The 'Great Composers of the 20th Century' series is
a joint project between IMG Artists and EMI Classics. If the first issues
are anything to go by, the enterprise is well worthwhile, and this two
disc set of Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963) conducting orchestras with whom
he was closely associated contains some performances of real merit.
Fricsay left a treasury of fine recordings, some of
them captured here, but his career was cut tragically short. His concerts
were notable for their enterprising fusion of established classics with
repertoire beyond the norm, and these trends are captured here. For
example there is a 1954 performance of Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony
(1945), which was then classified as 'new music', and it bristles with
vitality and commitment. The recording is acceptable, better than some
of the others from the early years of the fifties which are found here.
The programme begins on CD1 with an excellent rendition
of Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, keenly judged and full of colourful
drama. Dating from 1961, this performance also benefits from pretty
good sound. The same might be said of the direct and engaging recording
of Kodály's Dances of Galánta which follows. This splendid
work, which finds the composer at his most inspired, gains enormously
from the keen edged vitality of Fricsay's interpretation.
However, it is with the recordings of a decade before,
just after 1950, that problems arise. It is here that the prospective
purchaser will take his chance. Not that there is anything wrong with
the performances or the playing. Fricsay was a master of his trade and
he worked with talented musicians, though one does wonder what conditions
in post-war Berlin were really like. Hindemith's brilliantly entertaining
Symphonic Metamorphoses fails to make an impression here, since the
recording is too dim to capture the spirit of the music. This is a pity,
because the rhythmic incisiveness of Fricsay's conducting clearly has
the measure of what is required. The same might be said also of the
encore item which concludes the first disc, Strauss's waltz, The Artist's
Much the same might be said of the Beethoven performances
which dominate CD2. The Overture Leonore No. 3 is nothing if not exciting,
beautifully judged in the balancing of tension and relaxation, with
phrasing which is as sensitive to mood as one might find. Yet this music
surely benefits from the added tonal lustre of more recent recordings.
The largest work, the great Eroica Symphony, actually
gets off to an inauspicious start when the very first chord sounds scrappy,
though things do improve pretty quickly. More recent recordings have
tended to prefer quicker tempi, to the music's advantage, on the whole,
though there is no denying that Fricsay accumulates much symphonic weight.
The great slow movement funeral march drags a little (according to taste),
but the second phase does have much tragic grandeur. The playing has
commendable energy in the final two movements, and all credit to the
Berlin horns for their virtuoso rendition of the scherzo.
By way of encore there is a short Mozart item, the
Overture to Cosí fan tutte, nicely shaped if a little lacking
in tonal focus in this 1951 recording. With excellent documentation
and production standards, the issue with these performances tends to
come back to the quality of the recorded sound, which, as I have tried
to explain, is variable.