Josef Krips in concert with the Concertgebouworkest

Words by Niek Nelissen
(Translation: Margaret Koford)

As a recording artist, the Viennese conductor Josef Krips (1902–1974) lived through the most significant technological developments in the music industry. His first recordings were released on 78rpm records, which could only hold about four minutes of music per side. From 1950 onwards music was recorded on tape and released on long-playing records. From 1947 to 1954 Krips made mono recordings for Decca in both formats. A new phase began around 1954 with stereo technology, which Decca was one of the first record companies to launch.

In May and June 1955 Decca planned a large-scale stereo project with the Vienna Philharmonic based around four Mozart operas. In May, Karl Böhm recorded Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte in the Redoutensaal in Vienna. From 6–21 June Krips appeared in that hall for a recording of Don Giovanni, followed by Erich Kleiber for Le nozze di Figaro. Mozart’s three operas with Italian libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte were also recorded by Philips in Vienna in 1955 and 1956. Three of the Decca soloists as well as Böhm even took part in both projects. However, in the Vienna Philharmonic Decca had a better orchestra at its disposal than the Vienna Symphony Orchestra hired by Philips. In addition, Philips was still making mono recordings, whereas Decca was releasing these operas in stereo for the first time.

In his autobiography, producer Victor Olof remembered his relief when the first two operas with Karl Böhm were ‘in the can’ and Krips appeared on the conductor’s stand for Don Giovanni: ‘The atmosphere changed when Josef Krips took over with Don Giovanni. His sympathetic approach and deep understanding of the vocal problems of the artists, coupled with his unbounded enthusiasm and love of Mozart, inspired artists and orchestra alike, and even today it is considered an outstanding version of the opera.’

Krips was an obvious choice for Don Giovanni, given his successful European tours with this opera, including a visit to London in 1947. Just as with the other operas, the soloists were chosen from the Vienna Mozart Ensemble, with the addition of Suzanne Danco as Donna Anna. Danco had been asked by producer Victor Olof on very short notice to replace the contracted singer who was unable to perform. In his autobiography Olof wrote: ‘At her first session, Danco, who was hardly known in Austria, magnificently recorded both her main arias and one of the difficult ensembles with complete ease and she left all who were present in no doubt that she was a Mozart exponent of the first rank. It was a remarkable feat and she was warmly applauded by her colleagues and the orchestra; all were quite astonished that a Belgium-born artist could sing Mozart so perfectly and fit in with the Viennese ensemble with such apparent ease.’

The title role in Don Giovanni was sung by Cesare Siepi, who had made a name as Don Giovanni upon his debut in Salzburg under Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1953. He also appears in the video recording released by Deutsche Grammophon of a performance under Furtwängler a year later. Two soloists had previously worked in Krips’s Don Giovanni production in Salzburg in 1946: Anton Dermota (Don Ottavio) and Hilde Gueden (Zerlina). The recording was highly praised. The Viennese violinist and conductor Walter Weller, who learned a lot from Krips, said it was his favourite recording. The 1988 Diapason guide gave this box set three stars and a rosette and called the performance ‘a great lesson in pure music’.

As an opera conductor Krips had a broad repertoire. Between 1933 and 1973 he led over 90 opera productions with the Wiener Staatsoper, ranging from Mozart and Verdi to Puccini and Richard Strauss. Nevertheless, his discography includes only two complete operas, both by Mozart. He did record the final scene of Strauss’s Salome with Inge Borkh, who also sang Beethoven’s dramatic Ah! perfido! and an aria from Weber’s Oberon under him. The recording, made in both mono and stereo (the tapes are marked ‘Binaural’ – a precursor of stereo), was only issued on stereo LP in the USA, and this is the first stereo release on Decca CD of the closing scene from Salome.

But apparently Decca needed Krips more for Viennese orchestral repertoire. In 1956 and 1957 he revisited the waltz repertoire by Johann Strauss II. This was music with which both he and the Vienna Philharmonic had a lot of affinity. The same was true of Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 94 and 99, although the latter was not so well known in Vienna. Krips told The Gramophone (July 1958) that prior to the recording in 1957 the orchestra had never even played this symphony before. This was actually not true, because the first – indeed very late – performance had taken place in 1951 under Clemens Krauss.

Brahms’s First Symphony, recorded in 1956, is typical of the repertoire that Decca assigned to Krips. As was often the case in those days, in the first movement he opted not to repeat the exposition. Again he was at his best in the lyrical passages, for instance in the Andante. Six years later he was to make a second recording with the Vienna Symphony for the budget label Concert Hall. In that recording the opening movement sounds much slower and heavier. Neither the orchestra’s playing nor the recording quality can compare with the Decca recording. The Decca LP was praised in The Gramophone (July 1957): ‘Krips takes a smooth overall view of the symphony, rewarding indeed in the more relaxed inner movements, slightly less so in some passages in the outer movements.’ The orchestra was deemed to be ‘first-class’ and the recording ‘very good’.

