FORGOTTEN ARTISTS - An occasional series by Christopher Howell
9. FRANZ ANDRÉ (1893-1975)
When I first approached the world of classical music in the later 1960s, a few LPs were still available on Telefunken by the Belgian National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Franz André. They were mainly of popular short pieces, were not highly rated and better versions of the various pieces seemed to be around. I never investigated any and, in my innocent youth, was more than anything bemused by a conductor who, like Leopold Ludwig and indeed Bruno Walter, seemed to have two first names and no surname.
I since learnt that André had done sterling work in Belgium over many years. Like the Swiss conductor Victor Desarzens, whose work I discussed in an earlier article, he seems to have been a case of a prophet mostly honoured at home.
The André story is quickly enough told, in so far as information is to be had. He was born in Forest, Brussels on 10th June 1893 and studied the violin at Brussels Conservatoire. He followed this with a period in Berlin, where he studied composition and conducting with Felix Weingartner and, in 1912, played in the Bluthner Orchestra. He then returned to Brussels, taught violin for a time at the Conservatoire and, in 1923, joined the First Orchestra of Belgian Radio as a violinist. From then on his career was intimately bound up with Belgian Radio. He founded the Belgian Radio Symphony Orchestra (INR) in 1935 and later that of the Belgian National Radio Institute (NIR). These names are rather confusing. Almost all his recordings seem to have been made with the former organization, just a few with the latter. He remained at the head of the Belgian Radio Symphony Orchestra till 1958 (some sources say 1957) but continued to work with them for some years after that. He was official conductor of the Queen Elizabeth International Music Competition in Brussels from 1951 to 1964. It is not clear when he retired definitively. He died on 20th January 1975.
A television interview with him – in French – can be found on You Tube dated 1974. The man we see there, though aged 81, looks physically and mentally still able to conduct, so perhaps he made occasional appearances right to the end.
An earlier television interview in black and white, also available on You Tube, is worth seeing if only as a reminder of past habits and social tolerance levels. The interviewer smokes energetically throughout, unabashedly blowing huge clouds of smoke in André’s face.
During his years with Belgian Radio, André introduced a good many new works. He particularly encouraged Koechlin, giving first performances of many of his pieces – for example, “Les Bandar-Log” on 13th December 1946. André’s attentions restored Koechlin’s own faith in his work – some Paris performances under Desormière had been less scrupulously prepared – although, if some Google-chat is correct, André tried, in vain, to persuade him to make his pieces shorter. Another première was of Milhaud’s Seventh Symphony in September 1955. André and his Belgian players also gave the European première of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and the Western European première of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. He was the dedicatee of Hartmann’s First Symphony.
André’s dedication to Belgian musical life seems not to have left much time for visits abroad. A trawl through the internet shows a guest appearance with the Scottish Orchestra in 1952 and his various concerts in Italy won him respect as a conductor who could get the RAI orchestras to play well – something which not all his more famous colleagues were able to do.
Fonds Franz André
The Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique now has a “Fonds Franz André”, set up following the donation of material by the André family. This contains more than 200 printed scores, around 60 manuscripts, two autograph books, which include the signatures of Britten and Milhaud, radio and concert programmes, posters, photos, diplomas, a collection of 527 letters, 30 medals and five batons. The Britten connection seems to be a performance of the Piano Concerto in 1939, which the composer himself played under André’s direction. The sound section has some 50 discs, a hundred-or-so magnetic tapes from radio broadcasts and a box of audio cassettes. This, obviously, is distinct from whatever tapes Belgian Radio itself may still hold. It would seem then, that anyone wishing to investigate André in a big way will find plenty of material. Until then, we have a fair number of commercially issued records.
André was quite busy in the recording studios, almost exclusively with his own orchestra and for Telefunken. A recording of Franck’s “Le Chasseur Maudit”, made for Decca in 1946 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, is the only exception I have traced. By and large, Telefunken had him do popular repertoire, mainly shorter pieces.
