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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake op.20 – Highlights
Introduction [02:58]
Act I: 1. Scène [02:17], 2. Valse [04:28], 8. Danse des coupes [03:44]
Act II: 10. Scène [02:50], 11. Scène [04:36], 13d. Danses des cygnes [01:19], 13e. Pas d’action [06:14]
Act III: 20. Danse hongroise [02:46], 5b. Pas de deux [02:55], 24. Scène [02:15]
Act IV: 27. Danses des petits cygnes [03:40], 29. Scène final [06:01]
Steven Staryk (violin); Tibor de Machula (violoncello)
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Anatole Fistoulari
rec. February 1961, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 9032 [46:10]


Whatever the ultimate judgement on Fistoulari, he made a great record here.
BARGAIN OF THE MONTH



Fistoulari’s Decca mono recording of "Swan Lake" (1952) was a mainstay of the early LP catalogue and continued to do yeoman’s service during the 1960s on the Ace of Clubs label. It was on two LPs and announced as "complete", though this claim was soon dropped. Apparently it played the score used at Covent Garden in those days, about half-an-hour short by modern standards.

With the advent of stereo Decca came out with a new almost-complete 2-disc version under Ansermet. It seems that Fistoulari’s return to the score was virtually an accident. The sessions for Solti’s Mahler 4 had gone so well, according to an Internet source, that there were two sessions to spare. So Fistoulari was rustled up for this single-disc selection. About a decade later he returned to the work with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra on Decca Phase Four. This was again "complete", though I don’t know which "complete" score was used.

Those content to have just one LP of Swan Lake highlights in 1962 would have had to make up their minds between this and the recent (1958) HMV selection with the Philharmonia under Efrem Kurtz. For better or for worse I chose the latter in its Classics for Pleasure reincarnation, and found it amiable rather than inspired. Kurtz and Fistoulari were both noted ballet conductors so one might expect to find them much of a muchness.

This proves not to be so. In each of the movements they have in common – not all that many – Fistoulari, with a slight tweak of the tempo faster or slower, with sharper articulation, more detailed phrasing and greater appreciation of the orchestral colour, brings the music into focus. You feel that he is challenging and stretching the orchestra to the brink while Kurtz just lets them play. Not to beat about the bush, this is the sort of utterly Russian Tchaikovsky playing, passionate and tense but not hysterical, lush but not indulgent, rhythmical but not rigid, which we expect from the likes of Mravinsky or Kondrashin. The Concertgebouw are in fantastic form and the recording is amazingly fine, while the Kurtz comes more into the "excellent for the date" category. Though to be fair, I’m listening to the Kurtz on LP not CD. Whatever the ultimate judgement on Fistoulari as a conductor, here he made a great disc.

Those who chose Kurtz were probably tempted by the presence of Yehudi Menuhin, who played the violin solos. He was still at his best in those years and his playing has a vocal, intensely human quality, while he is unruffled by the "Russian Dance". For this, at least, I am still glad to have the Kurtz to hand. Fistoulari has the orchestra’s leader, Steven Staryk. He is excellent but without the sort of personality that makes him stand out from the rest of the performances. Soloists with big personalities do tend to spread themselves, however. I daresay the more elegant, balletic feel to these movements in the Amsterdam version is the way Fistoulari wanted it.

Funnily enough, the only time I actually saw Fistoulari conduct, Steven Staryk was again the soloist. I was barely a teenager and it was one of the occasional visits the RPO made to the Leas Cliff Hall, Folkestone, usually with "second-stream" conductors and soloists. After a distinguished career as orchestral leader – the Concertgebouw was preceded by Beecham’s RPO and Reiner’s Chicago SO – Steven Staryk decided to go solo. It didn’t work out. No one denied him the technique but he evidently lacked a solo personality. As I recall, he made a disc of Wienawski for a mid-price HMV label, played a bit out-of-town and then disappeared. If I remember the Folkestone concert at all it’s because of the way he started – he was doing the Mendelssohn. As readers will know, the orchestra has a mere few seconds to set the atmosphere before the violin comes in. Most soloists have the instrument under their chin and are nervously fingering the neck of the violin even before the conductor raises his baton. Instead, Staryk had his violin in a "resting" position with a far-away expression – I was sitting very near the front – just as if there was a whole long orchestral exposition before he had to do anything. Fistoulari gave him a rather puzzled look. Staryk gave a little nod to confirm he was ready, Fistoulari gave him another puzzled look then turned his back on him entirely as though to say "well, if that’s how he wants it … " and started the orchestra. At the very last minute Staryk whipped his violin into position, chin and bow making simultaneous contact with it. A nice bit of showmanship and the only thing I remember from the performance.

I do remember that Fistoulari’s baton seemed more concerned with rhythm than expression – though expression emerged – and at climaxes he appeared to be mouthing the rhythm at the brass. I was bowled over by his Brahms 1, but as it was the first time I heard it I daresay any middling-to-decent performance would have bowled me over. I thought some of it sounded rather Russian. In so far as my youthful memories have any value, I may have been responding to his way of stretching the orchestra to the brink at climaxes, as noted above.

Anatole Fistoulari (1907-1995) initially had a highly promising career. The son of a conductor, he is said to have conducted the "Pathétique" in public himself at the age of seven. Like so many Russians without Socialist leanings, his family made for Paris after the Revolution. Fistoulari attracted the attention of Chaliapin as a conductor who could actually keep with his rhythmic vagaries and became conductor of the Grande Opéra Russe (1933). He started working with the Ballets Russe in 1938 and this led to tours on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1943 he came to England to take up the conductorship of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In England he also met Mahler’s daughter Anna and quickly became her fourth husband (out of five). Their marriage lasted a few years, which was good going by Anna Mahler’s standards, and produced a daughter. He later married a Scottish violinist, Elisabeth Lockhart.

Thus far his career had been on the up-and-up, but the LPO appointment was not a success. Crazily, he was contracted to do 120 concerts in a single year. His symphonic repertoire was not broadly-based enough to provide so much music and he allegedly resorted to swotting up the scores by practicing his gestures in front of a mirror while another conductor’s gramophone record was playing. Orchestras know in an instant if the conductor has only a superficial knowledge of the score and no excuses are accepted – not even the fact that they had imposed such a ridiculous schedule on him themselves in the first place. His contract was not renewed and the orchestra’s jubilee programme in 1982 even omitted his name from the "complete" list of their principal conductors. In 1956 Sir Adrian Boult had been kinder, choosing Fistoulari and George Hurst to share the conducting of the LPO’s Russian tour.

After the LPO debacle Fistoulari struggled along for a time with a "London International Orchestra" – a pick-up professional band managed by John Amis, to whose "Independent" obituary I owe most of what I am now writing. He remained in England for the rest of his life but had no further permanent appointments. He was, however, appreciated as a ballet conductor – his tempi were apparently infallibly danceable – and international soloists were happy to have him on the rostrum on account of his ability to follow the most wayward rubato. He is remembered on disc, in fact, for his recordings of ballet music, particularly for Decca and Mercury, and for collaborations with such artists as Curzon, Milstein and Ashkenazy.

I can’t find when he retired from conducting but his name gradually faded away and he suffered from severe arthritis in his last years.

Christopher Howell

 




 


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