Fricsay Conducts 20th-Century Composers (& Rossini)

SWR19070CD - cover

ROSSINI: Il viaggio à Reims: Overture. STRAUSS: Burleske for Piano & Orchestra.* KODÁLY: Dances of Galánta. ZIMMERMANN: Alagoana: Caboclo, Brasilianisches Portrait. HONEGGER: Concertino for Piano & Orchestra.* RAVEL: Bolero / *Margit Weber, pno; Sinfonieorchester des Süddeutschen Rundfunks; Ferenc Fricsay, cond / SWR Classic 19070CD (live: Stuttgart, October 10, 1955)

The late Ferenc Fricsay, noted by critics and lay listeners alike for his invigorating performances of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, was also a fan of modern music and he conducted as much of it as he could. His surviving recordings and live performances include music by Frank Martin (excerpts from La vin herbé) and Bartók.

In this program we get a very interesting mixture of composers, the common thread being that it is all “light” music by each of them. In the case of Rossini, this is a given; he rarely wrote anything that was deep; but in the case of Kodály, Honegger and especially Bernd Alois Zimmermann, a composer who would soon become an outcast in the classical world for his dense, thick textures and convoluted harmonies, these are relatively light works.

As a Hungarian, Fricsay’s conducting style was tight, straightforward and no-nonsense. He favored brisk tempi as a rule, and most of them were appropriate for the material he played. Years before Krips and Erich Kleiber recorded their “classic” Mozart opera sets, it was Fricsay who really set the pace for what was to become the historically-informed Mozart style of today. The downside was that Fricsay wasn’t a fan of subtle modifications to the musical line, as his predecessors Weingartner, Mitropoulos, Rodziński and Toscanini were. Thus, in a piece like the then-quite rare Il viaggio à Reims overture, we get a brisk, crisp reading without the subtle modifications that previous conductors put into Rossini, yet there are some really nice delicate moments where the South German Radio Orchestra plays extremely well for him. The difference between this performance and what we hear today, of course, is that he uses a full modern string section, and it is quite sumptuous, though he does bring out some wonderful detail in the rhythmic string figures at about the 5:35 mark, and he clearly understands the “Rossini crescendo.”

Yet Fricsay really comes into his own in the Strauss Burleske, a crisp, brilliant performance, played with a surprising amount of sparkle by the little-known pianist Margit Weber. The nice thing about this, as in the Rossini, is that Fricsay eliminates all traces of sentimentality from the music; everything is neat, driving and structurally integrated. There is no mawkish “Romanticism” in this late-Romantic work, and this is all to the better. His performance of Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta has a similar profile to Toscanini’s, only with a richer string sound and not as much clarity of detail in the winds. All in all, however, it’s a great rendition.

It would be nice to say that Zimmermann’s Alagoana fits into this style of music, but although it is a “light” piece by his standards, it does not. The harmonic basis is too clashing and modernistic and, oddly enough, there seems to be a jazz swagger in the music that I’ve never heard from him before. What amazed me was how well Fricsay grasped this very forward-looking  music and took the whole score in stride. Of his contemporaries, Mitropoulos is the only one who comes to mind who could have pulled this off as well at that period of time.

Fricsay also has no problem with the somewhat more harmonically accessible but still rhythmically tricky Piano Concertino by Arthur Honegger, and once again Weber plays the piano part with great flair and style. The way Fricsay brings out the pizzicato bass line at 6:45 put me in mind of a jazz bassist.

The real disappointment here, as it usually is, is Ravel’s Bolero, taken (as usual) at too fast a tempo and with none of the swagger that Ravel himself wanted and put into his own recording with the Lamoreaux Orchestra. The only other performances I’ve heard of it which are played at the correct tempo and with the right swagger are those of Toscanini (believe it or not!) from 1939 and Simon Rattle’s recording with the City of Birmingham orchestra. But I think this would have been too much to ask of the literal-minded Fricsay.

Overall, then, a good album. By and large, SWR Classic has done a good job in cleaning up these old mono radio tapes, though the top range sounds just a bit too covered to my ears.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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