Critical evaluations of near-legendary German conductor Hermann Abendroth are all over the map: some say that were it not for Wilhelm Furtwängler we would be elevating Abendroth to that same exalted status, others that he was "by no means a star conductor." This discord of perspective relating to Abendroth has not prevented European reissue labels from fueling the flame at his bier; the Tahra label has devoted about 10 discs to his legacy, and the now-defunct Italian Arlecchino label once flooded the classical market with some 19 Abendroth issues. Although Abendroth began his recording career in 1927, the vast majority of these releases date from the immediate postwar period when the septuagenarian Abendroth was leading three East German orchestras -- the Weimar Staatskapelle, the Leipzig Radio Symphony, and the Berlin Radio Symphony. The last two of these bands were taping furiously as Abendroth headed into the twilight -- he died in 1956. Berlin Classics, the heir to East German classical record companies, perhaps had this in mind when compiling its seven-disc box set Hermann Abendroth: Die letzten Symphonien (The Last Symphonies). These are not, however, the "last symphony" performances of Abendroth -- chronologically the selection ranges from 1949 to 1954 -- but they are the "last symphonies" of the standard rep composers listed on the front cover. Therefore, we get Schubert's Eighth and Ninth symphonies, Beethoven's Ninth, Bruckner's Ninth, and so on. What a novel idea!
Berlin Classics presumably has direct access to the original archival radio tapes, so chances are the sound quality is not going to get better than it is here. "Unpretentious" is the adjective that annotator Mike Stöve uses to summarize Abendroth's approach. "Classicistic" might not be a bad additional qualification, and Abendroth's Mozart is quite good. His handling of the others, while not faceless, is not particularly enthralling either. The general impression one gets is of decent symphonic performances in inferior sound, and in the case of Beethoven's Ninth and Schubert's Eighth, the sound is inferior indeed, though sometimes dressed up in a timid reverb to hide how distorted the source recording is. Included is a nice 1951 recording of Paul Tortelier in the Schumann A minor Cello Concerto, yet a slightly nicer one featuring Tortelier with Antal Dorati and the BBC Philharmonic from 1962 has come to light since then.
Admittedly, Berlin Classics isn't asking much for this set -- back in the 1990s each one of these discs was only available individually; being able to obtain all seven in this box at the list price is like getting two of them for free. That said, it is hard to imagine anyone needing Hermann Abendroth: Die letzten Symphonien save the conductor's hardcore constituency, particularly if any of them own some of these recordings only in their sub par Arlecchino incarnations and are looking to upgrade. One footnote in the liner notes deserves repeating -- "An important aspect of Abendroth's life has been deliberately omitted, namely his relationship to the state and to politics, because the brevity of the text would have raised the risk of giving over-simplified answers to complex questions." What a pity! It appears that Wilhelm Furtwängler's reputation is safe after all.