One exception is Hartmann’s Symphony no.4 for string orchestra, which was set down with the Grand Orchestre Symphonique de l’I.N.R. Belge, Brussels on 18.11.1950 (Telefunken LGM 65001, rec. Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels). This was already the second recording of this work – Fricsay and the RIAS Berlin had set it down the previous year. Such attention suggests that the symphony was perceived at the time as a major utterance. Though it has not achieved much popularity since, in spite of a later recording under Kubelik and some more recent interpretations, a hearing of the present disc suggests that it was indeed a major utterance. From the brooding beginning it achieves passionate heights. Maybe a certain visionary quality is lacking to transform it from a work of its time to one for all time. Nevertheless, admirers of, say, Shostakovich, should get a lot out of it. The Belgian orchestra make a very good showing. There is occasionally some smudging of high, exposed violin lines but nothing to mar enjoyment. André, to whom Hartmann had dedicated his First Symphony, is always committed and sometimes, as in the later stages of the second movement and the climaxes of the finale, really inspired.
This seems the most appropriate place to mention an off-the-air tape I have, perhaps typical of the sort of André items that are lying hidden in the archives, of Beck’s Flute Concerto (1941). Severino Gazzelloni is the soloist and André conducts the Rome RAI SO (rec. 28.1.1957).
The Swiss composer Conrad Beck (1901-1989) enjoyed a certain reputation in the 1930s through to the 1950s, not least as a result of vigorous promotion by the conductor and patron Paul Sacher. This Flute Concerto is not included in the apparently detailed work list in Wikipedia and there are precious few references to it anywhere. The sprightly beginning promises a useful piece in neo-classical mode, but unfortunately it meanders and I was unable to get up much enthusiasm for it. Gazzelloni is brilliant in what sounds like some very difficult florid work, and his tone is fuller and more expressive in the slower passages than it sometimes could be. The orchestra has little to do, but André seizes on his few moments of limelight with passionate conviction. All to little avail, but anyone researching material for a tribute to the 20th century’s major Italian flautist might find it worth considering.
Apart from this, you wouldn’t guess, from André’s discography, that he was an energetic proponent of contemporary music. In general, too, Telefunken’s recording techniques in the 1950s were not equal to those of the best of their contemporaries. Still, this is what we have, so what does it tell us?
As always in this series, I am grateful to the bloggers who have made available this out-of-copyright material. Or, in this case, to the blogger. Virtually everything I discuss here comes from a fascinating site called Damian’s 78s. The only record that doesn’t comes from a site – Squirrel’s Nest – that has since gone private. I am also mentioning the few off-air Italian Radio performances I have, since the repertoire fills some gaps.
If we start with the “meat” and go in chronological order, the beginnings are inauspicious. Beethoven’s Symphony no.4 – there’s a disc of the First Symphony that I haven’t heard – is the sort of record that has you wondering if this sort of digging in the archives is such a good idea after all. The performance gets off to a bad start with the separated notes in the strings played a beefy mezzo forte instead of a hushed piano. Since there is some quiet string playing elsewhere, it’s no good suggesting the recording has levelled out the dynamics. It is, in fact, a performance that goes well enough in the bright and breezy allegros but is a bit perfunctory, even impatient, with the adagios – there’s some hurrying in the full-toned second movement. The splendid drive of the finale is let down by the lack of genuine soft playing – hear how they dig into the opening. Oddly, the finale gets its repeat while the first movement doesn’t. Not the worst performance one has heard, but hardly a very subtle affair (Telefunken TW 30149, rec. 2.10.1953, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
For some reason, André’s version of Beethoven’s Symphony no.7 is infinitely more worthwhile. After a grand, forward-moving introduction, the first movement allegro goes at a broad tempo that allows proper enunciation of the dotted rhythm for once – this is one of the very few performances I’ve heard where this rhythm does not degenerate into a slogging 2/4-time by about half-way through. It is also fiercely articulated and with some real pianissimos where needed. No exposition repeat but even so, one of the finest performances I know. The second movement is again broad, with a sense of real tragedy, and André digs right into the music. The remainder is good but energetic in a more generalized way. The scherzo and trio are shorn of all second repeats but André has a good tempo for the trio, with no pompous dawdling. Perhaps the greatness hinted at in the first two movements declines into mere excellence overall. Nevertheless, a performance much superior to many more blazoned – but better recorded – accounts (Telefunken LT 7023 [Uruguayan issue ], rec. 3.10.1952, Palais des Beaux Arts).
