Sunday 21 August 2016

Chesterfield on Classical: Wagner's Clap

Devil’s Trill is delighted to post this guest blog by the veteran record producer and music critic Roger Chesterfield.

I sometimes wonder, what with Radio 3’s baffling disregard for the finer details of elite record collecting, who will sweat the small stuff when I’ve taken my stalls seat in the great concert hall in the sky. Reassurance is at hand in the form of the latest volume of Philip Philpott’s magisterial Matrix Numbers of the Lesser Known German Labels of the 1940s, which has, over the last few months, been a light at the end of the tunnel of interminable wet-weather walks with the dog. With bedraggled lab on the rug and my own fireside seat secured, a glass of Highland Park in my hand and the new MNLKGL40 (as it’s affectionately known) in my lap, the hours waltz by, the chimes of midnight barely registered among the close-typed dashes and digits lining some 1600 pages.

Perusing those lines dedicated to the much missed Bavarian imprint Schnappstein-Gimellphon, I happened upon the matrix numbers for the original release of Herrman Schnipelbrumpf’s 1947 hecklephone recital with pianist Wim Vomm, apparently much prized by hecklephiles. When released, Schnipelbrumpf’s recital covered some fourteen sides on 78rpm shellac record including – and here’s where it gets really fun – three sides given over entirely to applause. This is all the more curious given that the recital was entirely studio-recorded in Schnappstein-Gimellphon’s bespoke property, located deep in the mountains and powered entirely by hot air donated by patrons at the Salzburg Festival.

All this stirred some misremembered something deep within the Chesterfield brainvaults and I recalled a long discarded custom which was, at one time, encountered at Bayreuth in odd-numbered years, of giving a single clap some way into the second act of Dutchman, in tribute to a similar gesture once given by Wagner in 1880. Some wags carped that Wagner had simply been squashing a recalcitrant fly, but such was the strictness of observance of the custom among some Wagnerites that Deutsche Grammophon’s then-director, Ludwig Donkwurt, insisted the clap be included in Karl Bohm’s 1971 yellow-label traversal. Apparently, Gregory Peck was flown in from New York to do the honours and got it down in one take.

And then, with his customary lightness of touch, Philpott joined the dots which had been just out of focus to the poor old Chesterfield varifocals. It turns out that Donkwurt began his career at Schnappstein-Gimellphon (of course) and had adopted the practice of including applause at unusual moments in a variety of music. His belief in the “Wagner Clap” had resulted in a string of scholarly discoveries, including the revelation that Beethoven had insisted on applause after the exposition of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. Once at DG, Donkwurt had a special recorded-applause unit established and one Carlos Kleiber was so taken with the idea that he led nineteen rehearsals with the ensemble, before abandoning the project and declaring their clapping “too provincial”.

Happy to resist the many entreaties to “tweet” my thoughts to the Third Programme, I communicated all of this to the director of Radio 3 via e-mail, though it is with some dismay that I report the station’s most recent relay of the Kleiber 5th was accompanied by nothing of this remarkable scholarship. No doubt the Beeb’s subscription to MNLKGL40 lapsed long ago, and those fresh discoveries nestled amongst the matrix numbers will have to remain between the dog, the Highland Park, and myself.