Bartok, Beethoven, Brahms, Kodaly, Mozart, Rossini, Smetana, Strauss, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Blacher, Egk, Von Einem & Liebermann

COMPOSERS: Bartok,Beethoven,Blacher,Brahms,Egk,Kodaly,Mozart,Rossini,Smetana,Strauss,Stravinsky,Tchaikovsky,Verdi,Von Einem & Liebermann
LABELS: DG Dokumente
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Fricsay
WORKS: Violin Concerto No.2; Dance Suite; Cantata profana
PERFORMER: Various orchestras
CATALOGUE NO: 445 400-2 ADD stereo/mono (1949-63)
The Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay died in 1963, yet he would only have been 80 this year: DG’s 11-disc ‘Portrait’ celebrates that anniversary. He leapt to prominence (unusually, in modern music) at the Salzburg Festivals of the immediate postwar era; his international career lasted less than 15 years, but as conductor of Berlin Radio’s symphony orchestra for most of them he catalysed modern performing styles and impressed and befriended many great artists (Menuhin and Fischer-Dieskau provide eloquent testimonials in the liner notes).


Toscanini inspired Fricsay’s tautness and rhythmic drive (the Scherzo of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is staggering), but they’re leavened with Hungarian passion and spontaneity (the bonus 11th CD captures him rehearsing Smetana’s Vltava in a torrent of wit, poetry, song, uncertain German and fanatical attention to detail).

Everything here — from a poised and fiery Mozart Requiem to an effervescent account of the serial chess-moves of Stravinsky’s Movements— reveals lively intelligence, and musicianship of the highest order. The Beethoven Choral Symphony is all the more impressive for tremendous textural clarity and rhythmic exactitude (and Fischer-Dieskau is in magnificent form for the great recitative), while Fricsay’s thrusting, almost Mozartian Rossini overtures show that most conductors are asleep at the reins of these warhorses.

About a quarter of the material appears for the first time, from the archives of Berlin Radio and the Fricsay Society. There’s a sparkling, gypsy-like Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Menuhin, recorded live in 1949, and astonishing clarinet playing in a previously unreleased Strauss Duett-Concertino. Fricsay studied with Bartok and Kodaly, and these discs are among the most revealing: the latter’s Psalmus hungaricus, also a first release (from the first stereo concert broadcast on German radio), is the most thrilling account I’ve ever heard.


I find his Brahms charmless, and the modern German pieces here aren’t of great consequence. But what such a talent might have given us if he’d lived another 30 years doesn’t bear thinking about. Calum MacDonald