Back in the 1960s, Karl Ristenpart, a conductor about whom little was known, suddenly became one of the most conspicuous of classical recording artists. The Saarland Radio Chamber Orchestra, which he founded in 1953, recorded energetically for Erato and the Club Français du Disques, and those recordings appeared on perhaps as many as a dozen American labels -- Nonesuch, Counterpoint Esoteric, Musical Heritage Society, Vox/Turnabout, Epic, Westminster, Music Guild, etc. -- usually under the name “Chamber Orchestra of the Saare.” Many of us were taken by the freshness of his interpretations -- the vigor, depth, and total-immersion conviction which made everything seem so unarguably right.
Ristenpart did not represent himself as a Baroque/early music scholar; he used modern tuning, and “original instruments” came into the picture only when soloists were involved: recorders, not flutes, in the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, valveless horns in the First, etc. -- and his soloists were for the most part absolutely top-drawer. Early on, he established a close relationship with the French Wind Quintet, and that virtuoso ensemble’s two stars -- the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and the oboist Pierre Pierlot -- not only performed and recorded with him nearly every season, but were like sons to him: both, in fact, called him “Papi,” and would rearrange existing commitments in order to perform with him.
In the middle of 1966, Nonesuch brought out Ristenpart’s CFD recording of the Brandenburg Concertos. These works had been so frequently recorded on LP that some of us had thought of calling for a moratorium on further releases of them, but Ristenpart’s name, and those of his phenomenal soloists -- Rampal, Pierlot, the Naturhorn virtuosi Martin Oheim and Oscar Wunder, Rampal’s recital partner Robert Veyron-Lacroix at the harpsichord, the recorder player Hans-Martin Linde, et al. -- was a line-up just too strong to resist, and for more than a few of us this was the recording that firmly established Karl Ristenpart among the most revered musicians of his time.
How those two masters of the natural horn seemed to relish the prominence Ristenpart accorded them as they really punched out those frequently overlooked triplets! And how effective their vigorous exchange in being antiphonal -- not exaggeratedly separated, but just enough to make it register. In the fabulous second trio of Brandenburg 1’s final movement, the intricate playing of the oboes and bassoon might call to mind one of those old parade-ground films in which two files of motorcycles meticulously intersect at right angles. But every detail registers in a way that certifies its role as part of the whole. It is outright jubilation, even in the slower and quieter sections.
My own response went much farther than favorable reviews on radio and in print. Hermann Scherchen, who had recently made his American début with the Philadelphia Orchestra, died in June 1966. Since both he and Ristenpart had made themselves known to us through their recordings, which established them as major figures in our musical life, I headed one of my pieces “Exit Scherchen, Enter Ristenpart” -- quite unaware of the actual connection between those two conductors. I was on the administrative staff of the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music at the time, and persuaded the school’s director, Walter Hendl, to invite Ristenpart to make his US debut with an Eastman ensemble to be created for the occasion. That fall I went to Saarbrücken to discuss that invitation with him.
We can never take for granted that any individual we may admire and respect as an artist will turn out to be similarly admirable as a human being, but Karl Ristenpart was exactly what one might have imagined, “only more so.” He was at once self-confident and genuinely modest; unfeigned warmth of heart was a defining part of his nature. Of his part in organizing the RIAS Symphony Orchestra, in postwar occupied Berlin, he remarked that he was chosen “not because I was the greatest conductor available, but simply because I was the only one who didn’t have to be denazified.” Most of our conversation, at dinner at his home, with his wife (the harpsichordist Ruth Christensen) and two men from Saarland Radio, was more about the music he loved and the performers he admired than about himself.
It was not until I had been home for six months or so that it occurred to me to ask Ristenpart about the conspicuous presence of portraits and sculptures of Gustav Mahler in his home. After all, Mahler was not a composer with whom one might identify the conductor of a chamber orchestra in 1966. KR’s response, and of our subsequent correspondence, were filled with fascinating and revelatory surprises. He wrote to me that in 1908, when he was eight years old, his parents divorced and he was taken to Chile by his father, a respected astronomer who was appointed director of a newly created observatory. (Thus KR learned Spanish as a child, but never learned English; the men from the Radio were at dinner with us as interpreters, since my own German was inadequate; our correspondence had to be translated at both ends.) When the elder Ristenpart died, in 1913, the young KR returned to his mother, by then a financially secure resident of Berlin.
