Essay- Rosbaud conducts Mahler

I’ve just turned in program notes for an upcoming CD in ICA Classics commemorating the 50th anniversary of the passing of Hans Rosbaud, one of the most interesting of 20th C conductors. That disc of works by Sibelius and Debussy is due out in the early Fall, and is rather special.

The first installment in the series was Rosbaud’s recording of Mahler 5 with the Cologne Radio Symphony. I thought Vftp readers might enjoy reading my essay here, and hopefully some of you will be inspired to check out the disc. It’s quite a document. Reviews available from ClassicalSource, Audiophile Audition and MusicWeb.



‘Music buffs believe that the greatest living conductor is Toscanini; musicians know that it is Hans Rosbaud.’ 

Francis Poulenc, 1954


A native of Graz, Hans Rosbaud (1895–1962) emerged from early studies with his mother and training at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt to become one of the most influential conductors of his generation. Rosbaud’s imprint on the music world may seem to have contracted since his death fifty years ago, but only until one considers the huge body of music he brought into the repertoire, his advocacy of Mahler’s works after the Second World War, and his importance as a role model for a younger generation of interpreters such as Pierre Boulez, Michael Gielen and Bruno Maderna. Boulez himself described Rosbaud as a ‘model’ of what a conductor should be: a ‘very great conductor’ who was ‘not specialised’, but was ‘very involved in contemporary music’.

It was in the emerging world of the radio orchestra that Rosbaud would spend the bulk of his career and have the greatest impact. In 1929, he was appointed as chief conductor at Radio Frankfurt. Rosbaud was one of the first conductors to fully appreciate the opportunity the new medium offered for introducing unfamiliar music to a broad audience under near-ideal rehearsal conditions, and the list of first performances from his Frankfurt years includes several works that have since become staples of the repertoire: Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.2, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Hindemith’s Concert Music for Brass and Strings and Schoenberg’s Variations op.31.

Rosbaud was one of the few Austro-German conductors of his generation to remain untainted by affiliation with the Nazis, and tensions with them led to his departure from Frankfurt in 1937 and a period out of the spotlight in Münster and Strassburg. In the aftermath of the War, Rosbaud returned to the world of the radio orchestra in which he felt most at home, first in Munich, and then from 1948 until his death at the South West German Radio Orchestra, Baden-Baden, which Rosbaud built into one of the finest orchestras in Germany (and which was, as this disc went to press, being shut down by the German government). Other highlights of his post-War career included his affiliation with the Donaueschingen Festival, where he became a champion of the post-War modernist school of composers led by Boulez and Stockhausen, and long partnerships with the Tonhalle Orchestra and the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Perhaps his most legendary achievement was conducting the premiere of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron on just eight days’ notice in 1954.

Like Boulez, Rosbaud seems to have seen Gustav Mahler as perhaps the key figure in the birth of twentieth-century music, rather than as the last of the Romantics. While the extent of the neglect of Mahler’s works in the years after his death in 1911 has often been overstated, his music did fall into obscurity in Germany after the Nazis banned performances of his ‘Entartete Musik’ (degenerate music) in the 1930s. Rosbaud understood that the more generous rehearsal conditions of the radio orchestras were ideal for restoring Mahler’s complex and demanding scores to the repertoire.

Rosbaud’s extremely undemonstrative podium presence (even as famously low-key a conductor as Bernard Haitink said of Rosbaud that ‘as he approached the podium you thought, surely that can’t be the conductor’) might have seemed an unlikely fit with Mahler’s volatile musical language, especially in a work like the Fifth Symphony, which ranges from the extremes of violent histrionics to moments of great intimacy and tenderness. But on this occasion in 1952, working with one of his favourite orchestras, the KRSO (Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, now the WDR Symphony Orchestra), Rosbaud manages to elicit a performance of great stylistic sensitivity from an orchestra which could not have had a very strong Mahlerian tradition at the time. Long before Mahlerians began arguing over the correctness of extremely fleet or languorous tempi in the Adagietto, Rosbaud’s reading here seems the very epitome of an innately musical balance of emotional engagement and common sense, with an effortless ebb and flow of tempi and a welcome lack of point-making. On the other extreme, in the outer movements, this most soft-spoken of maestri (in Chicago, where he became a regular guest conductor from 1959 until his death, the musicians were known to have had to pass his comments to the back of the section as his speaking voice was only audible to the front desks) unleashes brass-playing of striking stentorian power.

Rosbaud’s beloved radio orchestras may have been the perfect medium for bringing Mahler’s music, and that of so many essential twentieth-century masters, back into the repertoire after the War, but it is a pity that his devotion to the live broadcast seems to have left us with a small and sometimes uneven recorded legacy, where in many cases modern listeners find frustration with less-than ideal radio sound, or occasional slips in orchestral accuracy. And yet a document like this Mahler 5 reveals, far more meaningfully than any meticulously edited studio recording could, a great conductor at the height of his powers bringing important and hugely challenging music to life solely through a profound knowledge of and engagement with the musical text, without the safety net of an orchestra who know the work through other recordings or past performances. Surely Boulez was right to hail Rosbaud, in this respect as in others, as a ‘model’.

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at

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3 comments on “Essay- Rosbaud conducts Mahler”

  1. Michael Sturgulewski

    I’ve been an admirer of Rosbaud since I was a teenager when the local pre-PBS channel would often broadcast concerts in which he would regularly appear.

    I just picked up the Bag of Rags transfer of his Moses und Aron from Berkshire which I had years ago in college, but I didn’t know it was the product of only eight days of preparation. In many respects, it still ranks as the best available. I think only Kegel’s recording is a clear rival.

    His DGG recording of a potpourri of Sibelius’ symphonic works is a revelation. His Tapiola is easily the best interpreted performance of this great work I’ve ever heard.

  2. Michael Sturgulewski

    One more thing…I recently acquired an RAI Meistersinger on the Walhall label from Milan with Rosbaud conducting and with the exception of the Pogner, the same cast as on the 1951 Karajan Bayreuth recording.

    The lead singers all sound better, it’s note complete, the secondary Masters and chorus sing their ensembles with level of vocal beauty than I have rarely encountered, the sound quality and balance is more than admirable, but the real star is Rosbaud.

    Point after interpretative point is made with unbelievable regularity. The all important violin lines which are normally buried by brass come through well articulated and singing tone. (The string precision is very similar to the well articulated string playing in the Furtwangler RAI Ring.)

    Despite the TRULY excellent Meistersinger conductors I’ve heard over the years (Knappertsbusch, Kubelik, von Matacic, Sawallisch, Kempe (all on recordings), and Leitner [live in Chicago], Keenan [live in Cincinnati]…) I believe Rosbaud leads the pack.

  3. Kai Diaz Philipp

    I just want to mention that there also exist a wonderful clear-headed studio recording for the radio of Mahler’s 7th. Hans Rosbaud conducts “his” South-West-Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1957.
    It was and possibly still is available on WERGO, WER 6406-2/286 406-2 as part of their Hans Rosbaud Edition.

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