Things improve further still with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. no.4. This is unlike any other performance I have heard and its claims need careful consideration. At the outset the brass fanfares may promise a goodish middle-of-the-road reading. The carefully graded string chords and the patient expectancy of the lower wind melodies show that real thought is at work. You may even be led to suppose this will be a broad, steady interpretation. The Allegro is, in fact, very swift indeed, and so it continues, lean and driving, with the counterpoint kept clear and no let-up until the second subject, which is very tenderly introduced. The new tempo is fairly broad and André seems to want it to be plain that there’s more than just a waltz at stake. This tempo is strictly held until the development ushers back the original Allegro. Things are then driven keenly, furiously and passionately. I won’t say I never heard anything like it, because I’ve heard Mravinsky, but we’re talking of that sort of level. The result of all this is that the movement is restructured in comparison with the way we normally hear it. And so convincingly that we should consider whether André is not right. The second movement unfortunately reveals that the Belgian first oboe was not much of an artist. When the strings take up the theme we can hear the sort of naturally warm, flowing phrasing André presumably wanted from the oboe too. The tempo is unhurried, but sufficiently on the move to allow the central section to follow with a minimal adjustment, more singing and less rhythmical than we often hear. The third movement does not offer so much scope for variations from the norm. It goes at a good, clear tempo that allows the wind episodes to slot in without a change. The finale is slightly slower than many, but it has a pounding vitality. The “leafy birch tree” theme, taken without a change of tempo, is allowed a certain doleful charm, like distantly remembered happiness. The return of the motto theme is given with overwhelming power. It had better be admitted that the Belgian orchestra is not up to Leningrad or Boston standards. Nevertheless, this is a remarkable performance – I’m inclined to claim it as a great one – and, for once, the recording is good for the date (Telefunken GMA 6, rec. 9.4.1954, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
André was a past master at a genre that has all but disappeared from our concert programmes – the bright and cheery curtain-opener-style overture. In particular, his conducting of the once-popular overtures to various French comic, or at any rate light-hearted, operas, evokes all the carefree elegance, bustle and verve of the “belle époque”.
This is not to say that this music can only be done in this way. In my article on Fistoulari I noted how the latter, in the overture to Ambroise Thomas’ “Mignon”, managed to infuse the music with something of Goethe’s own more troubled spirit. And it would probably not be tactful to any conductor to look closely into such alternatives as were set down by Beecham in his inimitable style. Nevertheless, these are stylish and vital versions dating from a time when these overtures were bread-and-butter repertoire for any orchestra. Any of today’s young conductors who decided to set down a disc consisting of the overtures to “Si j’étais roi” (Adam), “Fra Diavolo”, “La Muette de Portici” (both by Auber), “ Zampa” (Hérold), “Mignon” (Thomas) and “Le Carnival Romain” (Berlioz), would obviously be no stranger to the last-named, but might be conducting the others for the first time. He may never have even heard them before.
The Berlioz is, of course, the “important” piece on the disc. On first hearing I thought it a little underplayed. The recording itself is somewhat tubby and lacking in brilliance and Damian, in my view quite rightly, has provided faithful reportage of it. The listener is free, of course, to fiddle around with it in his own computer and I found that a bit of added brilliance made all the difference. André’s gentle, flowing reading of the cor anglais theme actually evokes the Roman campagna better than many a more doleful version and the rest, if not hard-hitting, sizzles in a joyful sort of way (Telefunken SMA 13, rec. 1955-1957, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
On a 7-inch EP, André set down the overtures to Offenbach’s “Orphée aux enfers” and Suppé’s “Dichter und Bauer”. Insouciant verve is the keynote again, while the earlier sections of both pieces are nicely turned (Telefunken UX 4507, rec. 6-5.10.1952, Palais des Beaux Arts).
