SZYMANOWSKI: Violin Concerto No. 2.* Stabat Mater.+ STRAVINSKY: The Firebird – Suite. SCRIABIN: Symphony No. 3, “The Divine Poem.” SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2 / *Henryk Szeryng, violinist; +Adriana Martino, soprano; +Anna Maria Rota, contralto; +Renato Capecchi, baritone; +RAI Turin Chorus; RAI Orchestras of *Rome and Turin; Artur Rodziński, conductor / Datum DAT 12306, mono (live: *Rome – March 18, 1955; Turin – April 1, 1955 [Sibelius]; April 3, 1955 [Stravinsky]; February 22, 1958 [Scriabin]; April 18, 1958 [Stabat Mater])
Artur Rodziński (1892-1958) was one of my favorite conductors and, in my view, second in excellence over a long period of time only to Arturo Toscanini, who he idolized. The reason I say this is that Rodziński is the only conductor to ever achieve the same brilliance and transparency of sound that Toscanini did. Under his guidance, orchestras played in an almost 3-D manner; you heard everything, even the third wind parts or those little back-of-the-orchestra brass interjections that often get obscured in others’ readings. In addition, he equaled Toscanini in the intensity of his performances. Every Rodziński performance, broadcast and recording was, it seemed, a matter of life and death. There was no coasting when he conducted, and he reportedly kept a loaded pistol in his jacket pocket to ward off attacks by disgruntled orchestra members!
Like Toscanini, Rodziński was neurotic and screamed at his orchestras in rehearsal…actually, far more often than Toscanini. But whereas Toscanini was always able to separate his professional demeanor from his personal relationships, Rodziński was incapable of being calm, even offstage. Norman Lebrecht, no fan of either conductor, constantly refers to him as “the combustible Pole.” Yet it was he who made both the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1929-1933) and the Cleveland Orchestra (1933-1943) major American symphonies during his tenure there, he who revived the New York Philharmonic from its doldrums after six years of John Barbirolli (1943-47), and he who also brought the Chicago Symphony up to its formerly great level during his one year there, 1947-48. Most of Rodziński’s problems stemmed from his quick firing of orchestra members without consulting management, although there were also arguments over programming works and choosing which guest soloists could perform with the orchestra.
After he was booted by the Chicago Symphony, his career went into a tailspin. Not having Toscanini’s big name and reputation, he spent most of the 1950s guest-conducting British and Italian orchestras. He did make great recordings for Westminster of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony and the same composer’s complete Nutcracker ballet, and just before his death a batch of excellent stereo recordings for EMI, but those were among his few excursions into the recording studio. Most of his later career is documented via mono Italian broadcasts, primarily of operas: Prokofiev’s War and Peace, Mussorgsky’s Khovanchina and Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Ironically, after his doctor warned him that further conducting activity would seriously damage his weak heart, he returned to the U.S. to lead a spectacular performance of Tristan und Isolde in Chicago with soprano Birgit Nilsson. The reviews were sensational; his reputation was restored; and then he died. This set, originally issued in 1993 and now made available again, contains some of his most interesting orchestral performances.
The problem is that Datum, an Italian label, scraped away so much of the original surface noise that they cut back too severely on the treble. This has made Rodziński, one of the brightest-timbred conductors in the world, sound dull and muddy, which is a completely false impression. I found that I had to boost the treble of the Szymanowski performances by a little more than 6db, the others by about 4db, excepting the Stravinsky which only needed a 1.5db boost. Once you do this, however, you will find that you have recordings that resemble the sound profile of a Rodziński orchestra. Even so, the Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 2 with Szeryng remains stubbornly dry as dust. I juiced it up with some room reverb, which helped quite a bit.
The liner notes make a much bigger deal out of the superb playing in these unusual works by the RAI orchestras of Rome (the Violin Concerto) and Turin, and indeed they do play well, but you have to give a lot of credit to Rodziński for his hard work. Szymanowski and Scriabin, in particular, were foreign musical languages to Italian orchestras of that time; to the best of my knowledge, not even younger Italian conductors like Giulini or Abbado were conducting that music in those years. Yet they give their all, and considering how little Rodziński had the chance to conduct Szymanowski’s music in the U.S. (orchestra board members were allergic to his music, even more so than Mahler), I was delighted to hear how idiomatic they were. Of course, in the Violin Concerto he had one of the great violinists of the day to play it with him, and that probably helped, too, but he got some really fine singing out of his Italian vocalists in the Stabat Mater. This is a performance that, for all its sonic limitations, goes right to the top of my recommendations for this work. The vocal soloists are first-rate; I was pleasantly surprised by the richness of Renato Capecchi’s voice (it thinned out considerably by the mid-1960s) and the fine singing of the little-known soprano Adriana Martino. Mezzo Anna Maria Rota is her usual excellent self, and I was really impressed by how well the RAI Turin chorus sings. All things being equal, the Firebird Suite is very fine but there are other performances out there of equal value and excitement, among them a contemporary broadcast by André Cluytens with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Yes, Rodziński brings out some extra transparency here and there, but Stravinsky’s score lends itself to this sort of thing anyway.
The performance of Scriabin’s Third Symphony, popularly known as “The Divine Poem,” makes one recall the incident that led to the permanent rift between Rodziński and Toscanini. In 1938 Rodziński programmed this work with the NBC Symphony, but during rehearsal Toscanini complained that he didn’t have the required number of extra trombones. Rodziński told him that he had asked for them, but the network brass refused to supply them. Toscanini angrily stormed into the NBC offices complaining, but was supposedly shown a letter from Rodziński stating that he understood the financial expense and would make do without them. No one has ever actually produced this letter, however, and knowing Rodziński’s high standards and explosive temper, it sounds unlikely. Still, Toscanini was convinced that Rodziński had chosen to do without them and lied to him. They eventually became cordial to each other in later years, but were never friendly again. I would presume that this performance has the extra trombones, and it is absolutely splendid—taut yet beautifully phrased, with chiseled rhythms propelling the music through its arc and excellent unity of the work’s structure.
This program concludes with the Sibelius Second Symphony, a work that just barely qualifies as a “20th-century work” (it was written in 1902). For me, as for the composer, the recording by his good friend Robert Kajanus is the sine qua non of performances, but both Toscanini’s version with the BBC Symphony and this Rodziński performance are pretty stiff competition. What he may lack in spiritual quality is more than made up for in the evolving sense of drama. So many modern conductors perform Sibelius in a “soft” way nowadays that it would be good for them to hear a performance of this quality and learn from it.
My bottom-line assessment is that this is overall a set of terrific performances in need of sonic enhancement. I’ve noted at Presto Classical that it’s available as a download for $10. I recommend that you buy it that way, juice up the treble as I explained in the fourth paragraph, and burn it to CDs that way. Bon appetit!
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley