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Hi-Fi  Fiedler
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 - 1908)
Le Coq d’Or: Suite (1908)  [25.01]
rec 25 November 1956
Gioachino Rossini (1792 - 1868)
William Tell: Overture (1829) [11.46]
rec. 25 November 1956
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Marche Slav (1876) [9.41]
rec. 25 November 1956
Emmanuel ChAbrier (1841 - 1894)
España (1883) [6.22]
rec. 25 June 1958
Franz LISZT (1811 - 1886)
Hungarian Rhapsody #2, S.242m/359b (1847) [9.34]
rec. 3 January 1960
Rákóczy March, S.117 (1871) [6.42]
rec. 4 January 1960
Boston “Pops” Orchestra/Arthur Fiedler
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, USA
CD tracks, 2.0 stereo. SACD Tracks 2.0 stereo and 3.0 surround sound. ADD Hybrid SACD
Notes in English, technical note also in Deutsch and Français.
SONY BMG 82876 67895 2 [69.40]


 
Comparison recordings:
Rimsky-Korsakov, Coq d’Or: Suite. Dorati Mercury [ADD] SACD 475 6194

Rossini, William Tell: Overture. Hermann Scherchen, RPO [mono] Westminster LP WLAB 7050
Rossini, William Tell: Overture. Pierino Gamba, LSO. Decca [ADD] 417 692-2
Rossini, William Tell: Overture. Pierino Gamba, LSO. JVC XRCD24 [ADD] 2214 [£55.55!]
Tchaikovsky, Marche Slav: Hermann Scherchen, LSO [ADD] TAHRA 415.
Tchaikovsky, Marche Slav: Leopold Stokowski, LSO Decca Phase Four 443 896-2
Chabrier: España: John Eliot Gardiner, VPO DGG 447 751-2
Chabrier: España: Paul Paray, Detroit SO. Mercury Living Presence [ADD] 434 303-2
Chabrier: Espana: Ataulfo Argenta, [96/24 remastered ADD] Decca Legends 289 466 378-2
Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody #2 Leopold Stokowski [ADD] SACD 82876-67903-2
Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody #2 Hermann Scherchen [AAD] MCA MCAD2-9832
[also available on a DG 96/24 transfer]

Arthur Fiedler (1894-1979), “The Best Selling Conductor in History,” long renowned conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra summer season, known as “The Pops,” was a musician of the highest standards and widest accomplishment.  With Adrian Boult he is among the very few conductors whose first recordings were made on acoustic 78 rpm disks and whose final recordings were made digitally, suggesting the range of his experience and activity. Although Symphony Hall during the Pops concerts had signs over the exits reading “Exit in case of Brahms” Fiedler never cheapened the music he performed, whether it was classical music, semi-classical, Broadway showtunes, or outright pop music.  On a Mary Tyler Moore fantasy TV special he appeared as “God” in a silver sequined suit conducting a choir of angels in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.  He made a number of “serious” classical recordings, one of which I particular remember was a whole LP of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, one of the very best performances of this music I ever heard from any conductor. 

These excerpts from Le Coq d’Or, Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera, might create an interest in seeing the whole work, but this suite consists of virtually all the scenic orchestral music.  Apart from the famous “Hymn to the Sun,” a staple of song recitals seventy years ago, the remainder of the opera comprises endless portentous recitative in Russian.  Naturally the pageantry to which the orchestral pieces are played can be very beautiful when the opera is staged.  When the King dies in the end, Rimsky-Korsakov was trying to warn the Czar that there were bad times ahead, but the royal censors would not allow the unaltered work on the stage, so the suite as you hear it was all that was played until after the Revolution, for the composer from his deathbed refused to allow the opera to be performed in a censored version.

A little over four months previous to this Fiedler recording Antal Dorati had recorded the Coq d’Or Suite with the LSO and we have a chance here to compare two of our most cherished pop orchestras and conductors at the same time with the same music.  Dorati takes just 26 seconds longer to play the whole suite; surprising since he was generally described as a “fast” conductor in his time.  Each recording is in three channel stereo, available to us on SACD.  Careful comparison listening suggests that the Fiedler performance is a little more dramatic, whereas Dorati, with his background as a ballet conductor, has a little more force and lift to the danceable phrases.  The Fiedler recording is clearly a multiple microphone affair with highlighting of orchestral colors and details, whereas the Dorati is with exactly three microphones and is more natural sounding, although there are just a few small artifacts of degradation here and there that have crept in over the past fifty years.  Overall, I think I like Fiedler best on this one, but it’s very close.

