A marvellous reminder
of the virtuosity of the Chicagoans
under Fritz Reiner. This disc consists
of two full LPs, offering superb value
for money (with a playing time of over
76 minutes) as well as carefully-chosen
repertoire (the ‘filler’ of Hungarian
Sketches is pure delight).
Firstly, the Concerto
for Orchestra. Fritz Reiner was
a personal friend and confidant of the
composer, so this reading carries a
special authority. Not only this, Reiner’s
orchestra is intensively drilled – rarely
will you hear a performance so well-prepared
as this. The very opening is tremendously
hushed (and what clarity thanks to the
SACD format!). Reiner’s understanding
of Bartók’s emotional vocabulary
is outstanding, as is his control of
his orchestra (the accelerando is surely
without parallel), all this held within
a beautifully warm recorded sound.
The second movement
(the famous ‘Giuoco delle coppie’) is
full of charm, but is also rhythmically
totally on-the-ball. Fellow Hungarian
Solti in his Chicago recording
also found real affinity with this movement
(now available on Double Decca 470 516-2),
but it is Reiner who is more human.
Reiner’s ‘Elegia’ is carefully sculpted,
working to an excruciating (in the best
sense of the word) climax. Similarly
Reiner does not play down the more vulgar
elements of the ‘Intermezzo interotto’
(the Shostakovich quote is blatant).
If there is any excerpt
from this disc that proves the technical
excellence of the Chicagoans, it is
the swirling opening of the finale.
Trumpets cut through the texture impressively.
If there are more jubilant accounts
of this finale, the interpretation is
entirely in keeping with Reiner’s overall
vision, with the final emergence of
blazing trumpets seeming all the more
victorious. It would be worth the outlay
for this performance alone.
That said, there are
two other claims to the record collector’s
purse here. The Music for Strings,
Percussion and Celesta, perhaps
surprisingly, triumphs because of Reiner’s
affinity with the more interior moments.
Thus the first movement (andante tranquillo)
is a peaceful unravelling where Reiner’s
control of dynamics is all; the Adagio
third movement gives off a miraculous
stillness; some conductors get lost
in the harmonic maze here. If the second
movement allegro is not as punchy as,
say, Karajan’s Berlin EMI performance,
it still makes its effect and the spatial
element works remarkably well.
Finally, the five Hungarian
Sketches reveal, in the ‘Swineherd’s
Dance’ at least, that Reiner could do
unbuttoned as well. These are arrangements
of piano pieces (Nos. 5 and 10 of Ten
Easy Pieces, no. 2 of Four Dirges,
no. 2 of Three Burlesques, and
no. 40 of For Children, Book
1) that the composer made in an attempt
to court popularity. The most memorable
aspect of the present performances comes
in the form of the outstanding solo
clarinettist (in both the first and
third movements). The Hungarian Sketches
make for an interesting close to a disc
that shows Reiner and his orchestra
at the height of their powers, all presented
in exemplary sound. Strongly recommended.