Boxing Classical Music
FERENC FRICSAY ON DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON (2015)
Jens F. Laurson Former Contributor
Ferenc Fricsay, Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon Vol.1 - Orchestral Works RIAS Symphony...
… The Conductor Ferenc Fricsay died prematurely from the consequences of a gallbladder perforation, in 1963, at the age of 48. Had he lived a little while longer, he would not be semi-obscure nowadays but instead as well-known as Karl Böhm, Bruno Walter, George Szell… perhaps even Herbert von Karajan.
Alas, this was not to be for this prodigiously gifted Hungarian, although his career and the documents that are left to us are titillating to consider. As Franz Grillparzer wrote as Schubert’s epitaph, so it might be said about Ferenc Fricsay: “The art of music here entombed such rich-ness; but even fairer hopes.”
Fricsay was born in Budapest in 1914 of a Jewish mother and Catholic father. After a musical upbringing in Hungary, Fricsay had three years of successful appearances in Salzburg and in Vienna, following the end of the war. In Salzburg he had been Otto Klemperer’s assistant—and in 1947 he achieved some fame by replacing Klemperer, conducting the world premiere of Gottfried von Einem’s opera. The recommendation for Fricsay to von Einem was to have come from Herbert von Karajan. The year after that he premiered Frank Martin’s Zaubertrank, - then Carl Orff’s Antigone.
In 1948 he was made the director of the Städtische Oper Berlin (City Opera Berlin, now Deutsche Oper Berlin) and the newly formed RIAS Symphony Orchestra (now DSO Berlin).
He whisked away the best players from the Staatskapelle Berlin and signed an exclusive contract with the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft that landed him in the middle of a recording frenzy, induced by the switch to shellac recordings and the need to replenish destroyed or new and empty radio archives.
He led the RIAS from 1948 until 1954 and from 1959 until his death. In the intermittent years he had an aborted music directorship in Houston and a moderately successful two-year stint in Munich. In 1961 he opened the newly built Deutsche Oper Berlin, in 1962 he conducted mostly in London before canceling all obligations due to reoccurring health problems that would ultimately lead to his death in February of 1963 in Basel, Switzerland.
There are a few artists in classical music that were seemingly unable to do wrong… unable to produce a single unmusical note, unable to be wilful in ways that would detract from the music. Artists—conductors or soloists—whose every recording you can pick without hesitation, solely on reputation.
Rafael Kubelik, Günter Wand, Carlos Kleiber, Clifford Curzon, Menahem Pressler, Pierre Fournier, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Hans Hotter, Christian Gerhaher would be on my list and that is already stretching it. - Ferenc Fricsay leads this list. -Since he recorded extensively in the studio (always taking great care over the finished product), much of his work survives on disc. Opinions on recordings always vary wildly. And while just about every reviewer will attest Fricsay’s contribu-tions to be first class, some will find that the contributions of his collaborators or bad recorded sound can torpedo his efforts. But everyone will find in most of his efforts something to be great, some will find everything splendid in most of them, and most will find something on every recor-ding to delight in.
Let’s open with a rare exception that puts the rule to the test: His Beethoven Triple/Brahms Double (with the greats Pierre Fournier, Géza Anda, Wolfgang Schneiderhan and János Starker).
I can’t warm up to the sound quality from these 1961/62 recordings, which is a rare dip below average. But more damning, there are several (hard-to-believe) sour moments among the soloists and there are simply too many better recordings out there now, Fricsay or not. But that is the lonely bummer of the lot, because even where a recording has been surpassed in most meaningful ways—such as Johanna Martzy’s (then pioneering and still wildly impressive and touching) recording of the Dvořák Violin Concerto by Isabelle Faust with Jiří Bělohlávek—it still gives us a window into the style of a time and two of the greatest violinists of their time: apart from Martzy, also Erica Morini (playing the Bruch No.1 and Glazunov Violin Concertos) who was described in an obituary as “the most bewitching woman violinist of [the 20th] century” and by Harold C. Schonberg, the renowned former chief music critic of The New York Times, as “probably the greatest woman violinist who ever lived.”
Fricsay was a great Mozartian. His operas give a still better impression of this, but the Sympho-nies with the Vienna Symphony and RIAS and especially the piano concertos with the past greats Clara Haskil and Annie Fischer do the trick, too! (Is it a coincidence that here, too, female instru-mental greats—less prominently found in recording studios at the time—found an enthusiastic musical partner in Fricsay?) His Beethoven set a standard that is still hard to surpass. His, the first Beethoven Ninth Symphony in stereo, is one of the handful of great “LvB-9”s, the other sym-phonies (Nos. 1, 3, 5, 7, 8) don’t rank far behind. As pointed out in “The 10 Best Classical Recor-dings Of 2014 (Reissues),” his Stravinsky makes your hair stand on end. He takes you on colorful discovery trips to the music of Zoltán Kodály, and he is one of the most idiomatic Bartók inter-preters.
All the better that Bartók is a major part (4 full discs) of the collection. When I asked cellist Peter Wispelwey if he had a favorite Fricsay recording, and he took a few seconds to think, his Trio partner, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who had overheard me butted in: “Bartók Violin Concert with Tibor Varga!” It’s not hard to tell why. Fricsay also trimmed all the fat and cut the treacle from Tchaikovsky long before that became (more) common. And his Haydn and Johann Strauss are, even in (surprisingly good) mono sound, wonders of musicality. Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps with Fricsay is more than just rhythmically crisp orchestral fireworks (though that, too), it has a surprising melodic lilt: One of the classic recordings amid admittedly many worthy classics.
