Last spring, I was commissioned to write an essay on the work of Eugen Jochum for EMI’s new 20 CD box set of his late recordings in the Icon series. The disc is now out, and I thought Vftp  readers might find the essay of interest. I’m confident that anyone who wants to hear core repertoire played with un-surpassable insight and understanding will want to check out the set. Available here


Eugen Jochum


Eugen Jochum was born to a Roman Catholic family in Babenhausen.  As he recounted to Alan Blyth in a 1972 Gramophone interview, ‘My father had a little choir school so that he could train his children for the church… I usually played the organ when my father was conducting and if he went on holiday, I would take over the conducting too – although I was only nine… And I had to accompany, and transpose, all of which was excellent training’.

He completed his formal studies in nearbyAugsburgandMunich, then held early posts inMonchengladbach,Kieland then went to Manheim, where he attracted the favourable attention of Wilhelm Furtwängler, who would be both a champion of and inspiration to the younger conductor.  The 1930s were to be hugely productive for Jochum, during which he served as director of both the Hamburg Opera and Philharmonic, eventually developing a repertoire of over 60 operas. Jochum, to his credit, managed to avoid getting entangled with the Nazis.

The most important appointment of his career came in 1949, when he was made the founding music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony inMunich, an ensemble he built into one of the most admired orchestras inEurope. He also had long partnerships with the Berliner Philharmoniker, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra,Amsterdam, where he served as Co-Principal Conductor alongside the young Bernard Haitink in the early 1960s.

Furtwängler remains the conductor to whom Jochum is most frequently compared. Both men were most at home among the monuments of the Austro-German repertoire, both were known for flexibility of tempo, but for both men, their seemingly spontaneous approach to tempo was grounded in a highly rigorous and analytical approach to score study, and both were keenly concerned with revealing the structure of the music they conducted. However, Jochum was very much his own man. Where Furtwängler was surrounded by something like the cult of a shaman, and could conduct with a beat that was sometimes as mysterious as it could also be illuminating, Jochum was a famously direct and genial man, and his conducting technique was one of pinpoint precision, honed to perfection during his early years in the opera house. Jochum also preferred a leaner, more delineated sound and more precise ensemble than the glorious growl Furtwängler drew from his Berlin Philharmonic.


The Bruckner Specialist


Jochum’s name and career were tied to the music of Anton Bruckner from the moment of his first significant professional success, when he conducted a triumphant performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with the Munich Philharmonic in 1926. Jochum himself said of the piece ‘this symphony made my whole career.’ From the beginning, Jochum found himself to be completely comfortable with Bruckner’s distinctive sound world: ‘Every young conductor has his problems with Mozart and Beethoven. I never found I had these problems with Bruckner; he seemed to come to me naturally.’ Jochum himself believed his affinity for Bruckner grew from his own training as an organist: ‘I began playing the organ when I was six years old… so his style was never difficult for me.’

From his debut inMunichto his final, triumphant Bruckner performances in the 1980s, many critics and musicians considered him the leading Brucknerian of his era. Off the podium, his commitment to Bruckner’s music included a long tenure as President of the West German Bruckner Society and several essays on Bruckner interpretation. However, Jochum always viewed his interpretations of Bruckner’s music as a work in progress, and he was passionately interested in absorbing the latest research. He was one of the first major Brucknerians to set aside Robert Haas’s original Critical Edition of the symphonies in favour of the new postwar edition made by Leopold Nowak. ‘Haas was, how shall I say, a very gifted man,’ he said, ‘but… I don’t think that kind of editing will do.’ In return, Nowak was unpolitic in his assessment of Jochum’s commitment to understanding Bruckner’s music, ‘The only conductor who ever came to the library, or wrote to ask questions about the sources in all my years editing Bruckner,’ he said, ‘was Eugen Jochum.’

Jochum’s recorded performances of the Bruckner symphonies span almost his entire 60-year career, and his evolution as an interpreter is both clearly apparent but also notably incremental, the core of his artistic persona being present from early on. Critic Herbert Glass described him as someone constantly challenging his own ideas about music: ‘The Fifth Symphony drove him to distraction and he would regard his every performance of it as an interpretation in progress. In rehearsal, such doubts could sorely test an orchestra’s patience, this despite his courtly, respectful treatment of his players.’ Central to Jochum’s approach to all music of the Romantic era, and to Bruckner’s in particular, is the integration of a deeply ingrained structural understanding of the music’s large-scale organization with a finely honed approach to tempo flexibility.

Jochum’s approach to tempo in Bruckner remains controversial among some critics and conductors, but it is also often misunderstood. Where an interpreter like Bernstein, Stokowski or even Karajan might tend to broaden an established tempo to savor a detail or emphasize a cadence, Jochum more often used changes of tempo to underline large-scale musical structure, at his best achieving a rare balance of subtlety and audacity.  Where many musicians think first of ‘taking time’ when they think of rubato, Jochum was an expert at moving the music forward, a skill that has nearly vanished from the podium in more recent generations. Over the course of his career, one can hear his control of tempo becoming ever more refined. By the time he recorded this, his final complete cycle, with the Dresden Staatskapelle in the 1970s, his ability to pace a large-scale accelerando is so secure that one often only senses at the arrival of a long buildup that something has been going on at all. Jochum’s Bruckner interpretations ought to be required listening for those who find Bruckner’s music to grandiose, monolithic and static. Jochum’s Bruckner is always going somewhere, full of rhythmic energy and forward motion. His approach to sound is notably less massive and organ-like than that of his contemporary and sometime rival, Herbert von Karajan. Especially inDresden, Jochum elicited brighter and more intense brass playing than many of his peers, creating a sound with more edge if possibly less stentorian power. The Dresden brass were probably still using smaller-bore brass instruments than their American and West German contemporaries, so the orchestral sound is likely closer in many ways to one Bruckner himself would have recognized.


