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Ferenc FRICSAY (1914 – 1963) in rehearsal
Bedrich SMETANA (1824 – 1884)

Vltava from Ma Vlast, (1874)
Sudfunk Sinfonieorchester conducted by Ferenc Fricsay
recorded at South German Radio Studios in 1960, DVD
TDK DV DOCFF [55 mins]


A relatively short while ago, I heard a well known critic, who should have known better, describe Ferenc Fricsay as an unknown conductor who was only now starting to get his just recognition on disc. Did he not realize that in the 1950s and 1960s Fricsay vied with both Furtwängler and Karajan as DGG’s primary conductor? How reputations are lost or dimmed with the passing years. Full marks to TDK therefore for making this recording available to us. Full marks also for making available the actual performance resulting from these sessions.

As is common with this Great Conductors series, the sound is reasonable broadcast quality mono sound with black and white pictures. When this film was made in 1960, Fricsay was only three years away from death, and the sight of the conductor forcing his weakened body to obey his musical inspiration is most moving.

He looks to be in very poor health as he rehearses the orchestra, but quite soon, we forget his physical condition, so intense is the musical inspiration and concentration from both conductor and orchestra. One can hear very clearly how the performance develops from shaky start to confident luxurious playing at the end of the rehearsal. This time, we also get to hear the performance in the concert hall and experience the reaction of the audience. This material has been released before on CD as a bonus disc issued by DG in their Ferenc Fricsay Portrait series. This was part of a 10 disc set, no longer available, which cut a swathe though Fricsay’s favourite composers. I wonder how many of you will remember his absolutely superb performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, long a first choice in the catalogue.

Fricsay, Hungarian by birth, spent most of his active conducting career in West Germany. He conducted the Berlin Philharmonic regularly, and was Chief conductor of the RIAS Symphony Orchestra, Berlin, then to become the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. His mainstay characteristic was to urge his players to listen to each other, and to concentrate on a chamber music style of playing. This becomes clearly evident in the rehearsal. The result of this was a delicacy in his interpretations and a wonderful balance within the orchestra. He must have been a recording engineer’s dream, similar to Sir Adrian Boult, who had a similar outlook in relation to internal orchestral balances.

He was a superb Mozart conductor and what I find incredible, given the pace of the period bands’ interpretations, is the criticism of Fricsay’s Mozart opera performances that the tempi are generally too fast. One is never satisfied!

His interpretations of the music of his compatriots, Bartók and Kodaly have long been admired, and it is this chamber style of playing that brings out the different strands of the writing so clearly – none of the slow romantic mush which disfigures many of the modern interpretations of these works.

Back to the current issue – there is a very moving part of the rehearsal where Fricsay turns to the orchestra and says "You know gentlemen, it is very good to be alive". This is almost a cry from the heart of a very passionate interpreter of Ma Vlast. More please, if there is any more from this artist, hopefully now better known as a result of this very welcome release.

John Phillips

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