Whilst it is riddled with libertines and freebooters, the Australian Knappertsbusch Association is Metternich-like in its tastes. Moreover we seek intensity, ferocity and fervour in music-making. In consequence, we value WW2 German recordings - thank god they sound as good as what they do. This has not passed unnoticed: of late, there's been a flood of applicants to the AKA, many of whom bear resemblance to Doctor Strangelove in their mannerisms and gestures. A purge might be the order of the day.
Oswald Kabasta's career is well known. He inked a pact with the Beast. Hitherto, he was known to me only by his Bruckner Seventh: it's mundane. These wartime recordings of the Eroica, New World Symphony and Romantic have transformed my appreciation of the man. With a baton in his hand, he's a hell-raiser from the lower reaches of Hades.
How would I characterise his conducting? It's swashbuckling, violent and ever so intense. Cautious he ain't. Gear-changes are common; how deftly they are done! The Bruckner 4th in particular is God-haunted: its danger and numinosity are fully vented. If patience is cardinal in Bruckner, Kabasta the Road-Runner mocks this precept by virtue of his ferrous grip on proceedings. It's no wonder so many ascribed this Dvorak Ninth to Furtwangler - it bears his trademark volatility; I'm afraid to light a match in its vicinity. The Eroica is anguished and heroic on the grandest of scales - catharsis ensues long before the apotheosis of the finale.
Given the wider circumstances, here is another instance where a German orchestra has to "fight or play". The Munich Philharmonic performs as if it wants to burn down the concert hall and thus spare the RAAF and USAAF. Listen to the great coda of the B4 finale - it's betting the house to the last nail. Its ensemble is tighter than a Swiss watch - how it keeps apace with Kabasta in the finales of the D9 and Romantic is beyond me.
All three recordings sound so much better than Kna's Bruckner 4th from '44 and that especially true of this Romantic: everything is here. Needless to say, they're all mono but warmly and spatially so. The dynamic range is remarkable. There are no joins so I presume magnetic tape was being used by the engineers. The Eroica and D9 have more hiss than the B4. Given the intensity of the music-making, one soon forgets the (minor) limitations of these recordings.
Wider questions are raised by a discovery of another dodgy old German-Austrian who conducts Bruckner so consummately. To my mind, the last Brucknerian recordings of note are Karajan's B8 and Giulini's B9 from the late Eighties. Since then, we've had Abbado's phenomenal B9 (May 1997 - it's on YouTube) and little else of genuine resonance (the first person to nominate Tintner gets sent to the gulag). How does one explain this drought? I suggest the following. The conducting profession is not immune from Western Civilisation's collective failure of nerve. How does this translate to the concert-hall or studio? Don't offend or marginalise anyone; understand that all things are relative or explainable by reference to their socio-economics; eschew metaphysics and shamanism; avoid over-statement; shun vision; stick to the mean; disavow exuberance and energy as eternal delight - rather, ascribe to the view that clarity and accessibility are all. In such a dynamic, conductors such as Abbado (outside that B9), Nézet-Séguin, Nelsons, Rattle, Paavo Järvi, Young and the array of scholarly HIPsters will flourish and be feted by the Last Men - sorry, People - of the Gramophone.
These recordings reflect a time where good and evil were not relative but all too real and breathing down one's neck. Hitch a ride to Hell with a bad man!