Oskar Sala plays Genzmer's Trautonium Concerto No. 1

Unfathomable virtuosity from the dawn of electronic music: Movement III of Harald Genzmer's Concerto for Trautonium and Orchestra (1940), performed Oskar Sala (1910-2002) with the Städtisches Orchester Berlin, conducted Helmuth Thierfelder, recorded in Berlin 30th November 1942.

The Trautonium was an early ribbon-controlled electronic instrument, invented by Friedrich Trautwein in 1930. The earliest version of the instrument resembled a small keyboard, with a single metal wire and a number of flexible helper keys to act as a kind of fretboard. The player selected notes by pushing against the metal wire, sliding to produce glissando.

Discovered by Paul Hindemith and his students Oskar Sala and Harald Genzmer, the device was soon being marketed to the public in Nazi Germany as a household instrument that anyone could use to play their favourite melodies. Needless to say, the production run was a total disaster: barely ten of these "Volkstrautonium" instruments survive, apparently close to the number which Trautwein & Co managed to sell. With no physical keys, even playing a simple scale required considerable effort (if anyone's played an Otamatone or ribbon controller with upper note priority, the principle is the same). But, virtuoso pianist Oskar Sala became enthralled by the instrument and, having used his skills as a physicist and inventor to enhance the instrument, was the dedicant of a number of extraordinary classical compositions in the 30s and 40s, mostly by Harald Genzmer (1909-2007), celebrated German composer (briefly counted among a list of “divinely-inspired” composers by Hitler and Goebbels… make of that what you will).

Oskar Sala at his Trautonium (1970); tjhe instrument used in the recording was the earlier Konzerttrautonium.

Oskar Sala at his Trautonium (1970); tjhe instrument used in the recording was the earlier Konzerttrautonium.

Quite aside from being made in Germany at the height of WW2, this rare recording demonstrates Sala's unparalleled constellation of inventor-virtuoso abilities; having played piano concertos as a schoolboy and quickly exceeded the capabilities of Trautwein's primitive instruments, Sala actually *built* the Trautonium heard in this recording, having told composer Harald Genzmer no existing instrument was up to the job. Sala transformed the ribbon controller instrument into one capable of expressing musical sentiment of the highest calibre, and in this concerto it rivals the most virtuosic violin/clarinet/oboe performances. Remarkably, Sala also kept pace with transformations in electronic music, designing further instruments capable of polyphony (his "Mixtur-Trautonium") famously used in such film scores as Hitchcock's "The Birds". He continued playing on his instrument, as its only exponent, until shortly before his death in 2002.

Absolutely mind-boggling.


Sala recorded this composition on more than one occasion, but it’s quite tricky to establish how the extant recordings fits together. So far, I’ve uncovered details of the following:

Ltg: Thierfelder, Helmuth
Date: 1942-11-30
Deutsche Grammophon 57212 HM, Matr. 2027 1/2 GS 9 und 2028 3/4 GS 9
Staeditsches Orchester Berlin
Duration: 7"
Available on YouTube (Rondo only; it seems this was the only section to survive); it’s the best recording of any movement by far. Were it not for the fact it’s in the correct key, the agility and staggering virtuosity might raise suspicions of analog speed manipulation.
Ltg.: Siegfried Goslich
date: 1951
CD Wergo 6266-2 1938/39
Oskar Sala, Trautonium
Phil. Staatsorch. Bremen
duration: 20"
Reissued on CD from the original LP by Wergo, this is an “enhanced” pseudostereo recording edited by Sala. Parts of it, including most of the Rondo, bear striking similarities to the 1951 Leipzig recording. Sala seems to have used parts of that later recording to assemble this composite version.
Ltg.: Caspar Richter
date: unknown
RBB (SFB), Dt. Rundfunkarchiv 19811119
Oskar Sala, Trautonium
RSO Berlin,
duration: 20´25
I have been unable to locate this recording.
Ltg.: Gerhard Pflüger
date: 10 June 1951
CD MDR 400-545-2
Oskar Sala, Trautonium
Rundfunk Sinfonieorch. Leipzig
duration: 30´59
Released on a 1997 compilation CD of rare radio recordings. Parts of this seem to have been used to assemble the Wergo recording. It is the best complete recording of the Concerto and includes an additional movement not heard in other recordings, an “Intermezzo” which exploits the polyphonic capabilities of the dual-manual instrument (all other movements are monophonic).

Charlie Draper