In 1952 Hermann Scherchen had conducted the William Tell Overture with the Royal PO in one of his last monophonic recordings for Westminster and one of the most polished and intense recordings of anything he ever accomplished.  The monophonic sound was state of the art and of stunning quality and presence.  The later stereo remake in Vienna was much less inspired and rather thin by comparison.  A professional musician once told me solemnly how much orchestra players “hate this music, that is the correct word, HATE.”  Whether the Swiss Scherchen was able to inspire the RPO with transferred patriotism, or everybody was just in a forgiving mood that day, the miracle occurred and never happened again anywhere.  Well, maybe once.  In 1961, Pierino Gamba did the “big five” Rossini overtures with the LSO, in stereo, with terrifying energy, stupefying passion, in staggeringly wide range sound.  That recording is still in print both in the original London/Decca “Weekend Classics” digital re-issue and in a new JVC XRCD24 state-of-the-art version priced at...wait for it...£56, or $96 US!  Why wasn’t this disk part of the Decca “Legends” series?

The Lone Ranger rides again, the Bostonians put on a good show, but come in here in third place.  But watch the release lists and grab the Scherchen as soon as it appears.  All these versions use the pumped-up orchestration with extra drums and cymbals, after hearing which Rossini’s original instrumentation sounds rather like a baroque chamber ensemble, rather at odds with the mood of the music as we now perceive it.

In 1953, Hermann Scherchen, again in monophonic sound, this time with the LSO recorded Tchaikovsky’s March Slav in a program with Romeo and Juliet, and the Overture 1812.  This Nixa-Westminster recording, now owned by EMI, was there for a time on a PRT “Virtuoso Collection” CD, and is now available on a TAHRA 4-CD set.  Sir Adrian Boult had recorded the same program, first on 78s, later on LP with the LPO, also to considerable critical acclaim.  Marche Slav offers few problems of interpretation, and every recording I’ve heard seems to make the mark, so here we give the nod to Fiedler because of the sound.   But the point seems to be made that the London orchestras “own” this music, or at least did in the 1950s.

With the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody #2 Fiedler is going up against the Stokowski performance, recorded just fourteen days later in New York City, also available on an RCA three channel SACD.  Fiedler was a superb Liszt conductor, giving us one of the best Les Préludes and the very best Mazeppa ever done; hopefully some day both these other recordings will be available on SACD.  Liszt’s musical personality was a curious mix of the mystical, the sentimental, and the bombastic and perhaps Fiedler’s was, too, as he seems to have a particular understanding of Liszt (as do I).  And as did Stokowski, who was four years old when Liszt died, and who patterned his conductorial persona after Liszt.  Stokowski recorded Les Preludes just once, in 1947, and the remainder of his Liszt recordings were of the Hungarian Rhapsodies including six versions of this #2.

For a time it was thought that Liszt didn’t orchestrate these Hungarian Rhapsodies, based on his solo piano pieces; but now it is known that, although he accepted help from his 24-year-old student Franz Doppler, the main concepts are his.  Fiedler’s Rhapsody carries with it an unmistakable sense of fun and slightly dignified high-jinx, whereas Stokowski is darker, more passionate and frenzied.  Scherchen hams it up outrageously, extending all the cadenzas, exaggerating the gestures to the point of parody, almost making Stokowski seem like Mozart(!?)  All offer exceptional sound quality and drama. Why choose?  If you like this music, you want them all.  If you don’t like this music, the Fiedler is definitely the easiest to endure, although some of his string section attacks are uneven. Stokowski’s performers play with extreme precision and flair.*

Chabrier’s España is a charming colorful piece performed and recorded frequently.  Of the highest fidelity recordings now available, for the clearest, most dynamic most detailed and wide range new digital recording, you want John Eliot Gardiner; for a dynamic and brisk idiomatic version, with the usual odd orchestral balances and slightly blary sound common to the Mercury Living Presence recordings, you want Paray; for a measured sweetly recorded version remastered in 96/24 sound, you want Argenta.  Arthur Fiedler comes just after the Gardiner recording in overall quality, the sound is clear but curiously bass deficient, and, although the percussion accents are amazingly clear, the dynamic range wide, Fiedler’s is not in the final analysis a digital master.  However all these recordings are excellent and most likely you will choose your España for the other music on the disk. 

Although the Hungarian Rackoczy March is generally associated with Berlioz who used it in his Damnation of Faust, it was apparently Liszt who brought it to Berlioz’s attention.  It’s an odd, asymmetrical tune, particularly appealing in a military band arrangement where its odd rhythms are a general relief from the usual banal march pieces.

*Stokowski was a genial person with a good sense of humor.  But he expected the highest level of professionalism and cooperation from his players, and one of his not so funny jokes was, “if you can’t do it, there’s the door...” and likely there would be somebody waiting at that door to take your place.

Paul Shoemaker

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