Arthur Bloomfield’s Blazing Batons: Looking In On Robert Heger 1886-1978

A famous recording I grew up with in the 40s was the 1933 abridged Der Rosenkavalier with that manic maestro Otto Klemperer’s onetime girlfriend Elisabeth Schumann, his maybe-almost-girlfriend Lotte Lehmann and the apparently unpursued Maria Olczewska, all under the baton of Robert Heger, not exactly a household name in the annals of conducting and one that would, I’m sure, be relegated to some lower pocket by those pigeon-holers of performers according to “tiers,” first, second, and I hope no worse than that.

[Conductor Robert Heger; resized image, based on a historical photograph.]

But Robert Heger was a wonderful conductor, one of those fiery craftsmen of the pit who tend to serve more as a “first conductor” at a big-name opera house than “general music director” – and if German or Austrian spend most of their career in German-speaking countries; and don’t make as many Beethoven symphony recordings as Bruno Walter or Toscanini.

Think also of the muscular/poetical Rudolf Moralt – oh, the anguished brass and those palpitating flutes early on in his 1948 Parsifal – and there’s Arthur Rother, a great favorite of the baritone Fischer-Dieskau, or the underrated and rather Leo Blech-like Horst Stein, author of the most lyrical Richard Strauss Elektra in my experience. Or the near-phantom Heinrich Steiner, whose subtle and rather Harnoncourtian Freischuetz overture “live” from Berlin in ’36 is world class.

And there’s that candidate for frequent contempt the Met administrator/conductor Paul Breisach whose 1943 Don Giovanni of Mozart contains passages I’ve never heard better: the delicacy and pathos of the Anna-Ottavio duet early in the first act would be the opening evidence in my case for the defense.

I should also mention Bernard Haitink’s teacher Ferdinand Leitner, a g.m.d. at Stuttgart and Zurich to be sure but underrated in view of how mellifluous and undulant  a Wagnerian evening he could produce with his Karl Muck-trained baton. And how many Karajan-Solti-Bernstein groupies know the name Joseph Keilberth? The great Furtwaengler himself considered him the best of his junior colleagues because he understood the art of climax so well.

But back to the subject of this article. Just in from Hamburg in 1965, my wife and I were amazed in the little lobby of the fabled Sacher Hotel behind Vienna’s Staatsoper to see that the evening’s performance, Der Fliegende Hollander, would be conducted by none other than Prof. Robert Heger. Ah, so he wasn’t a mirage, that not-a-Walter-or-Toscanini who had conducted those gemuetlich chunks of Rosenkavalier for a cumbersome 13-disc RCA album thirty-two years before!

[Below: Conductor Robert Heger, preparing the 1933 recording of “Der Rosenkavalier” with Lotte Lehmann, Maria Olczewska, and Elizabeth Schumann.]

Alas, we had other plans for the evening (crepes, I think, at the Balkan Grill), for which I now kick myself: to have seen Heger at his impressive exercise would have been something to tell one’s grandkids.

Listening again to the ’33 Rosenkavalier after many a Straussian moon I couldn’t fail to noitice the mixture of wistfulness and sexuality in the prelude – but surely you know about the famous “orgasm” in the horns four bars after #4, whoopwhoop etc., it took the music director of the Budapest Opera to explain it to me! Then there’s the sweet-soft atmosphere as the curtain rises, with that nasty old real world held totally at bay, and Heger’s perfection of leggiero in the breakfast music.

A very Viennese performance in short, recorded in that very town, but for all its laidbackness never rhythmically sloppy.

Substantial “live” performances of Wagner led by Heger  have surfaced over the years, much to his credit. The 1943 Berlin Tristan is a darting, smoldering performance urgent to the point of what might be called controlled frantic.The scene in the first act wherein Tristan, backed by Kurvenal, tells Brangaene he’s too busy keeping the ship on course to deal with other matters (i.e.: of emotion), well, that scene comes on like an angry family drama, an energetic soap opera if you will.

