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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Les Préludes, S.97 (1848 rev 1853) [15:32]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade, Op.35 (1888) [42:17]
Igor STRAVINSKY
Firebird Suite (1919 version) [17:26]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Oskar Fried
rec. 1928, Berlin
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC392 [75:16]

Oskar Fried is probably best known for being a disciple of Mahler, and for his massive late acoustic sets of the composer’s Second Symphony. It was the first complete recording of a symphony by the composer - and Bruckner’s Seventh.
 
None in the pieces in this Pristine Audio disc are new to CD - indeed the Firebird suite has already been reviewed by me on a competing, though very different Arbiter disc, which includes some marvellously rare things. Pristine has already released Fried’s Choral Symphony from 1927-28, and a fascinating document it is too, and the Eroica from 1924. There is a lot of Fried out there and for interpretative and historical matters you might want to follow up the links, which I won’t reprise in this review.
 
Fried was a memorable conductor. I’ve no idea why he failed to please American critics, as the examples now on disc show a conductor whose blazing intensity demands the utmost respect. There are some Mengelbergian moments in his conducting and some too that remind me of Nikisch’s quip to his favourite pupil - ‘Coates, your baton seems insufficient to express your feelings: you need a whip’. Fried tended to demand a higher level of orchestral discipline than Albert Coates.
 
The opening piece in this disc is a fabulous performance of Liszt’s Les Préludes. It’s everything you’d want it to be - imposing, passionate, intense, and full of uplifting verve. There are moments of free metricality but they are subject to an over-arching architectural cogency. The harp is well balanced, and the winds are full of personality. This is the Berlin Philharmonic on excellent form, in a thrillingly grandiloquent display of their wares. Scheherazade reinforces Fried’s very personal sense of metrics, his strong rubati, and narrative sense. Here, more than anywhere in this disc, one can savour Fried’s colouristic qualities, a painterly sense of depiction that is perfect for this, of all works. His solo violin is probably Henry Holst, who characterises each movement with uncommon cleverness, cajoling, yielding, tender, and virtuosically self-confident as appropriate. He varies his tone colours and vibrato speeds with great facility and he plays with an orchestral ear but a chamber player’s sensitivity. He was later to excel as a chamber player in England. This highly effusive and vibrant reading should be very high on anyone’s list of great pre-war Scheherazades.
 
Music & Arts CD1198 contained Les Préludes, Beethoven’s Second Symphony and the Firebird suite - thus Pristine comes into direct competition in two works. The Firebird was also recorded in 1928, the same year in fact that Albert Coates recorded two movements (only) in London for HMV. Fried was returning to a work he had already recorded acoustically back in 1924, and he does it just as proud, and personally, in this remake. Rhythms bite, scenes are set, the character of the music sings from the grooves. The original recording quality for this work, in particular, was outstanding for the time and it sounds it in this transfer. Competing transfers sound rather steely with far less frequency response.
 
It’s clear that Fried was a major conductor - this has been obvious for years, even when his discs were scarce - and it’s good that transfers such as this honour his outstanding recordings with such care.
 
Jonathan Woolf

Masterwork Index: Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade ~~ Stravinsky Firebird