Both of these releases are part of a new series ("The Legendary Deutsche Gramophone Sound of the 1950's") that promises to mine the pre-stereo DG catalogue. That's a very good thing indeed, for as they used to say, "There's gold in them thar hills." Most of these mono-only performances were originally issued in the United States on the Decca label, and featured a fascinating roster of conductors and soloists, many of whom were doing their best work during this period. In that respect, Fricsay can serve as a prime example; so it is appropriate that an appraisal of the series begin with these two releases.
A Great But Forgotten Conductor
Ferenc Fricsay's career lasted barely twenty years; from his Salzberg debut in 1944 (where he created a sensation filling in for an indisposed Otto Klemperer) to his premature death from cancer in 1963. Along with Karl Boehm and Eugen Jochum, he recorded a wide range of operatic and orchestral repertory for DG including early stereo recordings of all the major Mozart operas. Judging from this evidence, Fricsay was a truly great conductor: his Bartok and Kodaly remain definitive (and why not? Fricsay studied with both men), his performances of Romantic and 19th Century repertory (Dvorak, Schumann, Tchaikovsky) hold up remarkably well today, and there have been few better conductors of modern (Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith) or postwar European music (Hartmann, Martin, Von Einem, Blacher).
Fricsay's reputation has suffered from the fact that many of his best and most characteristic recordings were originally produced in mono. These soon became victims of advancing technology, supplanted by stereo remakes conducted by Karajan, who replaced him as the go-to guy at DG. Eventually a large share of Fricsay's records ended up in deleted bins, which is where I first discovered them. Though experience has called into question many of my earliest musical affections, these Fricsay performances still sound as fresh to me today as they did when I first heard them forty years ago.
In a sense, Fricsay was a transitional figure. A great admirer of Toscanini, Fricsay thought of himself as a modern conductor who avoided mannerism and kept the music moving swiftly forward. But like every other conductor of his generation, Fricsay was born in the all-enveloping shadow of Furtwangler, and he wasn't afraid of personalizing his interpretations in ways that would soon be out of favor. Sometimes Fricsay's tempos can indeed seem surprisingly free, but I have no problem with such "gear-shifting" as long as it's in keeping with the spirit and character of the score. Though it's true that in the 1960's, Fricsay's concentration sometimes wavered as he grew weaker from the illness that would eventually kill him; at his best his interpretations never sound exaggerated or arbitrary. On the contrary, what's truly impressive in all of these performances is the boldness and dynamism of the conceptions.
In the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, for example, Fricsay's very physical approach gives a profound dramatic shape to the contrast at the heart of the work. He's able to capture both the existential restlessness and volatility of the music and its alluring melancholy. Unlike most Germanic conductors (Klemperer, Boehm, Sanderling, Horenstein), Fricsay resists the temptation to philosophize, to make more of the score than what's actually there. Instead he communicates the emotional content directly and without any sense of compromise. My favorite Fourths are the most convulsive and daring: Leonard Bernstein in his first go-round with the New York Philharmonic (certainly not any of his later, far more indulgent versions), Igor Markevitch from his mostly sensational complete cycle with the London Symphony, and historical issues from the likes of Cantelli, Abendroth, Koussevitsy and Mengelberg. The Fricsay now takes an honored place in this visionary company.
The ballet excerpts count as more than just fillers. Many great t conductors have left behind memorable versions of this music: Reiner, Ansermet, Mravinsky and Dorati, to name just a few. But none of them have generated the life-affirming swagger that Fricsay does here. There is a sense of bristling electricity and headlong momentum that makes every note of this familiar music sound newly minted. Even if the performance of the symphony weren't as compelling as it is, I would still recommend this disc for the sheer excitement and dramatic intensity of these excerpts. If you needed further proof that Fricsay was one of the greats, here it is.
Non-Literal Minded Stravinsky
The Stravinsky disc may prove more controversial. Fricsay's account of Le Sacre du Printemps comes from a time when performances of this score weren't quite as homogenized or as standardized as they have since become. Stravinsky was constantly trying to perfect a conductor-proof score; and sampling a wide variety of performances of Le Sacre recorded over the past twenty years or so, you could certainly argue that he'd pretty much succeeded. In the competing versions of Monteux and Van Beinum, Boulez and Markevitch, Muti and Abbado, Nagano and Levine, you can note different shadings of heavier or lighter, faster or slower. But in effect, all of these versions have more in common than not, and all tend a little to the literal-minded--which is, of course, just the way Stravinsky wanted it. As you would expect, Stravinsky's own version is the most literal-minded of all, and has served as a template for many others. (By the way, I'd argue that many of the differences we hear in performances of this work derive not from the interpretations, but rather from the very individual sounds of the orchestras involved. Muti and Abbado may well be doing variations on a theme, but there's no confusing the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra on the one hand and the London Symphony Orchestra on the other.)
Those versions that do manage to stand apart from the crowd (Bernstein, Horenstein, Barenboim, Maazel) always end up sounding a little eccentric, if not mannered in comparison to the usual thing. But that's not the case with Fricsay. As freely expressive as he often sounds, Fricsay is always working to shape the music both narratively and dramatically. Here the sense of urgency and menace evolves and intensifies over the course of the ballet, which for once makes sense as a coherent whole. Which is not to say, this performance shorts us on visceral excitement, just that the shocks and thrills count for more than they often do. In this respect, Fricsay most reminds me of Valery Gergiev's recent recording with the Kirov Orchestra. Both conductors put a very individual stamp on the music that makes it seem more, rather than less profoundly dramatic than we're used to. For me, the Petrushka doesn't quite measure up to that level of excellence. It is, nevertheless, dynamically played and full of character--in this case, maybe a little more expressionistic than rhythmically taut or concise. My favorite versions of the score remain mostly prehistoric: Monteux (in both Boston and Amsterdam), Ansermet with his Swiss ensemble (very early stereo), Mitropolous with the New York Philharmonic (the most imaginative version of them all, now tragically out of print), and Giulini with the Chicago Symphony.
Performance & Sound
Though he conducted and recorded with other orchestras, most notably the Berlin Philharmonic, Fricsay was most closely associated with the RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) Orchestra, which later became the Berlin Radio Symphony. Though no one would mistake it for its crosstown cousins, the orchestra can clearly rise to the occasion when asked to do so by the likes of Kurt Sanderling and Riccardo Chially, both of whom have served as its music director. Under Fricsay's direction, however, it sounds like a major orchestra. It is part of Fricsay's greatness that he was able to inspire playing of such passion and unanimity. The mono sound is a lot better than you might think: clear, spacious, with a convincingly resonant bass. If you weren't previously aware of just how good mono was sounding just before the advent of stereo, this will serve as your introduction.
I wasn't able to get my hands on another Fricsay performance that was part of this initial release, the Karl Amadeus Hartmann Symphony No. 6 (with Blacher's "Pagininni Variations" as a filler). I've lived with this performance for a long time now, and can recommend it wholeheartedly; especially if the sound is as good as it ius here. The Hartmann is one of the great modern symphonies, and Fricsay's interpretation is definitive and heart-stopping. Meanwhile, I can only hope this promising series brings us more mono Fricsay. Might I recommend his recordings of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, the Schumann "Spring" Symphony, and a Tchaikovsky Fifth that's every bit as thrillingly conducted as his Fourth.
Stravinsky Rite of Spring
Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky