Classical Notes

And Oswald Too!

(Click here for a classical mystery)

treble clef graphicAs if the rediscovery of Hermann Abendroth weren't enough, the recent CD bounty has bestowed yet another – a conductor whose background and artistry were strikingly similar. Born in 1896, Oswald Kabasta, too, rose through the ranks of the Austro-German musical order, emerging as the head of the Munich Philharmonic where he remained throughout World War II. Oswald Kabasta But then, unfortunately, the parallels between their careers ended abruptly – accused of collaboration but unable to face the threatened ban on performing, Kabasta killed himself in February 1946 at the tender age (for a conductor) of 51. Since then, he sank into obscurity.

Through a curious event, many of us knew Kabasta's art long before we had ever heard of him. In the late 'seventies, a sensational performance emerged on LP of the Dvorak New World Symphony, boldly reconceived as deep melodrama and astounding in its drive and iconoclastic vision. At the time, it was attributed by several experts as a Furtwangler/Berlin Philharmonic concert from November 1941, and indeed it seemed to fit well with the blazing intensity of that conductor's other wartime work, fully reflecting his desperate agony in trying to preserve an oasis of German culture amid the horrors of Nazism. Along with many other devotees, I eagerly embraced the performance as not only the finest of all New Worlds but one of Furtwangler's greatest achievements. More recent research, though, disclosed the true source of the performance to have been a July 1944 broadcast by Kabasta and the Munich Philharmonic. (It's indeed odd, and perhaps highly revealing, that the Nazis, so precise in tracking grimmer matters, seem to have kept such shoddy records of their culture.)

I was astounded. If a virtual unknown could have unleashed such a staggering interpretation, what else had he done? Only recently has the answer emerged through a wonderful Dante Lys set (6 CDs priced as 4) that collects all of Kabasta's known recordings. The Swiss Relief LP misidentifying Kabasta's New World as Furtwangler's About half the seven-hour running time consists of Electrola records cut in the studio between 1939 and 1944. With few exceptions, they're rather prosaic – good, solid, respectful “German” readings with only occasional touches of inspiration – a Beethoven Coriolan Overture; a Schubert Third; a Mozart 40th; a Verdi Forza del Destino Overture; a nicely detailed and impressionistic Respighi Brasilian Impressions; two rarities – Dohnanyi's Symphonic Minutes and Theodor Berger's Die Legende von Prinzen Eugen; and a few short encores. Among the studio efforts, only a Beethoven Eighth that daringly melds the classical and rebellious sides of the composer's personality, and a Bruckner Seventh that's hugely inflected but with a fine feel for the overall structure, hint at greater things.

Beyond that stunning New World, there are four other 1943 Kabasta/Munich tapings for radio broadcast – the Schubert Fifth, Beethoven Eroica and Bruckner Fourth and Ninth Symphonies. All are magnificent and prove that the Dvorak was no fluke. The Schubert pulses with an undercurrent of dark emotion rarely heard in this light and fluffy score – the opening allegro is brisk but shadowed, the andante con moto shimmers with deceptive calm, the menuetto leaps out with sharp accents, and the final allegretto vivace hard-driven to the point of anguish. Kabasta's Eroica brilliantly reflects the tension of Beethoven's struggle to inject his boiling emotions into the conservative structural roots of the symphonic genre, teasing us with an understated and dutiful allegro con brio, a thoroughly serious and hushed funeral march and a somewhat reticent scherzo, which then explodes into a stunning finale,Lys 6 CD set of the complete recordings of Oswald Kabasta in which he creates a hugely dramatic contrast between the sections of repose and incisive vigor; it's as if Kabasta (and Beethoven) first had to trace and muster their sources and only then could open up with explosive creativity.

But the greatest find is Kabasta's Bruckner. Beyond that fine studio Seventh Symphony, we have stunning broadcasts of the Fourth and Ninth in which Kabasta brilliantly illuminates the totality of Bruckner's vision, adding his deeply personal impulse and insight while fully respecting the underlying structural design; the wondrous result is highly emotional, but thoroughly cohesive. Thus, in the Fourth, propulsive yet sensitive outer movements sandwich a resolute andante, whose calm is broken by huge dramatic thrusts that herald a breathless, sharp, fiercely-driven scherzo. For his Ninth he draws strength from the fragmentation of the materials, especially in the sprawling opening movement and a vicious, exhausting scherzo, fully reflecting the torment of its composer, who struggled over his final work for a decade as fear and illness placed its completion increasingly beyond his grasp. Indeed, the highest compliment I can possibly pay is to compare Kabasta's hyper-emotional conception to Furtwangler's own astounding 1943 performance, to which it is strikingly similar, and only marginally less inspired.

