The last time I reviewed an Oskar Fried disc on this site it was
rather fascinating trawl through some rare material. Some of this
was recorded on film and off-air acetates, which made its appearance
that much more welcome for the avid collector of Fried recordings.
But Arbiter has hardly been flying solo kites for the conductor.
Music & Arts has been slowly but surely, and securely, establishing
a strong catalogue of such things; it may surprise some to know
that this latest instalment is volume four.
Its appearance is somewhat lopsided – but that’s very much a function
of the remaining items in the Fried discographic locker, not any
inherent programmatic eccentricity on Music & Arts’s part.
Because what we have here is an inscription of a towering piece
recorded in late acoustic days – Bruckner’s mighty Seventh Symphony
– and a collection of operatic choruses in which Fried directed
the Choir and Orchestra of the Staatsoper Berlin.
The fine discography presented in the extensive booklet irons
out any question marks as to provenance and previous LP and CD
incarnations. I should note that the perceived market for the
disc, in terms of booklet layout and typography, is German-speaking.
The German text comes first, the English language translation
second. I only mention this because in my experience it’s unusual
for an English-speaking company – though they do hedge their bets
by having the booklet cover in English only.
Those who collect Fried’s recordings are, in any case, an international
bunch. In fact there have been at least two previous transfers
of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony and one was Tokyo’s Wing label
[WCD 61]. The other was BSVD-105. I’ve heard neither transfer.
This was the first recording of the symphony to have been made,
in Berlin in c.1924. Clearly the usual limitations and compromises
in acoustic recordings of the symphonic repertoire are present
here in a most dramatic way. Such a powerful and vast symphony
is hardly going to sit comfortably in the acoustic funnel and
the orchestral shrinkages and bass boosting offer a necessarily
compromised view. Still, Fried was something of a dab hand at
these undertakings, as his contemporaneous recording of Mahler’s
Second Symphony [Pearl CDS 9929: Naxos 8.110152/3; Membran 222145-444]
The performance preserves a reading of fluidity and relatively
speedy intent, one saturated with a degree of metrical coming
and going – not least in the Scherzo – which shows how elastic
was Fried’s conception. The principal flute comes through unexpectedly
well – it would be interesting to know the orchestral seating
plan for this recording – though the lower brass tends to congeal
in the balance. The violin tone is rather thin – again, one wonders
how many firsts and seconds were crammed into the studio. So there
is something of a sonic imbalance in the recording, but once one
absorbs this, the performance exerts a very particular power of
its own. The slow movement is moving, and free of the cymbal crash,
whilst the scherzo is a study in contrasts. The finale is direct
and avid. One senses throughout a vital and controlling hand at
work – unsparing, unsentimental, powerfully symphonic in conception
(of course) but unwilling to make one special compromise to the
78 process, which is that I was not aware of any side end rallentandi.
In many discs of the period one notices the slowing down for a
side change; it’s a feature of the system, though often taken
to be executant indulgence or eccentricity. Not here. What I did
notice though was the side changes themselves. This must have
been a tricky matter to deal with but – for example – it’s obvious
that side changes occur at 9:24 and 13:46 in the first movement.
The choruses are something of a mixed bag repertoire-wise. They
were recorded in 1927 electrically so things are much better when
it comes to the recording frequencies. They show how firmly Fried
directed his forces, both choral and orchestral, and how responsive
those forces were to him. The Tannhäuser
is a touch torrid to my ears but the Weber is sonorously done.
Overall they make, collectively, a big impression.
Fried was a discographic pioneer. His legacy is being well curated
by this series of discs. Finally, some rhetorical questions. Will
M&A be turning to Mahler 2 or Beethoven’s Ninth next – or
do they believe there’s been market saturation for these already?
Or perhaps they can turn their attention instead to Tchaikovsky’s
? Even better, can we hope for a first ever CD
appearance for the Symphonie fantastique