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Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Ma Vlást: 2: Vltava
Rehearsal extracts [41:20] and performance [10:37] with introduction [02:38] by Dieter Ertel
Südfunk-Sinfonieorchester/Ferenc Fricsay
A SDR Stuttgart Production, recorded 1960. DVD (b/w)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Italian
TDK DV-DOCFF [c.55:00]

As Dieter Ertel’s brief introduction stresses, the tragic circumstances surrounding an artist’s life can influence our perception of his work. I remain one of the hard-hearted few who try to keep my reactions to Kathleen Ferrier’s “Das Lied von der Erde” separate from the Kleenex-inducing factor of her mortal illness. I try not to bandy around phrases such as “those whom the gods loved” whenever I hear records by Lipatti or Cantelli. That said, there is no doubt that it is a moving tribute to the human spirit under duress to see Ferenc Fricsay rehearsing Smetana’s “Vltava” (here given its German name “Die Moldau”) with a boyish enthusiasm combined with natural leadership and musical authority, and to know that he was already terminally ill and also in great pain.
Though firmly in control, Fricsay – whose precision was sometimes likened to that of Toscanini – never raises his voice if not in natural excitement at the music itself. He is unfailingly courteous towards his players and has seemingly endless reserves of patience. The 40-odd minutes of rehearsal only cover about half the piece – up to end of the peasants’ wedding and then the last minute or so. Even these parts seem to be edited, suggesting that about two hours would have been needed to prepare the entire work. So at this rate, for a concert containing seventy or so minutes of music he would have required four or five three-hour rehearsals.
Some questions arise spontaneously. This programme was quite deliberately prepared for television - at one point Fricsay actually says he is explaining something for the benefit of listeners, since the orchestra will know it already. So did he always have such a generous allowance of rehearsal time, and if not, how did he manage? While German orchestras are known to thrive on extended rehearsals, how did London orchestras react to him? Maybe he didn’t often conduct in London but his last public appearance was for the London première of Kodály’s symphony with the LPO. Was he always so courteous and patient when the rehearsal was not being filmed? It would be interesting to know if anything survives, even just a few minutes, of a “real” Fricsay rehearsal. The fascinating thing is that, at the end of the day, when the actual performance comes, it’s a shade faster than at the rehearsals, so all the detail falls into place.
Setting aside the tragic overtones, what we have here is a document showing a thorough and likeable conductor with a clear-cut but not especially expressive, batonless, beat who produces a brisk, energetic if somewhat unyielding performance of Smetana’s popular tone-poem. The Toscanini recording, by the way, is 30 seconds longer, 11:07, while a typical Kubelik performance (I have the Boston one) comes in at 11:49. Some of Fricsay’s recordings – the Verdi Requiem for example – tell us there was more to the story so, tantalizingly, this film is only half successful in its declared aim of telling us “who Ferenc Fricsay was”. Still, it helps to build up the picture and I must say that, while I would always prefer the Kubelik style in this piece, I appreciated Fricsay’s interpretation - which I might otherwise have dismissed as hurried, even insensitive - the better for having heard him explain why he feels it this way.
Not long ago I was writing about the wonky picture and poor sound of an Italian television recording of Michelangeli from the early 1960s. The present film shows that television technology in general was still fairly primitive at that time, not just at the RAI. Quite honestly, both as picture and as sound, this is no advance on the best pre-war Hollywood film productions. But it’s all we’ve got.
Christopher Howell





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