Suitner@100: The (Truly) Legendary Recordings

Otmar Suitner: Legendary Recordings

  • Otmar Suitner (conductor); Staatskapelle Dresden
  • Recorded 1961-1976
  • Edel 0002612CCC (10CDs)

The Austrian conductor Otmar Suitner (1922-2011) turned 100 this week, which gave me the perfect opportunity to look back at his very prolific legacy, much of which has languished into oblivion. A conductor who spent most of his career behind the Iron Curtain, those who knew of him remembered him for his lengthy, but artistically not particularly groundbreaking, tenure with the Staatskapelle Berlin between 1964 and 1990, during which he churned out mostly mediocre recordings of the German classics, and which gave him a reputation of being yet another stodgy Kapellmeister. Certainly, his case wasn’t helped by the fact that the orchestra was never the last word in power, virtuosity, or polish. Indeed, most of his Berlin legacy was pretty forgettable, despite the occasional flash in the pan (his Dvorak cycle, still one of the best out there, and some Bruckner).

However, between 1960 and 1964 Suitner was associated with another East German orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden, and it was with this orchestra that Suitner produced his very best recordings, most of which are contained in this handy box issued to commemorate his 80th anniversary. It helps immensely that Suitner has one of the world’s greatest orchestras at his disposal. The Staatskapelle Dresden really has it all: a perfect marriage between textural transparency and a tonal “Midas touch” that coats everything they play with a burnished, golden sheen, all supported by execution of effortless virtuosity and unanimity that few orchestras during this period could match. But beyond that, a quick glance at the repertoire in this box shows how much more inventive and daring Suitner’s repertoire choices were with this orchestra. You would hardly imagine repertoire like Bizet, Mahler, and Stravinsky to be played, let alone recorded, in East Germany during this period, and yet here they all are.

None of the recordings here are less than very good, and several of them are simply the best available. The Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphoses have rarely been performed with such pizzazz in the outer movements (tracks 107 and 110 of the Spotify playlist), nor with such insouciant jazziness in the brass fugue in the “Turandot” scherzo (track 108). There may have been heftier performances of the work, but none come so close in capturing the rhythmic vitality and sheer fun(!) of the music. This rhythmic sharpness likewise informs their Rite of Spring (tracks 113-114), which is astonishingly precise yet utterly pellucid even in the music’s most densely-scored passages — a truly balletic performance of classical music’s most groundbreaking ballet. (Comparison with the contemporaneous recording by Karajan leading the sloppy Berlin Philharmonic is instructive.) At the other end of the spectrum, his Mozart (tracks 1-70) is the last word in artless elegance, while his J. Strauss (tracks 82-88) and von Suppé (tracks 89-94) items are invested with a healthy dollop of echt-Viennese schmaltz, aside from exhibiting wonderful vivacity and stylishness.

The touchstone performance for me is Bizet’s precocious Symphony in C (tracks 71-74). Suitner’s conducting of the work reveals his deep understanding of the classical style to which Bizet pays homage. As a case in point, his pacing of the work is absolutely perfect. Too many performances take the first movement almost as quickly as the last, allowing for little contrast between the two movements (this peeve of mine also applies to another classically-inspired symphony with a quick-fire finale: Prokofiev’s 1st). By adopting a more deliberate pace for the first movement, Suitner wisely keeps some energy in reserve which he unleashes in the dashing, take-no-prisoners finale, which the Dresden string players execute with the utmost effortlessness and joie de vivre. This is the sort of intelligent long-term structural planning that evidences the great musical mind at the helm. But this is not to say that Suitner’s first movement is at all stodgy or lacking in momentum. Au contraire: he uses this extra time to let the rhythms really register and the melodies breathe and sing. And boy do the Dresdeners sing, particularly in the second movement which sports an achingly poignant oboe solo. I have no hesitation regarding this as my go-to performance of the Bizet Symphony, above the great recordings by Martinon, Haitink, Ozawa and Yamada to name just a few.

In sum, this box showcases the artistry of both Otmar Suitner and the Staatskapelle Dresden in the best possible light, as well as their fascinatingly synergistic, if brief, relationship. The engineering by Deutsche Schallplatten is uniformly excellent and flattering to the orchestra, which is more than can be said for many of their recordings with the Staatskapelle Berlin. A desert island box set if ever there was one — certainly I can think of no better way to celebrate Suitner’s centenary.


A 10-CD smorgasbord of gems, to be cherished as much for Suitner’s deeply musical interpretations as for the Staatskapelle Dresden’s splendid execution. An absolutely indispensable collection, and a wonderful representation of Suitner’s distinguished legacy.

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