mosquitos” by the American Blair Fairchild.

The connection between talent and fame is a fragile one. A violinist such as Isaac Stern was ten times more famous than Gerhard Taschner; Gerhard Taschner was ten times a better and more interesting violinist than Isaac Stern. Gerhard Taschner was a major violinist who is now pretty well unknown. In this he resembles the violinist David Nadien who is also pretty well unknown (but for different career reasons from Taschner). Come to think of it, the playing styles of Taschner and Nadien have much in common, including completely fluent techniques and an aversion to lingering and slow tempi, although there is more fire and tension in Taschner's playing. Violinists for violinists. I am happy to possess my Taschner collection. When people ask who are the great violinists of the past century, you can reply “Heifetz, and Kreisler” and they will nod. If you add “Joseph Hassid, David Nadien, and Gerhard Taschner” they will look at you oddly.

This is part one of my return to Taschner. Awaiting me are two CDs of concertos from EMI, two CDs of Tahra's Art of Gerhard Taschner, two CDs of Tahra's Portrait of Gerhard Taschner, and one CD of the Gieseking-Taschner-Hoelscher trio in Brahms. From the EMI, I'll probably gloss over the concertos by Fortner, Pfitzner and Hindemith (Kammermusik). And one of the Tahra CDs duplicates material I have already considered. To be continued ….

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