‘He should be de-Bruckner-ized’

Veronica Jochum, pianist and daughter of Eugen Jochum


‘Today, everyone thinks of me as a specialist in Bruckner’s symphonies,’ Jochum said in a 1983 interview. ‘But I began with the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. And it is to their music that I still feel closest.’

Jochum belonged to a generation of mainstream conductors who refused to relinquish Bach to historical specialists. He himself was deeply interested in the questions of source-criticism, historical instruments and style which have proved so influential in the last thirty years, and he wrote an extensive essay on the interpretation of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the 1960s. ‘Even nearer to my heart,’ he remarked toBlyth, ‘is the B minor Mass, the most spiritual work in the repertory.’ In the busy autumn of his career in the 1970’s, he still harboured one great ambition: ‘My greatest wish is to do the B minor Mass again.’

Jochum wore his scholarship lightly, and his underlying approach to early music was highly pragmatic:  ‘I realise that there are many specialists in this field, and they know how everything should go from a stylistic point of view but some of them do not succeed in bringing the music to life; their approach is too academic. I don’t think it matters too much if you use a large or a small choir, old or new instruments; what they must be is lively and dramatic. Expression is the heart of the matter.’

Jochum’s ‘greatest wish’ was fulfilled when he recorded the B Minor Mass for EMI in 1983.  Jochum’s Bach has in many ways held up better than that of many of his near-contemporaries, such as Klemperer, whose Bach can sound painfully leaden to some modern ears. Jochum’s understanding of dance rhythm, his sense of forward motion so apparent in his Bruckner performances, and his ability to get singers to engage with the meaning   of the text, all make for gripping listening in Jochum’s Bach.

The Beethoven symphonies were central to Jochum’s repertoire, and he recorded the cycle three times: first for DG in the 1950s with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bavarian Radio Symphony, then with the Concertgebouw for Philips in the 1960’s, and finally, this set for EMI with LSO in the 1970s.

Balance seems to have been a key issue in Jochum’s Beethoven, especially as heard in his final cycle. The quirky woodwind chords which open the First Symphony are meticulously balanced, so as to make the most of the unstable harmonies and their resolutions, and as a result, what often sounds like a series of standalone events becomes a phrase. Beethoven himself seemed to welcome and perhaps even prefer larger orchestras, according to the historian Clive Brown, and Jochum’s full LSO string section would have been similar in size to the large orchestras used in the Viennese premieres of Beethoven’s Third, Fourth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth symphonies. Jochum’s achievement is to elicit incredible clarity of texture and unanimity of rhythm from such a large ensemble.  Jochum’s Beethoven sometimes lacks the same sense of propulsion and forward motion that critics often favorably commented on in his interpretations of Mozart and Haydn, but even if he doesn’t seem particularly concerned with Beethoven’s metronome markings, he is clearly aware of harmonic rhythm and phrase structure of every page, and by and large, his performances achieve a sense of momentum which belie their occasionally leisurely tempi.  As in his Bruckner, Jochum is particularly adept in making independent lines and cross rhythms come to life. Sample, for instance, the beginning of the development of the Eighth Symphony and note the way in which the arpeggios, moving in contrary motion between high and low strings, are so compellingly shaped and totally clear. Likewise, it is hard to imagine any conductor has ever captured the rhythmic and contrapuntal complexities of the finale of the ‘Eroica’ more incisively than Jochum with the LSO.


The Great Brahmsian

Jochum recorded the Brahms symphonies twice, first in mono for DG in the 1950s, and then with the London Philharmonic in the 1970s. He himself considered the 1964 sessions of Brahms’s piano concertos with Emil Gilels to be his finest recordings. Perhaps it is in Brahms that his artistic maturation is seen to greatest effect. His use of structurally underpinned tempo modification is absolutely central to his approach to this composer, and it is with Brahms that his greatly increased subtlety and mastery of tempo pays the biggest dividends. While the earlier set, for all its beauties, is occasionally let down by the odd awkward transition, ragged ensemble or in-organic accelerando, in this cycle, building on the intervening 20 years of experience and the matchless attentiveness and cohesion of London orchestral musicians at his disposal, Jochum recorded a truly great cycle of Brahms performances. From a conductor’s perspective, it is hard to think of a more technically or musically impressive performance than that of the first movement of the Fourth, in which Jochum is able to achieve complete and effortless-sounding flexibility of tempo, while making sure that all of Brahms’ intricate polyrhythms are articulated with absolute security and clarity.

Another hallmark of Jochum’s approach to Brahms is his ability to sublimate his own personality, where required, to engage with the full range of character across the individual works. The atmosphere of brooding high-tragedy Jochum elicits in the Fourth, with its huge surges and ebbs of tempo, is certainly the work of the same conductor as the similarly intense, even terrifying, performance of Bruckner’s Ninth, but miles away from the warm, unfussy and conspicuously brisk performance of Brahms’ Second, in which the long first movement unfolds with such ease and clarity of purpose.

Jochum was an artist with a huge musical personality, but what continues to impress across his vast discography is his ability to know when and how to apply the components of that personality to the repertoire at hand.  This master of rubato could stick with a lively and steady tempo to great effect in Beethoven, Bach and even Brahms, and this master of forward motion also knew when to stop and let the music breathe.  A man noted by all for his warmth and good humour, he could unleash the demons in the late Bruckner symphonies with an existential ferocity like few before or since. Surely, this is one of the marks of a conducting Icon?

c Kenneth Woods, 2012

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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