Popular Suites, Tone-Poems and Ballet
Unsurprisingly, André obtains the most consistently fine results in the French repertoire.
In Suites 1 and 2 from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne, the piquant woodwind, with the “old-French” vibrato, lend this performance a colouring that would be impossible to reproduce today. Abetted by this, André gives a performance where strong passions alternate with pastoral charm. He leaves us in no doubt that this is music with emotional strength. If we want to carp, tempi are inconsistent in the opening piece and in the sublime “Adagio”, he doesn’t quite have that sense of line that a really great conductor, like Stokowski, could display in music like this, but neither does he lack sensitive shading. Having made this observation, I was then struck by how positively he shapes the following piece, and indeed the whole of the second suite. This is really very, very good (Telefunken LGX 66021, rec. 1.10.1953).
André’s Delibes disc – Suites from Coppélia and Sylvia is quite something. The conductor gets total commitment from his players in the sort of music that can so easily be just another job to be done. After some warbling horns in the Coppélia Prelude, the Mazurka is almost outrageously upfront, it made me want to get up and leap around the room. And I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way about it before.
Yet I think the Sylvia extracts are even more remarkable. In “Les Chasseresses” the brass blaze away as if this were the real “Ride of the Valkyries” instead of a fair imitation – “Sylvia” came six years later. In the “Valse lente” and the “Pizzicato” his knowing, nudging rubato is near to being over the top, yet maintains an elegance that makes it convincing. Having recently heard this music superbly done in strict dancing tempi by Fistoulari, I was amazed at how differently it could be done, and equally convincingly. What André and Fistoulari share is an apparent conviction that this is really fine, even great music. They certainly make it sound so. André’s piquant French-sounding wind are a plus on his side, and for once he has a very good recording for the date (Telefunken TCS 18006, rec. 16.4.1957 [Coppélia], 17.4.1957 [Sylvia] Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels].
As I mentioned earlier, Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit seems to be André’s sole recording not made for Telefunken and using an orchestra – the London Philharmonic – other than his own Belgian band. Together with the few RAI recordings I have heard, it demonstrates that, though André was closely associated with just the one orchestra, he had no difficulty in making contact as a guest conductor. He draws playing of great commitment and fervour from the LPO, with plenty of colour and a wide dynamic range – wider than such an old recording can really cope with. But apart from the really big climaxes the sound is acceptable and the performance is all one could wish (Decca K 1485/6, rec. 2.4.1946, Kingsway Hall, London).
Back in Brussels, a recording is also listed of Franck’s Psyché (Telefunken LGX 66024, rec. 5.10.1952, Palais des Beaux Arts). I haven’t heard this so cannot say which movement(s) is/are played. No choir is named, so presumably the entire work was not recorded.
In Saint-Saëns” Le Carnival des Animaux André is joined by pianists Frank Vanbulck and Jeanne Visele for a rather tough, serious view. This could be thought to make it all the funnier, but the close, airless recording does not encourage such an opinion. As it is, the “Swan” is somewhat unlovely and only the finale has the sort of zest André invariably supplied elsewhere (Telefunken GMA 41, rec. 5.10.1950).
The same composer’s Danse Macabre is a more attractive proposition. Without exaggerated point-making – the tempo is kept on even keel – this is a highly effective rendering. The waltz rhythm manages to encompass both the juicy and the manic without becoming too serious either way, and the “French” timbres contribute strongly. The end is quite eerie. The opening sounds a bit too close but thereafter this is one of the few recordings in this series that actually sounds very good for its date (Telefunken VSK 9012, rec. 9.4.1952, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
Moving into the early 20th century, Debussy’s La Mer gets a highly effective performance, passionate, elemental and mobile without being overdriven, and alive to the music’s more mysterious aspects. If André could be careless of dynamic shading in Beethoven, he certainly isn’t here. However, the recording, with all due allowance for the fact that it is by some way the earliest of those I’ve discussed, is a tubby, constricted affair. You’d really need a special interest in the conductor to hear this (Telefunken KCM 8010, rec. 17.11.1941).
Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë Suite no.2 is also a very effective performance. In the sunrise André keeps the rustlings and chirpings well balanced against the broad string melody which develops steadily and organically. The “Pantomime” is drowsy in the right sort of way while the “Danse genérale” has plenty of glitter at an un-hectic tempo. There is a sensation that this is the classical world as seen through the eyes of Watteau or Fragonard – there’s a classical frame around it. The recording is reasonable for the date (Telefunken GMA 41, rec. 11.1950).
In Boléro, André chooses a good tempo and maintains it well without becoming rigid. In the later stages he phrases the music more than some conductors, with the result that it continues to sound sinuous for longer than usual. However, in the earlier stages some of his wind principals are more secure than others and the recording, though stereo, is dull above mezzo forte (Telefunken SLB 12001, rec. 2-7.4.1958, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
I have already praised, in this series, Hugo Rignold’s excellent performance of Dukas’ L’apprenti sorcier. Yet I have to say that André brings an extra imaginative dimension, to the opening above all. It may be partly that André’s recording, one of the few in stereo, is distanced whereas Rignold’s is upfront, arguably more effective as the music gests rowdier but too close for the beginning. It may also partly be that the typical French timbre of the Belgian wind helps to create those misty-evocative colours we so loved in the old French films. But no, there’s more to it than that. It comes down to timing and pacing, so that the apprentice’s wide-eyed, childlike astonishment at each new happening is made palpable. Once things are going full tilt there’s not so much difference. The main thing is not to go so fast it turns into a gabble, and neither conductor does that. So, much as I enjoyed the Rignold, the André reminded me even more what a splendid piece this actually is. (Telefunken SLB 12001, rec. 2-7.4.1958, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
I can supplement this with a performance of D’Indy’s Istar which André gave with the Turin RAI SO in 1961. He was able to draw excellent, highly committed playing from the Turin orchestra in this decadent post-Wagnerian feast. My off-the-air recording is muddy with compressed dynamics, but there is no reason to suppose the original tape would not sound well.
The few Austro-German/central European offerings are more mixed.
André’s interpretative methods in Liszt’s Les Préludes provide a curious contrast to the strict approach he adopted for Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony. I was only recently listening to Swarowsky’s tautly symphonic rendering of this piece. André adopts a much more narrative approach, phrasing the lyrical lines lovingly and tenderly, with some old-style portamenti from the strings and a certain amount of elbow-room to shape the music. The climaxes are then whipped up with seething excitement. More than any other conductor I’ve heard, André sounds as if he really loves the piece. It is this that enables him to get away with such a free-ranging interpretation. This is a performance that needs to be heard, though the recording buckles under the strain of the last climax (Telefunken L 8173, rec. 9.4.1952, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
Meyerbeer’s Fackeltanz no.1 sounds like an intriguing find, but it inspired me to only modified rapture. The Fackeltanz originated in medieval tournaments but remained in some German 19th century courts as a torchlight procession during wedding ceremonies. Meyerbeer, while Director of the Royal Opera in Berlin, was required to provide four of them. This first was written in 1846 for the wedding of Princess Wilhelmina of Prussia with the King of Bavaria. Nothing here suggests we should be sorry that André didn’t record the other three. As with Meyerbeer’s operas – though I know there are fans out there who would kill me for saying this – it’s all put together with great competence and with every new idea that comes, you think that maybe now, at last, we’re going to get a really good tune. But before that ever happens, the whole thing is over. André brings gusto and buoyancy to the job – anyone curious would be unlikely to hear it better done (Telefunken TM 68014, rec. 2.10.1953, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier Waltzes will please only those for whom “Der Rosenkavalier” is inherently over the top. The swooning portamenti and the lush rubati had me wondering if André found the piece distasteful and resolved to make a mockery of it (Telefunken L 8173, rec. 12.4.1952, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
The Russian repertoire finds André on firmer ground, though one potentially major offering, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (Telefunken LP LGX 66018, rec. 2.10.1952, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels), has eluded me.