Heger opens the opera with a fetching “feminine attack,” a velvety vroom of sound, trembling. There follows a twelve-and-a-half-minute prelude slow, secretive, helpless with amorous frustration, topped with a climax more rhetorical than carnal. By the way, the broadcasting studio in wartime Berlin is so lean and sensitive we can hear the rustle of music pages being turned. And when the singers come on final consonants are ceremoniously spat out in what amounts to a heaven of perfect enunciation.

The sizzle and echt-Viennese vibrance of that city’s Philharmoniker violins fairly crinkling with a sweetness just short of cloying, these make an Immolation Scene from Heger’s 1933 Goetterdaemmerung across the street from Madame Sacher’s hostelry another treasurable experience. Speaking of 30s inter-war Vienna, the Philharmonic strings may have sounded on that distant evening willowy and glamorous and devil-may-care as can be, but according to that inimitable historian Richard Cobb the city was in bad shape: “it had a sort of dusty, yellowish, run-down feeling about it.” Well, come to think of it crinkly strings and dusty baroque may go together after all …..

Strauss. Wagner. Yes of course. In fact, Heger’s Wagner with its all- there personality seems as trade markable in the twenty-first century as, say, Sir Thomas Beecham’s – I’ve just discovered Sir Thomas’ Good Friday Spell from Parsifal, so aureoled and hyper-intimate, just short of unctuous. But Heger was quite a Puccinian as well. A 1954 Vienna Radio Manon Lescaut stands out for its long and supple line, precision of articulation, and, for this is a performance as emotional as craftsmanly, its quick striking of notes plaintive as well as jolly.

The Intermezzo is milked to a turn, gracefully, its heavy regretful steps striking a bull’s-eye at our willing heart-strings.

And a postscript: Just found, the ’51 Munich Opera recording of “Tannhäuser” conducted by Heger with a characteristically blazing baton. The overture is positively visceral in its gut-kicking intensity. A springy start, then huge warmth in the cellos a couple of eight bar clauses along, a wonderful crescendo of compassion to follow, then a uniquely lengthened upbeat to “a-hem” so to speak the amen of the pilgrims’ procession.

The succeeding allegro has a feverish sensual abandon: never has this music been more aroused, absolutely kicking off its trousers without care for where they might land. In the final minutes sinful strings buzz hysterically around the hear-no-evil see-no-evil brass. The opera in a nutshell. And imagine: at the very end Heger manages the rare feat of de-abrupting Wagner’s Procrustean final cadence. Big bangs musn’t be awkward!

Now I’d like to give you another postscipt re Paul Breisach ….

Critics tended to type him as a routinier because he wasn’t a recording “star” like his colleagues Walter, Szell, Reiner, Busch, Beecham. But Astrid Varnay the great Wagnerian soprano-turned-mezzo regarded him highly. I took the trouble the other day to listen to a Met broadcast of “Tannhäuser” I hadn’t heard since I was a middle school brat checking in on Milton Cross and the gang at 39th and Broadway before hopping a San Francisco cable car to go to the Saturday afternoon movies. Breisach was in the pit and heavens, there emerged from my Norelco speakers a “Tannhäuser” conducted with infinitely more flair than the usual downgradings in the press had suggested.

Interesting in the overture how much pain I heard in the haunting cello passage at bar 17 (don’t worry, you can’t miss it), this being promptly transformed into anger as the pilgrims’ procession sounds – Tannhäuser will of course be missing from its trudging complement later in the opera, his bid for forgiveness in Rome having been unsuccessful as co-habiting with Venus, Improper Woman No. 1, is a very Big no-no. But Breisach’s vivid third act prelude shows Tannhäuser’s defiance knocked to pieces in great fanfares suggesting a papal Superego lording it totally over Tannhäuser’s roving Id.

Also among Breisach’s Met broadcasts of the 40s there’s an Aida in which he takes wrap-up-the-action ensembles in several scenes and delivers them purring along in strongly profiled, confidently relaxed tempos a bit slower than listeners might be used to. Impressive!

Alas poor Breisach, butt of many scribes, even yours truly as an under-informed junior critic. I remember seeing him one autumn day outside the stage door in San Francisco looking very natty in a gabardine suit as he waited for a taxi. Two months later he was dead in New York, aged only 56.


Please visit Arthur’s e-book on the styles of the great old conductors, at morethanthenotes dot com.