Antal Doráti is generally remembered nowadays as the first conductor to record a complete cycle of Haydn symphonies (Decca)
(see below). You may well also recall his extensive series of Haydn operas (reviewreview) — many of which are still unchallenged in the catalogues — which were issued towards the end of his life. He had the misfortune, with the Haydn symphonies, that his performances were rapidly overtaken by the period instrument movement. This tended to relegate his own versions to the ‘historical’ category but at the same time his services to the music of Haydn also rather overshadowed his many recordings of more modern works, in which he excelled. His recordings of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman (Decca 460 738) and Strauss’s Egyptian Helen (Decca 478 6502) can still claim to be among the best versions of those works in the catalogues. His first recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird was simply magnificent; and his Decca collection of Kodály’s orchestral music (review) introduced many of that composer’s major works to the catalogue for the first time. At the same time his achievements here tended to be overshadowed by those of his contemporary colleagues. He never established the following of Klemperer or Karajan, or for that matter others of the Ks such as Kubelík, Kempe or Kertesz. Indeed, one has the uneasy suspicion that Decca only turned to Doráti for their Kodály box after the latter’s early death.
It is hard to see why that should have been so. At his best Doráti could rival any of the Ks, and even his fellow-Hungarian Solti, for sheer panache and excitement in the music of Bartók and the romantics. It is hard to understand why he was denied the chance to make more recordings in that field. Part of the problem may simply have been marketing strategy. Many of Dorati’s recordings were issued (in the UK at least) on mid-price and budget labels. Some of these were not ideally engineered or given the benefit of LP surfaces free of defects. There may also have been problems with the actual layout of the discs themselves. The first Doráti LP I purchased in the 1960s was a Philips budget-price release which coupled what I recall as an extremely exciting Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet with a decidedly mismatched and underwhelming Schubert Unfinished Symphony. This combination, I imagine, might have appealed to few enthusiasts for either composer. It has therefore been left to the Antál Dorati Centenary Society to rescue this Berlioz coupling from obscurity, in what is described as its first European CD release although both performances appeared on LP in the 1950s and 1960s. The fact that both were mono recordings consigned them to the bargain-box immediately, and both had disappeared from the catalogues by the end of the 1970s.
The booklet supplied with this release quotes the 1966 edition of the Penguin Guide to Bargain Records as saying that the performance of the symphony “has plenty of character”. It refrains from quoting the rest of the review which severely criticised the recording quality as “thin and lacking in substance”. In fact, although the sound is sometimes boxy in the manner of early mono recordings, there is quite a lot of body in this re-mastering. Some of the violin tone is a bit thin, and the oboe and bassoons sound a bit reedy but otherwise the sound is generally good. The internal balance of the orchestra is remarkably clear and the close observation of the violins reveals some very nimble fingering indeed. The Penguin Guide also commented that the first movement was “somewhat neurotic in style” but to my ears the opening is well contained and the dramatic contrasts arise naturally out of the music. There's plenty of punch and contrast which is no more than Berlioz’s score demands.
The need to cram the score onto a single LP and with the slow movement unbroken does however necessitate the omission of all Berlioz’s marked repeats. Now both of these are really essential for the balance of the work – the repeat of the idée fixe in the first movement serves to establish the theme properly and involves a specially written bar to facilitate this. The omission of the repeat in the fourth movement leaves the March to the scaffold as a somewhat perfunctory element in the whole. There are also some other textual concerns. The woodwind at the opening of the Witches’ Sabbath make no attempt whatsoever to give us Berlioz’s marked and admittedly problematic glissandi. These can have such an eerie effect when well managed. The marked violin portamenti in the waltz are also ignored. In the closing section Doráti suddenly crams on the brakes at the start of witches’ dance. This might indicate a degree of caution but which he then employs to introduce a gradual acceleration over the course of the following couple of minutes. This latter adds a somewhat gratuitous sense of freneticism to pages of the score which in all conscience are quite exciting enough anyway. He also makes a very odd decision to double the bells during this movement at the octave. Berlioz actually marks the bells in three octaves in the score but I have always assumed that this is an expedient to be employed in the event that his alternative use of a grand piano instead of bells is necessary. Doráti is the only conductor in my experience to take Berlioz at his word here, but the effect — extraordinarily well co-ordinated — is spoiled because both sets of bells are an octave too high. Still, better this than the unthinking use of tubular bells with which we are so often afflicted nowadays. The effect is certainly dramatic.
The Roman Carnival Overture is an even older recording than the Symphonie fantastique, and to be frank it rather sounds it. It is very closely observed by the microphones and is delivered at a speed which reduces much of the music to a gabble. Again one is convinced that Doráti’s aim is to emphasise the dramatic element in Berlioz and his insights in the symphony, while not always convincing, are always interesting. One would not wish for this recording as the only representation of the Symphonie in one’s collection but it makes for an interesting and not at all unwelcome alternative view. One might wish that Doráti had been given the opportunity to record the symphony again in stereo, but as it is we should be grateful that the
Antal Doráti Centenary Society have seen fit to reissue this version. Paul Corfield Godfrey
Footnote That Antal
Dorati was the first conductor to record the complete Haydn symphonies is
not correct. The cycle recorded in Vienna under Ernst Maerzendorfer
was completed several years before Dorati's. Available in some places on the
Musical Masterpieces Society, it had only brief availability in the UK on LP
and hasn't been transferred to CD as far as I know.