> FRICSAY Great Conductors series [TB]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Great Conductors of the 20th Century:

Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)

L'Apprenti sorcier
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Rec 14 November 1961, Grosser Sendesaal, Berlin
Zoltán KODALY (1882-1967)

Dances of Galánta
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Rec August 1961, Salzburg Festival
Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Symphony No. 9
RIAS Symphony Orchestra Berlin
Rec 30 April & 3 May 1954, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)

Symphonic Metamorphoses of themes of Carl Maria von Weber
RIAS Symphony Orchestra Berlin
Rec 3-4 June 1952, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin
Johann STRAUSS (1825-1899)

Waltz: The Artist's Life
RIAS Symphony Orchestra Berlin
Rec 6 June 1950, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Overture: Leonore No. 3
Symphony No. 3 'Eroica'
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Rec 5 February 1961, Grosser Sendesaal, Berlin
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Overture: Cosí fan tutte
RIAS Symphony Orchestra Berlin
Rec 18 January 1951, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin
EMI CLASSICS/IMG ARTISTS CZS 5 75109 2 [2CDs: 79.35, 77.32] Midprice


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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 Life.

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.

Terry Barfoot


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