GHCD 2333 – Fritz Reiner, Live Recordings 1943-57

NBC Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner – Conductor; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner – Conductor

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Live Recordings 1943 – 1957
This latest release from Guild’s excellent historical series focuses on the art of Fritz Reiner, one of the last century’s finest conductors who has the reputation of being somewhat of a martinet. The musical results available here are however a testament to the superb virtuosity and generally high level of excellence which Reiner managed to attain from his orchestras, mainly all American
Mozart is not a name which readily springs to mind when talking about Reiner but this taut and precise account of the overture to “L’Impresario” is quite accomplished and extremely vivid. Prokofiev’s delightful “Peter and the Wolf” has the ubiquitous Lauritz Melchior as narrator and the work comes across quite jovially notwithstanding Reiner’s reputation as a dour sod.
Shostakovich was certainly a composer close to Reiner’s heart and here we can revel in a quite brilliant recording of the Sixth which matches such illustrious contemporaries as Kondrashin, Mravinsky and Rostropovich. The rest of the disc is given over to shorter pieces such as Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Miniature”, “Fetes” from Debussy’s Nocturnes and finally the giant Fugue in G minor by Bach in a fine arrangement by Lucien Caillet. Surely this new issue is a must for historical recording lovers and a moving tribute to the greatness of Fritz Reiner.
Gerald Fenech

By Bob Briggs

What an exciting disk this is! Reiner, in live performance, in fine sound.

Fritz Reiner is often accused of giving hard-driven performances and the Mozart Overture heard here is certainly driven which robs it of much of its humour and charm. However, things immediately get better and it is followed by a most enjoyable Peter and the Wolf with Lauritz Melchior having an high old time as the narrator; doing funny voices and giving sly asides, obviously taking great pleasure in his role. He is friendly and funny, like your favourite old grandfather, and you can hear the audience enjoying his every word.

Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony was only six years old when Reiner made his recording of the work with the Pittsburgh Symphony for Columbia. However, this recording comes from two years earlier and is live in Carnegie Hall. It is a magnificent performance. On paper the work seems lop-sided, a long, 20 minute, slow, opening movement followed by two scherzos, one playful, the other somewhat reckless, even the jollity of the concluding march has always seemed, to me at least, to be forced. This is not a criticism. In a good performance, such as this, the strange layout makes perfect sense. The first movement is a bleak landscape, with no real climax which the music can gradually build towards, and it’s totally unlike anything else Shostakovich ever wrote. It was a brave move on the composer’s part to create such a piece so soon after his problems with Stalin concerning Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Is this music supposed to be a portent of war or a musical depiction of the composer’s, then, current state of mind? I don’t know but whatever it is meant to be – perhaps it’s just pure music, music which exists for itself – it is powerful, and strangely emotional, and it makes itself felt with the simplest of means. Reiner keeps a firm hand on the slow progression of the music, where, sometimes, there is little, or even nothing, going on, and the air is full of tension, and expectation. This really is an edge of the seat performance. The reins are loosened for the first scherzo, lots of playful woodwind but with a huge climax, drums thundering, brass blaring, but returning to the lightness of the opening. Reiner is, perhaps, a trifle po-faced in this movement but the finale finds him totally at home. The racing theme which starts on violins is well placed and the march at the end has a tongue-in-cheek seriousness, with an underpinning of fear. It’s a fantastic performance and the orchestra sounds as if they’ve been playing the piece for years, which isn’t possible, so here is a true testament to Reiner’s training and direction.

Debussy’s Fêtes (from the Nocturnes) is given a rip-roaring performance, the orchestra on top form, and the “dazzling, fantastic vision”, as the composer called the middle section which interrupts the racing music, is well calculated, coming to us from the distance, as it should, bursting out into the foreground and being swallowed into the general mêlee. What superb playing, and how one wishes we had the complete Nocturnes in such a performance.

The other two pieces are tasty makeweights. The Tchaikovsky is a confection of woodwind and delicate strings and the Bach, a full orchestral realization of a well known Fugue.

The sound is very good indeed, clear and bright, putting the orchestra in a good perspective with regard to the listener. Applause has been left on some of the tracks – it’s good to hear the audience appreciation – and on a couple of occasions the radio announcer is heard. The booklet is informative and detailed.
An important issue and one not to be missed.