César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphony in D minor (1889) [39:47]
Le chasseur maudit (1882) [16:04]
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Artur Rodzinski
rec. Mozartsaal, Vienna, 27 June and 11 July 1954
FORGOTTEN RECORDS fr 181 [55:53]
Not, by any means, the most promising start. After all, when a disc is issued by a label called Forgotten Records, the instinctive and inevitable response is to ask why any recording would have been forgotten unless it wasn’t any good in the first place.
Neverthless, I wasn’t entirely bereft of hope for, as I pointed out in my review of a performance by Charles Munch (see here), the 1950s and 1960s were something of a golden age for the Franck symphony on disc when conductors and orchestras seemed far more familiar with and sympathetic to the composer’s idiom and, as a result, more confident in their approach. I was also cheered by the fact that the Polish conductor Artur Rodzinky (1892-1958) was at the helm on this reissued recording. Successively music director between 1929 and 1948 of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, he is surprisingly often overlooked today, although his talents were well showcased some years ago on a pair of discs in the IMG Artists series “Great conductors of the 20th century” (7243 5 75959 2 6 – see my colleague John Quinn’s very positive review here).
What had stuck most firmly in my own mind from that IMG release had been Rodzinski’s performance of Rossini’s William Tell overture, an account with an immensely thrilling final galop that takes the Columbia Symphony Orchestra on an unforgetable hell-for-leather ride. But, playing that track once more before turning to this new disc, I was equally struck by the very careful and notably intense way that Rodzinski shapes the preceding prelude, storm and ranz des vaches episodes where some conductors merely go through the motions on auto-pilot in their eagerness to push on to that crowd-pleasing Lone Ranger climax.
That same degree of carefully directed intensity is to be found in this performance of Franck’s symphony. The very good quality recording - digitally re-mastered from a Westminster label LP - and the flattering acoustics of the Mozartsaal allow us fully to appreciate Rodzinski’s characteristics as a conductor: a finely crafted orchestral balance, a wide dynamic range and judiciously selected but flexible tempi. The opening pages of the symphony are done especially effectively, achieving a healthy balance between organic growth and increasing tension. The succeeding allegro non troppo avoids overweightiness and is pleasurably brisk and purposeful – though the contrasting episodes of dreamy reflection are also given full room to breathe.
The allegretto second movement sets off with a definite end in view but still has time to digress into some beautifully phrased and delicate ruminative byways. Rodzinski’s expertly applied wide dynamic range is especially striking. The finale also sets off at a fair lick. That sometimes puts the strings under pressure and they can sound a little scrawny in one or two places – but that actually helps preserve the overall textural clarity that is one of this account’s most attractive features. There is plenty of rubato in evidence, but it is judiciously applied throughout the movement. The passage from about 7:01 offers an excellent illustration of the superb balance obtained by the conductor and Westminster’s engineering team: for once we hear clearly what the strings are doing whereas too many other accounts submerge them beneath the brass. A thrilling – but not overblown - climax ends this excellent and individually shaped performance.
I confess that my only previous encounter with Franck’s symphonic poem Le chasseur maudit was on an RCA LP where – if memory serves me right - it was played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch and accompanied their superb account of the Chausson symphony. Munch presented it as an extrovert showpiece and, while the results were undeniably exciting, failed to suggest that there was any great depth to the score. Rodzinski’s conception focuses, on the contrary, on its many elements of intense, darkly-hued drama. He encourages his Vienna players to delve deep and produces a very “Lisztian” account that could hardly be more different from that of Munch. After a markedly stately opening where both the hunting calls and the tolling church bells drip with atmosphere, the orchestra builds up steam for its beautifully recorded “pursuit” passages. Indeed, the quality of Westminster’s recording seems, surprisingly, far better than that I recall given to Munch and his Bostonians by RCA. Having previously had no particular inclination to return to this score, Rodzinski’s account made me listen to it with fresh ears and question my precious assessment.
These recordings were made at a time when the conductor’s career – thanks to the onset of serious illness – was at a low ebb. I suspect that, had they originally appeared on a more prestigious label, they might not have been so “forgotten” for the past fifty-odd years. Sadly, the fact that Forgotten Records offer no notes at all on either the music or the performance – but instead direct purchasers to the Wikipedia website – means that we cannot learn how they themselves rediscovered this lost gem.
Rodzinski made me listen to these works with fresh ears.