Other CD sets with some of these readings are available on Music & Arts and Tahra (and, alas, the Italian dupers), but the full scope of this amazing artist's achievement (or as much as can be inferred from his few recordings) emerges best from the full Lys set. What a shame he couldn't have held on to overcome his despair; as we now know from the Teflon experiences of Bohm, Karajan and other Axis amoralists, Kabasta's career surely would have survived post-war inquiry. As it is, we can only infer from the gleanings of the little he left us the glorious concerts and recordings he would have bestowed over the decades to come.

But enough regrets. Let the CD revolution proceed! It's such a great time to be collecting classical recordings. What fabulous bounty still awaits us?

Speaking of discoveries, here's another that's also an intriguing mystery. Dante has released a two-CD set of "L'Art d'Ernest Borsamsky" (Lys 429-430) containing 1947-1949 broadcasts with the Berlin and Leipzig radio orchestras of the Mahler Symphony # 1, the Shostakovich Symphony # 5, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite and Debussy's La Mer.L'Art de Ernest Borsamsky - or whom? Although the Shostakovich has careless playing and overloaded sound, all four readings are beautifully conceived, full-blooded and soulful, spontaneously flowing between subtle mysticism and surging power. The Mahler is especially magnificent and ranks among its very finest recordings.

But who was this guy? There's no listing for "Borsamsky" at all in any of the standard references, not even in the 1954 edition of the definitive Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians nor the equally massive and comprehensive 1952 German compendium, Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Internet searches turn up empty as well. Surely no amateur would have gotten to conduct these prestigious orchestras, nor could have produced such impressive results. Was "Borsamsky" a pseudonym for a famous artist, perhaps evading a contract dispute or, given the time and place, hiding from wartime notoriety? The geographic and stylistic clues (especially the bold, jagged tempo changes) suggest Abendroth, but he performed openly throughout this period. Presumably, orchestral archives or some retired musician of the time could elucidate, but the CD liner notes willingly consign the matter to lasting mystery.

So who was Ernest Borsamsky? Any ideas?

2004 Update: Michigan reader John Coughlin directed my attention to a letter that appeared in the Spring 2001 Classical Record Collector, whose publisher kindly made it available. An Austrian researcher had written that Borsamsky indeed existed – he was concertmaster of an orchestra in the Balkans and was invited to Leipzig by Abendroth, who had met him while on tour. Borsamsky conducted throughout Germany, including Berlin, Cologne and Frankfurt, and for a time was based in Brussels. He specialized in French and Russian repertoire as well as modern Belgian and Polish music and garnered glowing reviews for "his sense of color, attention to detail and vital, energetic direction." However, even in this account some mystery remains – the researcher reported that he could find no further evidence of Borsamsky's existence after the early 1950s.

2015 Further Update: Ernst Lumpe kindly drew my attention to the following in a Luxembourg Wikipedia article about the conductor Henri Pensis:

During Pensis' tenure with the Luxembourg Orchestra the first violin chair was occupied by Ern(e)st Eichel, a Polish violinist who was born in Sambor (Galicia) and had studied in Vienna and Cologne. This violinist who also led occasionally the Luxembourg Orchestra tried after the war to make a career as a conductor. For that purpose Eichel chose the 'nom de plume' of Ernest Borsamsky. Under this pseudonym, created by inverting the syllables of his birth town and adding a Polish "sky," he made some highly collectable recordings for East German Radio in Berlin and Leipzig. He also conducted once the Berlin Philharmonic in 1949. In 1956 his name can be traced last when he conducted the Dresden Orchestra.
The article apparently was posted in 2008 but the editors caution that it does not cite any references or sources and thus might not be reliable. So whether this solves or only deepens the mystery remains a mystery itself.

Copyright 2000, 2004 and 2015 by Peter Gutmann

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