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Ferenc Fricsay. A life in music
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony No.1 in C major
Berlin Philharmonic 1953
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Overture; and incidental music
Rita Streich (soprano) Diana Eustrati (contralto) RIAS Chamber Choir, Berlin Philharmonic 1950
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Symphony No.1 Classical Op.25
RIAS Berlin 1954
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)

Rückert Lieder
Maureen Forrester (contralto) RIAS Berlin 1958
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Symphony No.6 in B minor Pathetique Op.74
RIAS Berlin 1959
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868) orchestrated Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
La Boutique Fantasque
RIAS Berlin 1955
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

Scheherazade Op.35
RIAS Berlin 1956
Johann STRAUS II (1825-1899)

The Blue Danube Op.314
Vienna Blood Op.354
Perpetuum mobile Op.257
Pizzicato-Polka O
Die Fledermaus; Overture
Der Zigeunerbaron Overture
Frülingsstimmen (Waltzer) Op.410
Rosen aus dem Süden Op.388
Morgenblätter Op.279
Annen-Polka Op.117
Tritsch-Tratsch Polka Op.214
Johann STRAUSS I (1804-1849)

Radetzky-Marsch Op.228
All with RIAS Berlin 1949-52
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)

Nights in the Gardens of Spain
Margrit Weber (piano) RIAS Berlin 1957
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)

Concertino for Piano and Orchestra
Margrit Weber (piano) RIAS Berlin 1956
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)

Concertino for Piano and Orchestra
Margrit Weber (piano) RIAS Berlin 1955
César FRANCK (1822-1890)

Variations Symphoniques
Margrit Weber (piano) RIAS Berlin 1957
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op.43
Margrit Weber (piano) RIAS Berlin 1960
Gottfried von EINEM (1918-1996)

Dantons Tod; Interlude
RIAS Berlin 1949
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)

Symphonic Dances
RIAS Berlin 1950
Karl Amadeus HARTMANN (1905-1963)

Symphony No.6
RIAS Berlin 1955
Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)

Petite Symphonie Concertante
Gerty Herzog (piano) Sylvia Kind (harpsichord) Irmgard Helmis (harp) and RIAS 1950
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

The Seasons
Maria Stader (soprano) Ernst Haefliger (tenor) Josef Greindl (bass) Choir of St Hedwigs Cathedral and RIAS Berlin 1961
Ferenc Fricsay; a life retold; excerpts from commercial discs


Fricsay has begun to receive something of his due as a recording artist of late. Still, little that has been released can match up to the catholicity of the repertoire here or can match it in bulk or autobiographical resonance. Fricsay was one of the architects of post-War German musical renovation. He’d conducted in his native Hungary since 1933 when, at the early age of nineteen, he’d been given charge of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Szeged. By the war’s end he’d made his way to the Budapest State Opera and Philharmonic and in 1948 was appointed music director of West Berlin’s State Opera and conductor of RIAS – with a more than attractive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. The earliest recording here dates from the year after his 1948 appointment and the latest from two years before his regrettably early death from cancer at the age of forty-eight in 1963.

His Beethoven First Symphony is generally lithe and classical but occasionally inclining too much to a degree of rigidity – the slow movement in particular sounds somewhat rushed. Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by contrast can sound a little too relaxed. There are also some glassy sounding violins in the overture that don’t seem to have transferred well and some residual tape hiss - even though the wind playing, qua playing, is first class. I was disappointed by the rather sleepy Scherzo but enjoyed Rita Streich’s gallantly rolled r and her airy delivery in the Song with Chorus – contralto Diana Eustrati doesn’t balance so well with her soprano partner, though internally the chorus is exceptionally well balanced. The first disc is rounded out with Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. Here the violins are infectious and incisive, the Larghetto is witty and the Gavotte frolicsome and fast.

The second disc is given over to Mahler and Tchaikovsky. Maureen Forrester’s famous recording of Das Lied von der Erde with Richard Lewis and Fritz Reiner in Chicago has slightly effaced this Rückert lieder performance. But this is a beautifully felt traversal, Forrester floating and moulding Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen with simplicity and feeling, her contralto lightening, lifting or darkening. Or again her conversational ease, fluency and intimacy in Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder. Fricsay accompanies with great finesse even though he was never known particularly as a Mahlerian. Coupled with it is the Pathetique. This isn’t the famous Berlin 1953 recording, that blazing mono, which has remained a testament to Fricsay’s incandescent sense of visceral drama. This is the later September 1959 traversal, one that Fricsay wasn’t happy with, and parts of which he wanted to retake. It’s in stereo of course but has only made one previous incarnation on CD and that was in Japan. The differences between those two recordings, made only six years apart, demonstrate the futility of writ in stone perceptions of interpretations. The 1959 performance is eight minutes slower than the earlier one and it’s far more symphonically considered an approach, with greater clarity, less overt and galvanizing, but more cohesive.