Glazunov’s Concert Waltz no.1 recently came my way while preparing my article on Anatole Fistoulari. While Fistoulari, with the Philharmonia, has a wonderful, smiling yet melancholy grace, somehow deeply Russian, Franz André, at a faster tempo and with occasionally scrambled playing, brings it the verve of the “belle époque”. By a whisker I prefer Fistoulari, though the competition is unfair – he has an excellent recording, André’s is rather muffled and old-sounding (Telefunken TM 68014, rec. 2.10.1953, Palais des Beaux Arts).
Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain is disappointing. As in the Rignold performance I heard earlier in this series, André doesn’t screw things up demoniacally enough to mark this out as a performance to return to. Moreover, while Rignold partly redresses the situation with his poetic handling of the last section, André is there perfunctory and unengaged, though the colouring of the old-French-style woodwind provides some interest (Telefunken VSK 9012, rec. 9.4.1952, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
André’s unusual, and highly successful, Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony lends obvious interest to the other works he set down by this composer.
Capriccio Italien should certainly not disappoint. André seems to want to find a modicum of Tchaikovskian melancholy and darkness in this sunny extravaganza. The opening section clearly lends itself best to such an operation. However, when Tchaikovsky’s military-band-style orchestration takes over later on André does not hold back, and he drives the final tarantella along with great panache, while retaining a symphonic dimension as well as folkloristic colouring. An interesting performance in which the music leaves a stronger impression than it often does. The orchestra here is the Grand Orchestre Symphonique de l’I.N.R. Belge, Brussels (Telefunken LGM 65005, rec. 12.4.1952, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
Set down just two days later, again with André’s “other” orchestra, Romeo and Juliet is much less appealing. The introduction, faster than usual, creates a certain air of expectation and the fighting music goes with plenty of zip. The love music is very beautifully prepared, but when it arrives it sounds somewhat plain. The passionate return later on is pushed on rather too rigidly. The ending is presented as a symphonic rather than a dramatic epilogue. I found this by some way one of André’s least satisfying performances (Telefunken LGM 65005, rec. 14.4.1952, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
A steady-as-she-goes “Nutcracker” Suite shows André in more sympathetic light. It is affectionately phrased and with the fairy-tale world well to the fore. Only in the concluding “Valse des fleurs” did I feel the steadiness was getting too much of a good thing (Telefunken TC 8001, rec. 23.10.1955, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
This came coupled with a very nicely shaded and turned performance of the Serenade in C. While not exactly lacking in passion, it maintains a certain reserve that might have been more suited to the Elgar Serenade. If the idea appeals, it is certainly well done according to its lights (Telefunken TC 8001, rec. 15.7.1956, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels).
Turning to his native Belgium, André made a recording, which I haven’t heard, of 4 Old Flemish Folksongs by Arthur De Greef – better remembered as a pianist (Telefunken LGX 66024, rec. 7.10.1952, Palais des Beaux Arts).
Rather attractive is the Rhapsodie Dahoméenne by the Flemish composer August De Boeck (1865-1937). This piece was written in 1893 and may remind English listeners of Coleridge-Taylor. It is really just a jolly piece of light music, lasting a little under five minutes. It basically juggles around with a catchy, slightly syncopated motive, mostly in a fast tempo but including a proto-Rachmaninov transformation, with swooning strings, towards the end. André’s typical rhythmic snap shows it to best light (Telefunken SLB 12001, rec. 2-7.4.1958).
André apparently made orchestral transcriptions of composers such as Rameau, Lully, Leclair and Grétry. For his recording of a suite from Grétry’s Céphale et Procris, however, he used orchestrations by Felix Mottl which “The Record Guide” of 1955 found “perilously near to transforming the music into a nineteenth-century pastiche”. They thought the performance “very sprightly”, however (Telefunken LGM 65004).
