FRITZ REINER - Great Conductors of the 20th Century
BEETHOVEN: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 (May 5, 1959). BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83 (Feb. 8, 1958/Emil Gilels, pianist). Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (Dec. 14, 1957). MOZART: Symphony No. 36 in C, K. 425 "Linz" (April 26, 1954/mono rec). BARTOK: Swineherd's Dance from Hungarian Sketches (Dec. 29, 1958). WAGNER: Siegfried's Rhine Journey from Gotterdämmerung (April 18, 1959). MENDELSSOHN: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream (June 30, 1951/mono/Robin Hood Dell Orch). STRAUSS: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Op. 28. (Sept. 20, 1950/mono rec/RCA Victor Symphony Orch). RAVEL: Le Tombeau de Couperin (Jan. 19, 1952/mono rec/NBC Symphony Orch). FALLA: El Amor Brujo (Feb. 5, 1946/mono rec/Carol Brice, soprano/Pittsburgh SO)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra (unless otherwise indicated)/Fritz Reiner, cond.
EMI 62866 (2 CDS) (stereo/mono) (M) TT: 79:53 & 78:39

Despite the fact that all the recordings in this generous collection were either RCA/BMG or Columbia/Sony productions – nothing, in other words, from EMI – IMG Artists have done nobly by Fritz Reiner (1888-1963) working with five orchestras over a 17-year period. The Chicago Symphony, which he led from October 1953 until April 1963 is the major source of almost all, plus one apiece with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra (the Philadelphia, contractually disguise), the NBC Symphony, the “RCA Victor Symphony” (New York players from the Met and Philharmonic plus favorite Reiner freelancers), and the Pittsburgh Symphony. From the Steel City, where Reiner ruled from 1938-48, comes the oldest: Falla’s gypsy ballet recorded on February 5, 1946, in the notorious Syria Mosque, wider than it was deep and an acoustic nightmare for Columbia’s engineers. But IMG’s remastering wizard, Paul Baily (Re:Sound), has done a startlingly vibrant (though obviously dated) job in bringing the performance to sonic life, with Carol Brice as a soloist never bettered on discs. Reiner remade it with Leontyne Price in the last two months of his Chicago tenure, but her gitana style was ever-so-slightly off-center despite chest tones of astonishnig depth and power. However, that performance was spoiled (at least for me) by a turtle-like tempo in the “Andante tranquillo” of “Pantomime” – what a difference 1:07 minutes made! In Pittsburgh Reiner’s was 4:12; in Chicago, 5:19, beyond which the sharp edge of that earlier performance was missing 17 years later. The Columbia/Sony has been out of print unconscionably long; to have it back is a boon.

Likewise out of print for 50 years is the Mozart “Linz” Symphony, a Chicago mono recording from April 1954 (along with Symphonies 39, 40 and 41, originally issued on two LPs). Only No. 40 was a reasonable replica of Reiner’s concert-hall magic in this repertoire, although the “Linz” here has a dynamic range and tonal fullness missing in the original incarnation. Somehow Reiner’s hectic tempo in the finale – even faster than the “Presto” Mozart marked – is less off-putting than before, if still less than persuasive despite the orchestra’s hair-trigger response. But let’s consider the plenitude of goodies, beginning with a restoration of Ravel’s Tombeau recorded in 1952, two days after a technically untidy broadcast-performance by the declining NBC Symphony. Their June 19 broadcast in typically harsh, dead, Studio 8-H sound from Rockefeller Center was issued by Music & Arts in 1988 for a short while, but the Ravel and Debussy-Büsser Petite Suite were resonantly recorded by RCA on June 21 in Carnegie Hall. Within 48 hours Reiner had bullied the orchestra into playing not only precisely but with relaxed charm and finesse – even though the disc version is almost a minute shorter than the broadcast.

The biggest surprise for me however, is a marvelous restoration of Till Eulenspiegel recorded in 1950 with the “RCA Victor Symphony” at the peak of its form – sound that the commercial releases never came close to replicating. It is one of three Reiner Tills on my shelves along with the NBC concert disc of June 1952 (with errors galore in the playing), and a 1956 stereo version Reiner made in his first postwar collaboration with the Vienna Philharmonic (when RCA and London/Decca were briefly allied for a few seasons). That one was too echoey and more than a little gemütlich, although Reiner said later with pride that the Vienna Philharmonic typically tested him, concluded after 15 minutes that “Reiner is iron!” and played at the top of its form. But the 1950 New York performance remains something extra-special as well as being the shortest (14:12 vs. 14:52 with the NBC two years later, and 14:57 in Vienna four years after that): it has snap, crackle and pop as well as great good humor where called for, and IMG’s Baily has remastered it with a power missing in the other two. It really is one of the great Tills in my generous experience of Reiner conducting this music.

This Brahms Second Piano Concerto – the first of three RCA recorded with the Chicago Symphony between February 1958 and May 1961! – is my favorite, boldly remastered. Gilels had never played the work in concert before those sessions, but Reiner proved a whetstone and still had Janos Starker as solo cellist in the third movement. Fritz’s heart attack in October 1960 prevented his conducting Sviatoslav Richter’s debut concerto-recording in the U.S. (Erich Leinsdorf deputized on short notice – a distinguished performance but not on the level of Gilels’ and Reiner’s electricity). The third one with Van Cliburn was broad and ponderous, but Reiner’s brush with death four months earlier had reduced the stamina needed to energize Cliburn. The noble Tragic Overture on a stereodisc with the Third Symphony has been too long out of print, although Beethoven’s Coriolan was included by RCA/BMG on a “Living Stereo” remastering with the Fidelio Overture and Symphonies 5 and 7. Baily’s IMG version is a little softer, with a subtle deepening of reverb that sounds brighter on RCA, and is a virtual sunburst on JVC’s remastering with Symphony 5 – costing, however, anywhere from $27 to $31 depending on the dealer: pricey indeed for less than 39 minutes of music.

Otherwise, the Götterdämmerung “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” is the most beautiful remastering to date of that historic 1959 performance (issued originally with the “Funeral Music” and Meistersinger excerpts), while a two-minute “Swineherd’s Dance” from Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches is bettered only by another of those pricey JVC prestidigitations. The Mendelssohn “Scherzo,” finally, was a demonstration-quality mono recording in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music if not exactly a feather-light reading, impeccably restored. Withal, the totality of performances offered on these two discs, at a budget price not even Naxos can top, is prime-time Reiner masterfully remastered, and as such a veritable trove.

R.D. (July 2004)