At that time, the 13-year-old KR had no acquaintance with music. His Chilean stepmother had no interest in it, and the Ristenpart home in Chile did not even have a piano in it. His mother, however, had developed a consuming interest in music, and was able to underwrite the conducting début of her young piano teacher, whose name was Hermann Scherchen. The big piece in that concert was Mahler's Fifth Symphony, and the boy’s response to it was transformative. At home with his mother and Scherchen after the concert, the young KR went to the piano, which he had never touched before, and picked out themes from that work. Scherchen, himself still in his early 20s, persuaded the boy’s mother to see that her son got serious musical training -- and then went off to his first actual conducting position, in Riga, where he was interned as an enemy alien when the first World War began; at the war’s end, he returned to Berlin and married Karl Ristenpart’s mother.
That marriage did not last long, but KR’s fascination with Mahler remained at the forefront of his thoughts for the rest of his life, along with his veneration of Bach and Mozart, and he developed an intense desire to conduct Mahler symphonies, which were at that time way outside the standard orchestral repertory. Of course that was impossible during the Hitler years, when Mahler was verboten in Germany and Ristenpart managed to squeak through as a bank teller as well as part-time musician, without joining the Nazi party. He explained in his letters that it was the moral strength he found in Mahler’s music that had got him through those dark years. With his RIAS forces in early postwar Berlin, he did conduct a performance of the Kindertotenlieder, with a young baritone named Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (with whom KR also recorded two Bach cantatas for Deutsche Grammophon); and in Saarbrücken, where he founded his own chamber orchestra in 1953, he performed the Adagietto from the work that touched off his lifelong commitment to music and to Mahler, the Fifth Symphony.
Mahler, in fact, was the core subject of my correspondence with Ristenpart for the remainder of 1967. KR wrote of the substance of the music, and he evaluated various recordings of the Mahler symphonies. He was critical of conductors who distended the Adagietto, turning it into something like a lamentation, and he cited the recordings of it by the two conductors remembered as particularly authoritative in performing Mahler’s music: Bruno Walter and Willem Mengelberg, by way of demonstrating the proper pacing.
In light of the growing interest in Ristenpart as his recordings continued to generate so much enthusiasm, Columbia Artists Management engaged him and his Saarland Radio Chamber Orchestra for an American tour, and Teresa Sterne, who was then in charge of the Nonesuch label, persuaded her company’s owner, Jac Holzman, to set up a new label, called Checkmate, primarily for the purpose of enabling KR to make some recordings at last with a large orchestra. He recorded, with a Stuttgart orchestra, symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert, Brahms’s Second Serenade, and Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, but the 1968 sessions scheduled for the Mahler First never took place because KR died in Lisbon on Christmas Eve 1967. His chamber orchestra’s American tour was conducted by Antonio Janigro, and not long afterward the ensemble was folded into the larger Saarland Radio Symphony Orchestra.
One of the last recordings Ristenpart completed with his own Saarbrücken ensemble was a CDF set of the Bitsch/Pascal edition of Bach’s Art of the Fugue. He had earlier recorded Helmut Winschermann’s edition of the work for Erato, and it was issued here by MHS, but he regarded the later recording of the different version as a sort of personal testament; by the time Nonesuch issued it in the US, it was in the context of a memorial to the beloved conductor.
Few of Ristenpart’s recordings have reappeared on CD. One of the reasons for this is that the respective originating companies have passed through various different owners over the last few decades. Erato, for a time owned by RCA, went with that company’s own catalogue to BMG, but only briefly, and wound up owned by Warner. The Club Français catalog was acquired by the French company Accord, which itself was subsequently acquired by Universal. Before that acquisition, Accord issued first-rate CD transfers of KR’s Bach orchestral suites (205711, 205712, with two unrelated concertos) and Brandenburgs (200382, 200392), and more recently, as part of Universal, put these titles plus the Bitsch/Pascal Art of the Fugue into a six-disc set (465 893-2). There is a similar set of Ristenpart’s CDF recordings of Bach cantatas. (Although Helmut Schneidewind, a Baroque specialist who recorded Brandenburg No.2 several times with different associates, was the trumpeter in KR’s recording of that work, the more widely known Maurice André took part in the recordings of the Third and Fourth Suites.)
