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Hans Knappertsbusch

On the German conductor.


It is unlikely that even the most ludicrously ultramontane reading of Pastor aeternus would lead anyone to the conclusion that the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff extends to matters of musical taste. The debate, thankfully, is unnecessary in relation to the tastes of the present Holy Father. Despite the absurd depiction in the dreadful Two Popes of a Beatles-loving, down-to-earth Pope Francis contrasted with a cerebral, Schubert-loving Pope Benedict, the reality appears to be quite the opposite. In his now famous interview with Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J. in September 2013, published in English in America, Francis briefly but very specifically addressed his musical preferences and revealed himself as a man of exquisite taste. He praised Clara Haskil, the great Romanian pianist, and her Mozart recordings and spoke of his affection for the Bach Passions. But perhaps the Pope’s most interesting comments related to Beethoven and Wagner. The Pope expressed his admiration for the “Promethean” Beethoven performances by Wilhelm Furtwängler, a legendary German conductor with a reputation unfortunately marred by his relationship with the Nazi regime. The Pope also identified two particular recordings of operas, one of which is a somewhat chaotic but thrilling account of Wagner’s Ring Cycle recorded by Furtwängler at Milan’s La Scala theater in 1950. The second recording was Wagner’s Parsifal, recorded in 1962 at the Bayreuth Festival.

That recording, perhaps the greatest ever made at the annual festival dedicated to Wagner’s music dramas, glows from start to finish with a spiritual intensity that is unmatched in any other recording of Wagner’s last masterpiece, the work he (with typical pomposity) called his “stage consecration festival play.” The voices alone would be enough to make many Wagnerians swoon. Jess Thomas is a stentorian but still poetic and beautiful Parsifal. Irene Dalis is a hysterical Kundry. George London is an Amfortas so tortured that it would be unlistenable were it not for that burnished golden tone. Above all, Hans Hotter, arguably the greatest male vocalist of the twentieth century, makes Gurnemanz’s interminable monologues (which can be coma-inducing in some hands) teem with color and depth. But the beating heart of the performance, the source of the warmth and glow that reflect in sound the shining contents of the grail, is Hans Knappertsbusch.

“Kna,” as the great conductor was affectionately known, was unique not only in his musical gifts. In an obituary, the critic Karl Schumann described him as “standing out like a warrior in a foreign century,” and indeed, he was a relic of the nineteenth century. His appearance was what one might imagine a great patrician of ancient Rome to look like. Look, for example, at the original cover of his recording of Brahms’s Overtures and Haydn’s Variations from 1958, where he is depicted in bust form, with the lock of hair that perennially rested on his right forehead lovingly carved into stone. He was tall and statuesque. Once described by Birgit Nilsson, the great Wagnerian soprano, as “over six feet of genius in suspenders,” he carried himself like the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, looking ready to drag the rakish Don to Hell. He was not a showman on the podium and not what Sir Adrian Boult would call “one of the sweaty ones.” In his element in the hidden pit of Bayreuth, he had a thinly disguised contempt for audiences (a recording of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from Munich has him starting the overture before he has even arrived at the podium and the audience still applauding his appearance).

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Niall Guinan is a lawyer based in Dublin, Ireland and an occasional contributor to The Irish Catholic.