Disc Three has the Rossini-Respighi confection sporting a notably well played Overture and some sparkling brass playing in the Cancan. Overall though there’s not quite the sense of intimacy and atmosphere that Ansermet generated from this score. Similarly, whilst there are many beautiful touches Scheherazade rather hangs fire. It’s not helped by a rather insistently slow opening movement that tends to douse dramatic impulse - though later on Fricsay’s lyrical unfolding is laudable. It’s only right that a whole disc should be devoted to the Strauss family, as Fricsay was so noble an interpreter of the Viennese Waltz. There are marvellously evocative moments here and who could resist the succulent violins in Wiener Blut or the lissom delineation of the Perpetuum mobile, still less the gloriously shaped diminuendi in the Frülingsstimmen Waltz.

Fricsay worked for some time with pianist Margrit Weber, the Swiss pianist who was the dedicatee of Stravinsky’s Movements (she recorded it with Fricsay) and Martinů’s Fantasia Concertante. Falla’s Gardens are not in the de Larrocha class – not as succulently colourful but instead they have a precise and clear presence and are stronger on crisp articulation than atmosphere. Françaix’s Concertino receives a fresh reading, with fine trombone work in the opening movement and if there’s not the last ounce of brittle drive there’s plenty of finesse. The Honegger Concertino, another brief work, is notable for its elliptical, glinting, hinting Larghetto sostenuto and the way in which Weber and Fricsay explore the veiled unease that lies at the heart of the concluding Allegro with its mocking brass and brittle patina. The Variations Symphoniques go well; quite a natural perspective between soloist and orchestra and a reliable rather than inspired performance. The disc ends with the Paganini Variations. I’ve not heard the LP but was the percussion section really as up front as this? It sounds like the 1812. Apart from this balance aberration Weber has a strongly etched profile, Fricsay brings out the wind with unselfconscious delicacy – and my main impression is that Weber scores highly on drive, somewhat less so in repose.

The next disc is notable for bringing together some important music. It was due to Klemperer’s indisposition that his substitute, Fricsay, gave a performance of Dantons Tod at the Salzburg Festival of 1947. This was to be his break and led to prestigious European-wide engagements. A couple of years after that stand-in performance he was asked to record the Interlude and he carves a witty way with it, the principal clarinet revealing a sure instinct for the apex of a phrase. The Hindemith Symphonic Dances are brilliantly well organized by Fricsay from the bracing first, consummately explored, to the chugging rhythms of the third, colourful, evolutionary and vibrant. The fourth is powerful with magnificently calibrated climaxes and a strong and noble seriousness. Martin’s Petite Suite Concertante is complexly alive in Fricsay’s reading, both powerfully visceral and also impressionistically withdrawn. Then there is Hartmann’s Sixth Symphony with its powerful sonorities and sense of unfolding cataclysm, the bassoon, muted brass and swirling surly strings in the first movement Adagio a combustible descendent of Berg. And yet when the strings, newly seared, and the onrushing trumpets drive out into phantasmagoria and collapse Fricsay evokes the tenderness of the music’s sudden haunted elegance and almost recriminatory beauty with a sure understanding of what’s at stake. The frantic Toccata, with its troublesome and querulous fugato, is sharply turned and the piano and percussion interjections are well judged.

Discs seven and eight are given over to Haydn’s Seasons. Whilst he was of course known for his sensitive direction of classical liturgical works – mainly Mozart and Haydn – and despite the encomiums this recording from 1961 has sometimes received I’m not convinced. Whilst the recitatives are swift and intelligently shaped there is a sense of sleepy monumentality about much of the phrasing and something of a sense that Fricsay sees this as Haydn-as-Bach. The chorus is good, the soloists not outstanding and some cuts are made. What seems to me most damaging is a sense of fluctuation throughout, a lack of a dramatic unity – as well as some rather rhetorical moments not really in keeping with a work of this kind. The final volume is a delightful autobiographical reminiscence narrated by Fricsay. It’s in German and interspersed with excerpts from his commercial recordings. There’s a printed summary of the text in English and French in the booklet.

This is a revealing set – revealing of Fricsay’s tastes and preferences as well as his interest in the contemporary music of the day. However uneven some of the performances they are never less than thought provoking; many have been unobtainable for years. At its competitive price this latest Original Masters box is a highly desirable acquisition.

Jonathan Woolf



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