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The following article is published with the kind permission of the author.

It was published first in 1998. So the paragraph "The recordings" doesn't consider the new publishings of the last decade. However there are not that many really new publications since that time, like for example the "The Merry Wives of Windsor" which was published in 2010. Given this fact the paragraph hasn't lost much of its up-to-dateness.

Hans Knappertsbusch: The Keeper of the Seal

by David Patmore

Influences and Style

The early influences of Fritz Steinbach and Hans Richter, two of the most pre-eminent conductors in the period before the First World War, must have been very strong upon Hans Knappertsbusch. Perhaps even more profound would have been contact (through Richter) with the conducting style preferred by Wagner himself and outlined in his slim pamphlet ‘On Conducting’. In this Wagner railed against metronomic conducting - identifying this with the ‘lighter’ music of Mendelssohn - and instead urged the adoption of a flexible style, in which the main criterion was to be the beauty of the moment: ‘the law of beauty is the sole measure of what is possible.’ Wagner strongly urged a spontaneous approach to the performance of his music.

Kna, as Knappertsbusch was often affectionately known, certainly followed this lead, believing firmly in the inspiration of the moment. As the historian of the Vienna Philharmonic, Otto Strasser, has pointed out, he believed that the doctrine contained within Wagner’s idea of ‘tempo modification’ was ‘central to every performance’. Kna was thus likely to adjust tempi if he felt that the results ‘sounded particularly beautiful, and this imparted a pronounced individuality to his interpretation of a work.’ This stylistic approach stands centrally within Wagner’s own preferred conducting method. An extension of this conducting style is the characteristic of positively seeking spontaneity of expression. Thus  throughout his life Kna would continually surprise audiences with impromptu discoveries within even well-known scores. This revelation of previously obscured detail was still set within a careful moulding of the overall architecture of the piece.

Technically Knappertsbusch seems to have been highly undemonstrative as a conductor. Comparison with Richard Strauss was often made. At his debut in 1923 with the Vienna Symphony his restrained style of conducting was noted and favourably commented upon. As the commentator Erich Deiber noted laconically:  ‘Knappertsbusch is the only conductor who can transform a pianissimo into a fortissimo by moving his cufflinks.’ (Another conductor of the same vintage but from an extremely different stylistic background - Fritz Reiner - also possessed a very disciplined and small-scale baton technique. And also like Knappertsbusch he was both a friend of Richard Strauss and a fine interpreter of his music.) With this lack of rostrum showmanship went a high degree of platform modesty. Contemporaries noted that Kna rarely allowed himself and his orchestra more than two curtain calls.

Knappertsbusch’s reliance on feelings and musical instinct, drawn from the Wagnerian interpretative aesthetic and manifesting itself in the search for spontaneous expression and tempo modification, naturally led to a positive dislike of rehearsals as an inhibiting influence. The influence of many years of working within the old German operatic system can also be observed in this trait, when conductors were frequently expected to take command of often complex works without rehearsal. To survive in such circumstances was an acid test of ability as a conductor. But success bred tremendous confidence, and this was immediately noticed when Kna took the stand, for instance when he made his debut in Vienna. It also gave rise to numerous anecdotes, typical of which is the following quoted in Roger Vaughan’s biography of Herbert von Karajan: ‘One time he was going over Tchaikovsky’s Fifth with the Vienna Philharmonic. He came to the second movement, with the horn solo, and said ‘Let’s start’. He did a few bars, stopped, and said ‘See you his evening. You know the piece, I know the hall.’ The solo horn protested, ‘I am new, I have never played this piece in concert’. Knappertsbusch said: ‘It is beautiful music - you will love it.’