For the most part, CD reissues of Ristenpart recordings have not come from the respective originating companies and not from other commercial labels, but from the independent enthusiasts, in their undertakings which might well be classified as non-profit, since many offer their wares at prices that barely cover the cost of materials and postage. David Gideon’s ReDiscovery catalog is a conspicuously rich source of Ristenpart material, having given us so far the Schubert symphonies and the Eroica, from Checkmate, a lot of the CDF material that had been on Nonesuch (Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Schumann as well as Mozart and Vivaldi) as well as a lovely collection of Baroque flute concertos with Rampal (issued nearly 50 years ago on an Epic LP), and a four-disc set of excellent Mozart symphonies, concertos, dances and divertimentos from both CDF and Erato.
All these observations and reminiscences were touched off by the appearance of a new CD reissue of Brandenburgs Nos. 1, 2 and 3, from Robert Witrak’s High Definition Tape Transfers (HDCD 283), an enterprise with a very good track record in respect to sound quality, if not for annotative accuracy. In more than a few instances, HDTT, whether working from tapes or LPs, has achieved sound quality superior to the originating companies’ own CD transfers of pre-digital recordings. (Examples that spring to mind are three originated by Decca: the famous 1961 recording of the Ballet Music from Holst’s opera The Perfect Fool, Peter Maag’s elegant performance of material unexpected from him, the Delibes portion of La Source; the composite ballet whose other sections were composed by the undistinguished Leopold Minkus; and István Kertész’s well remembered Kodály program, embracing the Háry János Suite, a pair of songs from that stage work, and the infectious Dances of Galánta.) In his treatment of Ristenpart’s Brandenburgs, Mr. Witrak has done what the people at Accord/Universal could have done and ought to have done when they were unable to find the original stereophonic tapes: he simply used a mint-condition set of Nonesuch LPs as his source material. One has to wonder why the Accord/Universal team couldn’t simply have done the same, or just copied Accord’s own first-rate earlier CDs.
Those earlier CD transfers on the pre-Universal Accord label, which provide the best of all ways to enjoy this music, are hard to find now, and when they do turn up the asking price is likely to be steep. HDTT itself, of course, is by no means in the non-profit category, and 43 minutes is not a very generous playing time for a CD, but the HDTT transfers come closer to the earlier Accord CDs than any others known to me, and are actually very close indeed. Moreover, like most other releases from this source, this one is available at four different levels of CD or DVD-Audio, and two grades of download. For details: www.highdeftapetransfers.com.
The annotative insert is best ignored. In the unsigned note on the music itself, in which Corelli’s given name is misspelt, words that ought to have been caught by an editor slip by (“It is not entirely clear by Bach selected to use this unusual instrument . . . ,” and the very opening statement, “Brandenburg Concerto No.1 is, like all the Brandenburgs, set in five movements,” is contradicted by the track listing on the tray card, which shows correctly that No.1 is in four movements, No.2 is in three movements, and No.3 in two movements. (Each of the three remaining Brandenburgs, in Bach’s set of six, is again in three movements.) Also, these recordings were taped in 1962, not in 1965/66 as stated on back page of the insert.
Well, more serious offenses have come from more established and more highly respected sources: paste the pages of the insert closed, if you like, and enjoy what you hear. If you really buy recordings for the information printed with them, then you might pick up the original Nonesuch LP set, currently offered on the Internet for as little as $6.00, or hunt diligently for the earliest Accord CD reissues, which have notes by Marc Vignal. But the real issue here is that Ristenpart’s are the most all-round satisfying performances of the Brandenburgs ever recorded, and no one ought to think of being without them, in the finest sonic treatment actually available. HDTT deserves our gratitude and praise for going at this with such fine musical results, and a follow-up with the three remaining Brandenburgs and the four orchestral suites would be similarly appreciated. Better yet: all the Brandenburgs and all the suites in a three-disc set.
. . . Richard Freed