When Decca released a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony under Krips two years later, also with the Vienna Philharmonic, one critic expressed surprise at the choice of these musicians for this repertoire. He probably did not know that they had developed special ties with Russian music in the postwar years, when the Soviet Union was one of the occupying powers of Vienna. At the request of the Russians, Krips conducted a lot of Russian music during that period. In 1947 he was invited to Moscow, among other things to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. In his memoirs, posthumously compiled from various texts by his widow Harrietta, Krips writes that his visit to Tchaikovsky’s house was the highlight of that trip: ‘I held Tchaikovsky’s sketchbooks and manuscripts in my hands and was deeply moved by seeing them. It was only thanks to this visit that I began to develop a true feeling for Tchaikovsky.’ Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony was also on the program at Krips’s high-profile concert debut with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in December 1948. The Times described that performance as a ‘perfect blend of delicacy and ardour’. In the Decca recording the beauty of the middle movements is again striking: the lyrically played Andante, with a typically Viennese horn solo, and the waltz in the third movement which this orchestra could play like no other.

Krips’s years as chief conductor of the LSO (1950–54) were in the mono era. The many records from that time were to be followed by two stereo LPs with the LSO. In 1956 the stereo remake of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony with the LSO was produced, now coupled with his First Symphony. Trevor Harvey compared the Schumann LP with more recent recordings by George Szell and Rafael Kubelík in The Gramophone (October 1963): ‘I think that the Krips record is still the best. In these works he never seems to put a foot wrong and I have the feeling that he is completely at one with the music; he never wants to pull it about, he lets it play itself and just guides it and phrases it with most loving care.’ He concluded: ‘I enjoyed hearing both Szell and Kubelik in these symphonies, but found I had reservations about this or that, where with Krips I have none.’

After the successful recording in 1952 of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, in 1958 Decca made a stereo version with the LSO. In those six years Krips’s conception of the work had evidently not changed much. Again he opted not to repeat the exposition of the first movement. In the coda of that movement he slowed down again, the action that had cost him his second star in The Record Guide of 1955, though this time it was a little less pronounced. The Penguin Guide to Bargain Compact Discs (1992) even calls this Krips’s best recording: ‘The performance has a direct, unforced spontaneity which shows Krips’s natural feeling for Schubertian lyricism at its most engaging. The playing is polished yet flexible, strong without ever sounding aggressive.’ The conclusion was: ‘As a whole this reading represents the Viennese tradition at its finest.’

Recorded in the same May 1958 sessions was Weber’s overture to Oberon. Tapes were recently located and the recording is published for the first time as part of this anthology. In July the following year, Krips and the LSO returned to Kingsway Hall, pairing up with Arthur Rubinstein for a recording of three Mozart piano concertos: Nos, 17, 20 and 23. According to producer, John Culshaw, in Putting the Record Straight, the pianist insisted on an over-prominent balance and the results were unpublishable. No tapes of the sessions exist.

Only one of all the records in this collection was made outside Europe, namely the one with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In April 1957 Krips made his debut with this young orchestra. He would return often and lead the orchestra on tours of the USA and Europe. Shortly before his debut the orchestra had started to make records for Decca. It was difficult to find a suitable recording venue. Eventually Decca hired a cinema in Rishon LeZion, twelve kilometres south of Tel Aviv. The owner agreed to the invasion of musicians and technicians on condition that the hall would be vacated twice a week for the feature film The Guns of Navarone. Georg Solti and Rafael Kubelík made the first Decca recordings there in March 1957. A month later Krips recorded Mozart’s 35th and 41st symphonies. The recording makes it clear that the string players of the Israeli orchestra in particular could compete with those of the better European orchestras.

Between 1958 and 1969 Krips made records for Everest, Concert Hall and EMI, but not for Decca. After more than ten years, Krips returned to the Sofiensaal once more in 1969 for a Decca recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Schubert’s Unfinished. Unlike in his 1950 recording with the LSO, this time he did observe the repeat of the first movement exposition. He also chose slower tempi, which resulted in a playing time of 27 minutes, compared with just over 22 in the mono version. The symphony, played with a great deal of grandeur, only filled one side of the record. It is not clear why Decca did not have Krips make the other side, opting instead for a curious pairing with Gottfried von Einem’s Philadelphia Symphony under Zubin Mehta. For the subsequent LP re-release (SXL 6549) a more suitable combination was found: Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony under Claudio Abbado.