It would be wrong however to think of Knappertsbusch as lax in performance. In his obituary of Kna written for Opera magazine, Hans Hotter tells the story of how, having inadvertently omitted a crucial sung sentence in a certain opera, at subsequent performances he noticed that Kna ‘had risen from his stool to his full height, turned his baton upside down and was shaking the thick end of it at me with a threatening and meaningful gesture. It would not have needed much more to make me forget my part again! The same scene was re-enacted in a series of performances of this opera throughout the following years.’
 Given his particular artistic personality, it is hardly surprising that Knappertsbusch was uncomfortable with recording - an  aesthetic based on spontaneity and variation stands in complete opposition to one based on exact repetition both in recording and in reproduction. Knappertsbusch’s reputation from the late 1960s was dealt a severe blow (certainly unintentionally) by John Culshaw’s comments about his dislike of rehearsal and recording in ‘Ring Resounding’, his account of the recording of the Decca Ring. Culshaw clearly had great admiration for Knappertsbusch, particularly in the theatre, but the descriptions of him recording for instance the first act of ‘Die Walkure’ with Svanholm and Flagstad, portrayed a conductor who was obviously very uncomfortable with the fundamental necessity of recording: exact repetition on every dimension as required. Nothing could be more unspontaneous and inimical to variation. In order to produce records to his particular standards Culshaw needed conductors who could exact highly accurate readings from orchestras time after time, and continuously at performance levels of intensity. Musicians such as Georg Solti, coming from a completely different background, that of the Liszt Academy in Budapest where the emphasis was upon technical exactitude and discipline, were at home with this process. Kna was not. 

Another comparison which does Kna less than justice is with Furtwangler. Frequent parallels have been drawn between the two conductors, principally because they shared a similar stylistic approach, characterised by spontaneity and tempo modification. However Furtwangler’s performances tend to be much more highly strung, almost neurotic, than Knappertsbusch’s. The latter rely on a broad underpinning of orchestral mass, and move at a different pace and with a different tone and atmosphere to Furtwangler’s readings. Both conductors are highly individual in their own ways.

The misunderstanding of Knappertsbusch’s aesthetic and powers as a conductor has been further compounded by his later recordings for Westminster, made in the twilight of his career in Munich, and when his tempi had become inordinately slow. Both the major works of this contract - a complete recording of Fidelio and Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony - do Knappertsbusch little justice. By contrast it is interesting to note that the reviews of his post-war recordings for Decca were almost always enthusiastic. But the studio recordings are in many respects now an addendum to the increasingly rich legacy of recordings of live performances - a far more appropriate means of understanding Knappertsbusch’s high-risk strategy of relying on the magic of the moment to reveal musical insights. In this respect the formal hierarchy of the gramophone - studio recording above live performance - is neatly reversed.

The recordings

Given that many of Knappertsbusch’s live recordings have emerged from unauthorised sources, such as radio broadcasts, quite a few of  the same performances have appeared under different labels both at different times and simultaneously. The disc references given below may therefore be just one among several.


In the field of opera the Knappertsbusch legacy is inevitably focused upon Bayreuth, which may  be seen as his spiritual home. His 1957 reading of The Ring was released on the Italian Cetra-Live label in 1978 (LP: LO58-61 (10/78)) and continues to reappear regularly (e.g. CD: Laudis LCD 44010-13). The massiveness and grandeur of this performance have a particular power of their own. Music and Arts have recently released the 1956 Bayreuth Ring (CD: CD-1009), and the1952 Die Meistersinger, which has attracted particular praise (CD: CD-1014). Also of note are The Flying Dutchman of 1955 with Varnay and Uhde - a realization of great strength (CD: CD-876). The two commercially available recordings of Parsifal - that of 1951 from Decca/Teldec (CD: 9031 76047) and 1962 from Philips (CD: 416 390) are excellent examples of Kna’s art at its finest. The readings are by no means identical, the later one being for instance twenty minutes faster. Although Kna may have not been totally in sympathy with Wieland Wagner’s stage production with its emphasis upon the internal psychology of the characters rather than just straightforward action, his musical insight into this mystical masterpiece was as equally perceptive.
The other major opera houses that were central to Knappertsbusch’s career were those of Munich and Vienna. As with Bayreuth, the recorded legacy is surprisingly rich. From Munich, the 1950 Tristan, recorded from a performance at the Prinzregentheater, is a highly idiomatic realization, less febrile and mercurial than Furtwangler’s, and more monumental in approach. This reading is representative of Kna at his best (CD:Orfeo 355 943). Orfeo have also released two further live performances from Munich both from1955: Gotterdammerung with Nilsson and Aldenhoff  (CD: 356 944) and another Meistersinger (CD: 462 974), with Lisa della Casa,  as at Bayreuth in1952.
Available at one time on LP from Discocorp (LP: RR 482) is a splendidly vigorous as well as surprisingly subtle Der Rosenkavalier, recorded at the 1957 Munich Festival, with Marianne Schech as the Marschallin and Hertha Topper as Octavian. This performance is an excellent example of the way Kna could cast new light into the recesses of well-known scores.

