July 15, 2019
Ferenc Fricsay Conducts
Margrit Weber, piano.
South Germany Rundfunkorchester/Ferenc Fricsay
SWR Classic 19070
Total Time: 72:55
Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963) studied music with some of the most well-known composers of his native land: Bartok, von Dohnanyi, Kodaly, and Weiner. His first appearance as a conductor was at the age of 15 when he substituted for his father who fell ill. He would succeed him as conductor of the Young Musicians Orchestra only a few years later. His early career almost came to an abrupt end first for his being accused of using Jewish musicians, and then be marked as a Jew. Before the Gestapo was able to arrest him, he fled with his family to Budapest. After the war, he embarked on a series of international engagements with performances in America with the Boston and San Francisco symphonies. He was briefly the conductor of the Houston Symphony, a post he began in 1954 and shortly resigned from due to potential issues with US tax policy. He would eventually serve as conductor of the Munich Court Opera. Throughout his career he was a noted interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, and modern Hungarian masters. Fricsay was also one of the few conductors to eschew the use of a baton. After a triumphant concert with the London Phiharmonic in December, 1961, he was forced to step down from the podium due to complications from stomach cancer, to which he succumbed a little over a year later. Taken truly at the height of his powers, his recorded repertoire has always been a source of critical acclaim, especially the recordings he began making with Deutsche Grammaphon in the 1950s. Some may also know that it is his performance of the Beethoven 9th that so prominently figures in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
This new SWR Classic release is taken from the live concert with their radio orchestra on October 10, 1955. It was part of a series of “light classics” concerts in Stuttgart, though this particular program seems to have a few more serious works than one might otherwise expect. It is notable for its general program, including some pieces that have sort of fallen out of the repertoire. Margrit Weber is featured in two pieces here by Richard Strauss and Honegger. The Strauss she had recently recorded with Fricsay for Deutsche Grammaphon so will be of certain interest to those who own, or recall that recording. She also recorded the Honegger with the Berlin RIAS orchestra. Those performances are part of a Deutsche Grammaphon boxed set of Fricsay’s recordings. The ones here having been made shortly after those studio sessions and are informed by those performances with perhaps a slight edge as a result of their being in concert. The piano is pretty overwhelming at times in the sound picture. There also seems to be some deterioration of the sources for the Strauss, especially. That said, Weber’s performance is still quite excellent. The Honegger fairs better overall, perhaps due to its clean, and crisp textures. The articulation here is very tight throughout and the music has great forward motion and a sense of playfulness.
Of greater interest will be these performances of Ravel’s Bolero and Kodaly’s Galanta Dances. The former as a more unusual choice, but one that balances a less familiar work by Honegger with the more popular piece. The latter because of Fricsay’s more intimate and assured approach to Kodaly’s music which comes through here. The album opens with a rarer performance of the overture to Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims to kick things off nicely. The program then shifts to the two longer works, the aforementioned Strauss and Kodaly. Fricsay evidently also liked the ballet music for Bernd Zimmermann’s Algoana and included the Brazilian portrait, “Caboclo” on this concert for a nice contrast. It is a more acerbic exploration of extended harmony and folk rhythms (an almost languid Bernstein-esque piece). The Ravel gives the soloists of the orchestra a chance to shine a bit more. Here there are a few intonation issues along the way and this is where the drier acoustic is not helpful, but it does give a sense of the way Fricsay delineates and brings out lines in the orchestra, finding more connections perhaps to the Honegger performance on the album.
Apart from the 19th Century Rossini overture, Fricsay’s is a decidedly modern “light music” program. With the exception of the Ravel, most all of these pieces have been essentially sidelined to the periphery of concert programs. But it also is a fascinating program of folkish pieces, post-romanticism, Les Six blends of modernism and jazz, and the last vestiges of Impressionism. The performances are quite good, with a few minor ensemble issues here and there, but nothing distracting. Sometimes the piano sound feels a bit wobbly in the Strauss. The album is in mono so that often makes the percussion a bit less ambient. Otherwise, those who admire Fricsay’s work will certainly want to explore this release. Even for the casual listener this is a great program of music.