An important recording from Krips’s Vienna output has been added to this set. From the very start of his career Krips was an ardent advocate of Gustav Mahler. Strangely enough his efforts for Mahler’s music, which earned him the golden medal of the Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft in 1974, are not reflected in his studio legacy. Already as a boy Krips heard stories about Mahler from his father, a Viennese medical doctor with a passion for music, who had sung under him in a chorus. In 1911 Mahler’s funeral procession made quite an impression on the nine-year-old Josef. After having been appointed in Karlsruhe in 1928, he often programmed works of Mahler there, notably Das Lied von der Erde. In his memoirs Krips calls this work ‘one of the most important compositions ever written’. He would conduct it many times throughout Europe and the United States. Especially dear to Krips was a performance in 1952 with the LSO and alto Kathleen Ferrier, who already was terminally ill at that time, which made her performance of the final movement (‘Der Abschied’) even more poignant.

Only a very limited number of live recordings fill the Mahler gap in Krips’s discography. The most valuable of these is this recording of Das Lied von der Erde, made in June 1964 in Vienna with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. For this occasion Krips opted for a baritone instead of an alto, a choice offered by the composer. The soloists were two of the most distinguished singers of the time: Fritz Wunderlich (tenor) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone). Two months earlier Wunderlich and Fischer-Dieskau had sung this work in Bamberg under the baton of Joseph Keilberth, but their performance with Krips is of a much higher quality and intensity. Fischer-Dieskau recalled that ‘Krips was able to breathe with his singers in the most natural way imaginable’.

Almost half a century later, DG presented this live recording from the Musikverein on CD. Rob Cowan qualified it in Gramophone (February 2023) as ‘one of the conductor’s most urgent recorded interpretations’. It was a comment that mirrored Karl Löbl’s review of the 1964 concert in Der Express: ‘Not since the unforgettable performance under Bruno Walter have I heard as moving and stylistically authentic an interpretation of this vocal symphony as under Krips, who has a genuine, candid relationship with this deeply felt and poetic music and who, structurally speaking, was able to shape the work with incredible subtlety. Löbl concluded ‘The public sensed it had experienced something artistically extraordinary.’

In January 1972, after an eighteen-year absence, Krips returned to the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Artistic director Marius Flothuis expressed his surprise in the magazine Preludium (December 1974) that Krips could still remember the names of all the principals who had played under him in 1954. Shortly after Krips’s return to Amsterdam his most ambitious record project started there: recording Mozart’s last twenty symphonies for Philips. This project was close to the heart of musicologist and Mozart specialist Flothuis. He was happy that Krips was open to new insights: ‘It is typical of Krips that he was immediately willing to use the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe, in which many errors in the older editions have been corrected’. Krips wrote in his memoirs that this project had become a true journey of discovery for him: ‘About half of the symphonies were new to me and what surprises there were: everything you love so much in Mozart is already there in Symphony No. 21, not only his inventive genius, but also the brilliant instrumentation. Or take the three-movement C major symphony K. 338 – what a source of beauty.’ A few symphonies were also new to the orchestra: symphonies 23, 24, 27 and 30 were played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra for the first time during these Philips recording sessions.

Josef Krips recording Mozart symphonies with the Concertgebouworkest, June 1973

This project entailed recording almost seven hours of music. From June 1972 to September 1973 six recording periods were scheduled, with a total of 35 recording sessions of three hours each. Philips took into account possible future releases on records using its quadrophonic technology, which provided a surround effect through four channels. In fact quadrophonic sound did not turn out to be a commercial success. The recording producer was Volker Straus, who produced most of the Philips recordings in the Concertgebouw after the death of Jaap van Ginneken in 1970. For repertoire requiring large orchestral forces, the orchestra was set up in the middle of the emptied hall. Krips opted for an orchestra with 40 string players and without doubling the wind parts, so that the orchestra could remain on the stage.

Krips and Straus needed time to get used to each other. At one of the first recordings Straus complained that the wind players sounded too soft. Krips invited Straus to the stage, to establish that this was not the case. Straus left it at that, probably partly because he thought that he could still mix the ideal orchestral balance himself later in the editing process. Initially Krips wanted to listen to every take. In an interview with Philips’s marketing manager Leo Boudewijns, Straus said: ‘I thought, that’s impossible, we don’t have enough time for that. But he soon stopped coming to listen. He said, “You can hear that much better than me.” I had to beg and beseech him to at least listen to the test recordings, because I did need to know what he wanted.’ But by that time Krips had acquired blind faith in Straus. According to him better collaboration was unimaginable.

Philips had already recorded the best-known symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra – in the 1950s with Eduard van Beinum and Karl Böhm and in the 1960s with Eugen Jochum and George Szell, all four prominent Mozart interpreters. The recording of symphony No. 34 (K. 338) under Szell had only been done seven years previously when Krips first conducted this work. To gain an impression of how the Concertgebouw Orchestra played it, he may have listened to Szell’s recording from 1966. As is often the case with Szell, the outer movements have a lot of drive. The Finale is played remarkably fast and the middle movement very slowly. In an interview with music journalist Lex van Delden for the newspaper Het Parool, Krips said: ‘I don’t want to claim that my tempi are the be-all and end-all, but I do think that the slow movements are usually taken too slowly and the fast movements too fast. To make music that breathes, I choose tempi in which all the details can be heard.’

Krips’s interpretation of K. 338 is very different from Szell’s. The first movement has a rounder sound, the middle movement is quicker and the Finale sounds more amiable. The flowing lines, a Krips hallmark in this symphony, are also characteristic of the other nineteen. Unlike in his earlier recordings, in the last two symphonies Krips chose to repeat the exposition, a practice which had in fact become more common. He also chose slower tempi. The playing time of each of these two works is five minutes longer than in his older recordings. In the Finale of the Jupiter symphony he stood by his choice not to do either repeat.

Krips thought the orchestra was perfect for this repertoire: ‘The Concertgebouw Orchestra, which always used to be a “heavy” orchestra with a dark sound, now sounds light and supple, which makes it the ideal ensemble for the Mozart interpretation I want.’ Krips was clearly enjoying this project. Van Delden attended a Mozart rehearsal and saw that Krips’s face could ‘beam with delight’. Krips thought the music had to sing. In a rehearsal fragment of the minuet from KV 319, in which he calls this movement a ‘merry peasant dance’, he highlights this by singing along loudly. When he is satisfied, he calls out ‘Wunderbar!’ (The rehearsal sequence for the first three movements was published posthumously by Philips in 1978, as part of a 5-LP set, also containing nine of the symphonies.)

Recalling another Mozartian occasion, a performance of Così fan tutte under Krips, the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf commented ‘When he beamed at us from the podium, such a sun came out that it was a real joy to sing!’ Krips was not, however, always satisfied. Boudewijns writes in one of his books that the orchestra was afraid of Krips’s perfectionism. This was shown by an incident during a rehearsal of Mozart’s 40th symphony: ‘During the conclusion of the symphony Krips was not getting the ominous sound he thought Wolfgang Amadeus must have intended and he called out to the musicians: “It has to express fear, gentlemen, fear has to be expressed!” At which point a young musician at the back of the orchestra mumbled, just loud enough: “We’re already feeling that!”’

The eight Mozart LPs proved to be a great success. Richard Freed wrote about three of them in Stereo Review (July 1977): ‘No superlatives would be excessive for them; they are an enhancement of the Mozart discography as well as of Krips’s own, and would have been sufficient by themselves to identify the conductor as one of the truly great practitioners of his art’. He thought symphonies 39 and 40 were ‘aristocratic but not austere, expressive without excesses, the majestic mellowness of the E-flat and the angelic pathos of the G minor making themselves felt in the most direct and thoroughly musical manner without any awareness of an “interpreter” being thrust upon us’. Freed knew other good performances, ‘but none that are, overall, more satisfying than these’. The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was also enthusiastic, as evidenced by a quote in Krips’s memoirs: ‘I don’t believe that the recordings of the symphonies he made with the Concertgebouw Orchestra will ever really be outdated. They are simply enchanting. In my opinion Krips is the most underrated conductor of his generation.’

Krips was to return to the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1974, but had to cancel because of illness. He was suffering from lung cancer, from which he would not recover. He still managed to receive the eight separate Mozart LPs from Amsterdam. One week before his death on 13 October 1974 he received a visit at the hospital in Geneva from fellow-conductor Zubin Mehta. In his room was a record player, on which Krips played the record with Symphony No. 34 for Mehta. Mehta would always remember how Krips enthusiastically conducted along with it. In 1976 Mehta recorded this symphony himself with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which was so dear to Krips. That year the Philips box set ‘Mozart – The Mature Symphonies’ was released, with all eight LPs together. After a matinee performance of the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bernard Haitink on 3 October 1976, the box set was presented to Krips’s widow Harrietta. Out of gratitude for what this orchestra had meant to her husband, that afternoon she gifted a bronze cast of his death mask. It was given a place in the Concertgebouw in memory of one of the great Mozart interpreters of the twentieth century.

Both volumes of the JOSEF KRIPS EDITION are now available.