Having his 1960 stereo Dvořák Ninth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic, long a staple in re-cord collections and one of the jewels in the DG catalog, means enjoying a classic. (It comes, as it does in its DG Originals issuance, with a zingy Les Préludes by Liszt and the famous “Vltava” bit from Bedřich Smetana’s Má Vlast.) Having the 1954 mono Dvořák Ninth with the RIAS—on the cover it still says “Fifth”, because Dvořák’s earliest four symphonies had not yet been published — is not in any strict sense necessary. But it helps in select conversations like these: Classical Fop A: “Which Dvořák Ninth is your favorite? Mine, I think, must be the fresh Nelsons and of cour-se the classic . And when it comes to deciding among the Kubeliks, I can’t make up my mind between Vienna and Berlin.” You: “I love the Fricsay”.- A:“Ah, yes, of course, great recor-ding. Very popular. But of course I think he really got more of his vision across in the earlier, never-issued-on-CD mono recording with the RIAS, you know.” Thanks to this box you can now retort: “Oh, yes, I like that one, too. But to be honest, I think I actually prefer the Berlin Philhar-monic one, not just for the sonics but also the orchestral detail and the richness of the strings.”
At this point Classical Fop A will quietly melt away or segue onto safer topics, stating preference of some Victor de Sabata recording of Tristan over a rare Carlos Kleiber Wagner-outing. The same shpiel works with the two accounts of his Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” Symphony: one mono, fierce, driven with the Berliners from 1953 and stereo, 1959, never officially sanctioned for re-lease, free-wheeling, inspired with the RIAS. Be ready when cornered.
What I particularly cherish are the 20th century composers—contemporaries of his—that Fricsay turned his attention to. Many of them are forgotten again, but at our own diet-de-diversifying peril. Rolf Liebermann (1910-1999), Boris Blacher (1903-1975), Gottfried von Einem (1918-1996), Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), Werner Egk (1901-1983), Wolfgang Fortner (1907-1987) and, already of a new generation of composers, Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012).
To take a couple examples to stand for the lot: Gottfried von Einem’s First Piano Concerto op. 20 (banned by the Nazis) is a spunky late romantic concerto that tinkles through three movements not unlike Ravel’s, except less lyrically. Gerty Herzog had made it a specialty of sorts (she also played it with Karajan at the Salzburg Festival in 1957) and makes a very convincing case for it, in this recording which has now been released on CD for the first time. Or Karl Amadeus Hart-mann: one of the truly great composers of the 20th century, but among those composers who were hampered in their career first by the Nazi takeover and then by the severe post-war avant-garde aesthetic. His language, which he shares with many even more forgotten composers (among them several of the above-mentioned), is that of the post-romantic tonality that saw itself squeezed out of the Western classical repertoire—courtesy of the post war embrace of the avant-garde and complexity, but with very angular elements. Hartmann wasn’t in the business of making listening to his works easy, but he was keen on rewarding effort. The Sixth Symphony, of which Fricsay’s is the classic account, is a riveting example of that.
The music aside, there are small niggles with regard to the production values. Some are necessi-tated by the price point (about $3 per disc), which is so low that the flimsy cardboard sleeves of the individual releases are perhaps inevitable. Ideal would be something more like the Callas set provides: Sleeves with room for a little minimal booklet with notes plus track listing and a little spine so that they can be read without taking them off the shelves, should one want to file them individually (by composer, for example), as the serious collector might. Fellow sufferers from Ob-sessive Compulsive CD Collection Disorder (OCCDCD) will find that to be a quibble worth noting.
But there are other points that would improve the joy of handling the set more. The splendid DG Originals series has the CDs printed to look like little LPs (Melodiya does the same thing now; ditto the “Callas Remastered” Edition) which is a nice touch, especially when the original cover-art is used on the sleeve itself. The Fricsay Edition has a rather loveless, bland and interchange-able design. The same DG Originals series also updated the original covers when the content of the CD was changed from that of the original vinyl, say, by joining—sensibly—the Third Bartók Piano Concerto to the original release of Numbers One and Two. That way all
the content was on the front, visible at a glance. Not so with the Fricsay edition where the front of the cover rarely tells the whole story and sometimes manages to mislead more than reveal. It’s nice to see the EP release cover of the now forgotten composer Rolf Liebermann’s Furioso for Orchestra and the Suite on Swiss Folk Songs, for example. But only the first ends up on the disc and that’s seven minutes while the actual contents, listed only on the back, also include Boris Blacher’s Paganini Variations, a movement from his Piano Concerto, Gottfried von Einem’s Piano Concerto and his Ballade. The Suite is found seven CDs onward, on CD 19, even though it would have easily fit on disc 12. Disc 20 promises Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Tcherepnin’s 10 Bagatelles and the Weber Concert Piece. We get the first two (the Tcherepnin is much apprecia-ted!), but not the Weber. Instead Manuel de Falla, Jean Françaix and Arthur Honegger show up. De Falla is promised on CD 14 that turns out 4/5 Brahms and 1/5 César Franck
The sound of the releases is quite good; and given the recording dates of the 50s and 60s even very good: The radio-seasoned people at RIAS knew what they were doing, back then. For the first-time-on-CD-releases, I have no LPs to compare; those that had been available on CD —
through an earlier, small “Fricsay—A Life in Music edition” or as DG Originals—I notice no diffe-rence or evidence of remastering.
The musical value is so vast, that any of the above quibbles matter little to the dedicated Fricsian and the soon-to-be dedicated Fricsian. Volume II, with the choral and operatic repertoire is most eagerly anticipated. It is also the volume that would benefit even more from a little caring update over this effort, especially useful as it would contain multiple disc sets which the Callas set shows would do very well in their own little sleeves, containing all CDs of one opera in one physical unit. Even if these fanciful hopes and wishes won’t be fulfilled (chances are the product is already far into production), it will be another, rare, essential box for the classical music lover.