The vaults of the Vienna State Opera House and especially the May archive have yielded many treasures from performances of the thirties and early forties, and one of the Koch-Schwann double CD volumes in this series is devoted to performances directed by Knappertsbusch (CD: 3-1467-2). Although the actual circumstances of recording cause these extracts to stop and start arbitrarily, what we have is magnificent, even if the sound is not good. There is a very exciting sliver of Elektra with Rose Pauly, some magnificent Lohengrin with Paul Kotter, Margarethe Teschemacher and Anny Konetzni, and more brilliant Rosenkavalier from 1936 and1937. An oddity is a group of brief excerpts from Wolf-Ferrari’s The Jewels of the Madonna. This set is highly recommended as a strong anti-dote to all the received opinions about Knappertsbusch - for instance throughout there is a high degree of lyricism. An interesting pendant to this set is a radio broadcast in highly variable sound of Act III of Figaro from the 1939 Salzburg Festival (Radio Years 75) - again this shows that Kna was no slouch, ably supporting an outstanding cast led by Maria Reining and Ezio Pinza.

The ‘official’ operatic legacy of Knappertsbusch on Decca contains some excellent items, pride of place within which must go to two relatively late recital discs, the first with George London, originally on LXT 5478 / SXL 2068 (3/59). This contains one of the most brilliantly conducted performances of ‘Wotan’s Farewell’ on record, with the Vienna Philharmonic in particularly fine form. Of almost equal intensity is a recital disc of excerpts from Tristan with Birgit Nilsson and the Vienna Philharmonic again (originally on LXT 5559 / SXL 2184  (3/60), reissued on CD: 452-896-2). The Decca Meistersinger recorded in Vienna in 1950 has a fine cast, but is hampered by an early LP balance which places the voices too far forward, with a resultant loss of orchestral sound and detail. Paul Schöffler as Sachs is however extremely fine (originally released on LXT 2659-64 complete (2/52), reissued on CD: 440-057-2). One of the weakest of the Decca opera recordings conducted by Kna is the first act of Die Walkure (LXT5429-30/SXL2074-5 (6/59)), which with the third act conducted by Solti acted as a test run for the first studio recording of Das Rheingold and ultimately the complete Decca Ring. This is one of the few Decca recordings by Kna which just does not come off.

The symphonic repertoire

The cornerstone of Knappertsbusch’s symphonic repertoire was the music of Anton Bruckner. As early as the 1920s and 1930s he was conducting ‘Bruckner Evenings’ throughout Germany. Not surprisingly he saw Bruckner through a Wagnerian lens and conducted throughout his life the now discredited Schalk and Loewe versions of the symphonies. These adjusted certain symphonies in orchestral and structural terms to give them a more Wagnerian (and therefore less Brucknerian) flavour. The ‘live’ discography is quite extensive and of especial value is the performance of the Seventh Symphony, given at the Salzburg Festival in 1949 with the Vienna Philharmonic (Music & Arts CD: CD-209). The Seventh is notable in existing in only one basic version, and therefore Kna’s conducting is probably closer to Bruckner’s intentions than his more Wagnerian view of the other symphonies. Also of note are a Munich performance of the Third Symphony (Music & Arts CD: CD-257), and a very powerful, granite-like, Ninth with the Berlin Philharmonic from 1950 (Music & Arts CD: CD-219). Decca recorded Symphonies Three, Four and Five with Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic - the Fifth is available on CD in the original stereo recording not previously released in the UK (CD: 448-581-2). This is a strong performance, if without the cumulative power of the live performances.
Kna’s recordings of Beethoven and Brahms, and the many reissues from various sources are too  numerous to comment upon individually, but mention should be made of certain outstanding performances. Tahra have recently issued a two disc set with the Berlin Philharmonic containing the Eighth Symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert in uniformly fine readings (CD: TAH 214/215). A wartime Eroica, again with the Berlin Philharmonic, is currently available on Iron Needle (CD: IN 1322). Nothing points up the difference between Knappertsbusch and Furtwangler more distinctly than comparison between this performance and Furtwangler’s from the same period. Among the many fine Brahms readings is an immensely powerful performance of the Third Symphony coupled with the Tragic Overture, given with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 1955 (Orfeo CD: 329 931). Zubin Mehta, who observed Knappertsbusch while a student in Vienna, noted how he was able to inject great tension into the music which he was conducting: ‘He could play the Brahms Third Symphony at half the tempo and you’d still not be bored, because it would make musical sense.’ This performance is an excellent example of Mehta’s point. The Third has also been available in another excellent reading with the Dresden Staatskapelle, coupled with the Schumann Fourth (Arkadia CD: CD 724). Mention should also be made of a studio recording for Decca of several of Brahms’ shorter works, including a very moving Alto Rhapsody with Lucretia West (originally on LP: LXT  5394 (3/59))