Rather more surprisingly, André also recorded a suite from Purcell’s King Arthur. I haven’t heard any of these earlier-music recordings, but I do have an off-the-air tape of a performance of the Purcell which André conducted with the RAI’s Naples Scarlatti Orchestra on 9 May 1961. Assuming that the Naples performance is substantially similar to the recording with his own orchestra, he used a medium-sized string band with no continuo. The performance is affectionate and lively, with considerable dynamic shading. Even by 1961 this must have come to sound old-fashioned. To listeners today it will fall between the two stools since, for all its musicality, it is not sufficiently weird and wonderful, as a Stokowski performance might have been, to make us forget all our principles and lap it all up delightedly.
Moving ahead to early 20th century England, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no.1 gets a good, rhythmically-alive performance with a nicely-phrased “big tune”. It does just misses the sort of irrepressible joie-de-vivre which the best Boult performances – the Readers’ Digest one, for example – could find in this piece (Telefunken Telestar 10049, rec. 20.4.1957).
Also on this record – a coupling that might look more logical to Belgian eyes than British or American ones – was Gershwin’s An American in Paris. This is a lovely performance, not unlike that set down ten years earlier in Paris itself by another Belgian conductor, André Cluytens. Many of the French orchestral timbres were still surviving in 1957, as was the ability to make the music dance and swing in a somewhat French way – more Folie Bergères than Manhattan.
And yet, orchestral timbres and styles were changing by the day. Under André, when the strings take up the blues theme they bring a Mantovani-like sheen – Palm Court rather than Monmartre. And, while André doesn’t get bogged down in the blues, there’s a touch of obviousness to the big tunes that Cluytens managed to avoid. Oddly enough, the better 1957 recording isn’t pure gain. Go back to 1947 and you wonder if Gershwin doesn’t sound more himself on old 78s.
Or perhaps I mean something else. Cluytens made quite a lot of records where he didn’t seem to care overmuch what happened, but he made a few – Ravel’s “La Valse” is one – which exude a feeling of relaxed bonhomie and sheer humanity, with the result that, whatever other versions I may admire or even theoretically prefer, the Cluytens is the one I always go back to. I’m hearing Cluytens’ Gershwin for the first time, as I am André’s, but I have the idea that “An American in Paris” is one of those pieces that just belonged to Cluytens. All the same, if you don’t know the Cluytens, I should think you’d find the André quite gorgeous (Telefunken Telestar 10049, rec. 19.4.1957).
However, if there’s an André disc I’d take to the desert island with me, it’s the “other side” of this Anglo-American disc: Eric Coates’ London Suite and London Bridge from the London Again Suite. This is absolutely super Coates playing, with zippy, infectious rhythms and the lyrical themes heartfelt without indulgence. “Westminster” is kept moving, but there is no sense of haste. In the first piece, when Coates brings in “Cherry Ripe” as his second subject, the players sound as if they have known and loved the tune all their lives, something which is actually highly unlikely. There is all the freshness of first discovery and no hint of condescension. Furthermore, the recording is unusually good for the source and for once the Belgian brass can be enjoyed to the full (Telefunken Telestar 10049, rec. 2-7.4.1958).
Would it be worth looking for more?
So there it is. André dedicated much of his career to introducing contemporary music to his Belgian audiences – and to judge from his Hartmann Symphony 4 he did it very well. But, probably not of his own choosing, he dedicated most of his recording career to light, popular fare – and he did that very well, too. Beethoven’s 7th and Tchaikovsky’s 4th show he could have plenty to say about major works too, though Beethoven’s 4th suggests he did not always achieve more than a good routine. The discs I’ve discussed aren’t quite all he made, but the remainder seem to be just more popular pieces. They would not alter the overall picture gained so far.
The material held by the Fonds Franz André, and probably by Belgian Radio too, could alter the picture. The European première of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, if it survives, is part of our musical history, however good or bad it was – one supposes it was at least decent. However, it is difficult to imagine that such retrievals would arouse enough public interest to be commercially viable. Meanwhile, a nice 2-CD, or even 3-CD album of “Franz André conducts French Music” might serve as a reminder of a conductor who did sterling work.
Forgotten Artists Index