Knappertsbusch’s success with heavyweight works and composers has obscured his penchant for lighter music - two late Decca stereo LPs featuring this repertoire have been issued on a double CD (CD: 440 624-2) and contain some extraordinary readings of music by Johann Strauss II, Tchaikovsky, and minor masters such as Ziehrer and Komzak (who would have been contemporaries in Kna’s youth). These are not readings for the faint-hearted, but they are great fun.

Kna was an intimate friend of Richard Strauss, frequently playing cards with him until Strauss gave the premiere of Arabella to Clemens Krauss. Sadly his Strauss discography is small but not to be overlooked. Decca recorded an interesting coupling of Kna conducting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in Don Juan and Tod und Verklarung in 1956 at the same time as the early Solti Tchaikovsky Fifth (when Solti was less than complementary about the orchestra’s discipline), originally issued on LP: LXT 5239 (11/59). Another knock-out reading of Tod und Verklarung with the Dresden Staatskapelle from 1959 has been available on Pilz Historic CD: 78003. The 1928 78rpm recordings of Till Eulenspiegel and excerpts from Intermezzo and Salome have been reissued on Preiser CD: 90260.

The Concertos

Throughout the 1950s Knappertsbusch was probably most well known in the United Kingdom for his accompaniments to Clifford Curzon’s magisterial readings of the Beethoven Fourth and Fifth and the Brahms Second Piano Concertos (originally released on LP: LXT 2948 (10/54), LXT 539(1/58)/SXL2002(10/58), and LXT 5434(7/58) respectively). When accompanying the necessary discipline of working with a soloist seems to have revealed a slightly different aspect of Knappertsbusch’s musical character: more precise and often more sensitive. These latter characteristics are even more apparent in several ‘off-air’ performances of the same repertoire with Wilhelm Backhaus. Backhaus came from a similar musical background as Knappertsbusch (he was only four years older than Kna and shared with him an especial reverence for Brahms) and certainly their collaborations were extra special. The Beethoven Fourth Concerto has been available on LP: Baton 1002 and CD: Stradavarius 10002, while the Fifth has appeared on LP:  I Grandi Concerti 17 and CD: Orfeo  385 961 (different performances).


This article has sought to suggest an approach to understanding the music-making of a conductor from a past era, and representative of a style of performance reliant upon the inspiration of the moment. Although fraught with risk, this approach in the right hands certainly yielded performances of great individuality. It is an approach with which the process of recording has found it difficult to coexist. Recording requires accuracy and intensity time after time, whereas for the inspirational conductor every performance is subject to the mood of the moment. It is a style infrequently encountered today, if at all. Fortunately there are in existence a reasonable number of recordings conducted by Knappertsbusch available, mainly of live performances, which attest to its validity. While the principal issues have been mentioned there are many more available on either a new or second-hand basis which are well worth investigating.

Perhaps the last word should rest with Wieland Wagner, the founder of New Bayreuth, who wrote the following tribute to Knappertsbusch: ‘His name awakens love and reverence. His life means service to music, dedication to the great masters of the past. He is not of this time and age in the real sense of the word: he is aristocratic, idealistic, self-assured and humble. His secret is the absolute belief in the work, which he knows to transmit to musicians and listeners in a truly magic manner and thus creates a congregation of believers. In the centre of his being stands the works of Richard Wagner, primarily Gotterdammerung and Parsifal. Nobody at all is more chosen than he to interpret this mystic, mythical, but also gay and idyllic music of Richard Wagner.’ 

Dr. David Patmore is a Research Associate with the Centre for the History and Analysis of Record Music (CHARM) and Director of the MSc in Music Management. He teaches at the Sheffield University Management School, Great Britain.
He is the author of The A-Z of Conductors (Naxos Books, 2007).