GHCD 2322 – Artur Rodzinski – Live Recording 1944
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York, Arthur Rodinski – Conductor
Fanfare March / April 2008
Historical recordings need to be listened to with a grain of Salt. Do they have true historical significance, or are they merely old? Does poor sound quality outweigh the importance of the performance? Are there other, better options available? In the case of the above release, the answers are all positives: this orchestra under this conductor gave the work its Western premiere while the terrible events that informed the composition were still continuing. The mono broadcast sound is typically dry and “in your face,” but clear as a hell. Above all, this is a gripping, disciplined performance by musicians and a conductor who understood only too well what this Brand new music was about.
Rodzinski (1892-1958) was rather overshadowed by other expatriate European conductors in his time. He had a reputation as an orchestral trainer, a perfectionist, and a fierce disciplinarian of the old school. Perhaps he was not very jolly, but neither were Szell or Reiner, yet for various reasons their Stars eclipsed that of Rodzinski. His resurgent reputation today, as validated by this release, is based not an nostalgia but an hard evidence.
The Polish-Born maestro had conducted Shostakovich’s First, Fifth, and Seventh Symphonies prior to the arrival of the Eighth. Toscanini famously introduced the Leningrad Symphony to the U.S., but showed no interest in premiering its dark successor. Judging from this broadcast of six months later- the first performance haven taken place in April of 1944-Rodzinski was the right choice.
The New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra plays for hem with commitment. In a live, one-take performance of a then unfamiliar score 1 detected only one Split note (at 17 minutes into the first movement). The tricky ensemble problems in the third movement are handled with no trouble, yet not an iota of urgency is sacrificed in the narre of precision. The raw emotion prevalent in Shostakovich’s music may be felt here at first hand, as it were: the threat implicit in much of the firnt movement, the unstoppable aggression of the third, and the quiet, questioning desperation underlying the final movement’s apparent calm.
Like others in the Shostakovich canon, the Eighth Symphony contains passages of quiet, rambling counterpoint in ambivalent harmonies, using minimal Instrumentation. In mang quite presentable modern performances, these passages come across as dull, lackeng that sense of dread that brings them to uneasy life. Rodzinski and his first-class orchestra never relax at these “between peaks” moments; every note in this work holds some significance for them. Yet, unlike some Russian performances, they don’t overdo it.
The final Bars of the Symphony shimmer with an extraordinary fragility. The closing soft major chord is literally hard won, if indeed it is won at all and not a mere respite. Hearing this performance, we are reminded that neither the composer nor these musicians had any idea when or how the war would end.
1 played the CD an two different Systems. Understandably, the smaller one was better suited to the raw radio Sound (especially with a slight treble reduction to tarn the fierceness of the high violins in the first movement). 1 detected a slight tape swish at the beginning of the final movement, but Overall Peter Reynolds’s remastering is extremely clean, and there is nothing extraneous to impede one’s enjoyment of a genuinely significant performance. This interesting release is recommended to place alongside Previn, Haitink, Rostropovich, Svetlanov, or Kondrashin in your collection.
American Record Guide – March/April 2008
Our editor’s sticky note on the jewel case asked, “Is this worth bothering with? If not, just tell me ‘no’.” More than worth bothering
With, this turned out to be the pick of this issue’s review batch-the one 1 couldn’t stop playing on my long commutes back and forth to work. This is a rare gem, and we should thank Guild for giving us what is not only a valuable addition to the Shostakovich discography as a whole, but welcome insight into a brilliant but temperamental conductor largely forgotten in the rush of history.
After the feeding frenzy to lead “first” performances of the Shostakovich Seventh in the West, interest tapered off among conductors and audiences for that work’s successor. lt could not have found a more sympathetic champion for its US premiere than Rodzinski, who had recorded the First and Fifth symphonies on 78s during his tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra before taking over the New York Philharmonic in 1943. (He later made an exciting, if slightly cut, recording of the Fifth with the Royal Philharmonic that briefly made it to CD and is worth seeking out.) So he led the first performance of the Eighth in the West, on 2 April 1944. The recording is from a concert a few months later on 15 October 1944.
Rodzinski brings his characteristic clarity, drive, and no-nonsense dramatic forcefulness to the music. At a time when the Russia was not a mistrusted opponent but an ally fighting a common enemy, this music must have had a special meaning for the audience. Rodzinski brings an urgency and an edge to the music that speaks of Stalingrad and D-Day and the chaos of a global war whose outcome was by no means certain in 1944. More than recent performances, including the Herbig reviewed in this issue, Rodzinski emphasizes the Eighth as a continuation of the Seventh rather than a change in artistic direction. The pervading gloom of the opening pages merely conceals the volcanic intensity of the pain and frenzy later on in the movement Il and III are a cohesive unit, with III building to an almost unbearable tension before a climax leading to the exhausted hush of IV. Unlike many modern conductors, Rodzinski isn’t stumped by the curiously lightweight V; he moves it along without attempting to push and pull the music into a weighty statement, ending what is one of the most satisfying recorded performances of this work that I know.
Alas, this is not for everybody because of the 1940s “mid-fi” sound. Guild is not forthcoming about sources, though they include part of the announcer’s chat before and after the performance. Certainly, it was taken from good quality acetates, and the sound is full and
“Honest” with no loss of detail, as good as any commercial recording of the period. If you’re used to historic recordings, you’ll haue no trouble listening to it.
Aside from the recorded Sound, the other slight weakness is an orchestra that isn’t quite up to all the demands of the music. There is some scrambling in II and III and some less than controlled Sounds in the climaxes of 1, but this close-to-the-edge quality of things bordering an coming apart actually adds to the intensity of the performance. Well worth bothering with!
International Record Review July/August 2007
This is an important issue in making generally available the second-earliest performance of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony known to survive. It was premiered in Moscow by Evgeny Mravinsky on November 4th, 1943 and the work’s western premiere was given an April 2nd, 1944 by the present performers. That by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony on April 21st is currently the earliest surviving account (there are at least three versions of the first movement – recorded over the following fortnight – in circulation, and one from April 1945 that received an official release an Biddulph; Mravinsky’s Studio recording took place only in 1947), but this broadcast performance of October 1944 is no less significant or authoritative as an interpretation.
As Robert Matthew-Walker points out in his booklet note, Artur Rodzinski had a fine track record in Shostakovich, having already recorded the First and Fifth Symphonies and given the US Premiere of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk district. At around 58 minutes, his is a taut and no-nonsense reading that projects the work in forcefully but never crassly immediate terms, with little room for the brooding introspection evident in recent decades. The Adagio is securely wrought, with an appealingly wistful second theme (4’51”) and a central climax (10’15”) whose drama does not preempt either the plangency of the cor anglais soliloquy (17’15”) or the becalmed ambivalence of the coda (22’48”).
Neither Scherzo has quite this focused intensity: the Allegretto has the right forced jollity, but internal balance on the return of the main theme (3’35”) is congested and the closing bars are fallibly executed; while the Allegro – bracingly swift, as were most Western accounts using the corrupt parts – lacks the implacability of either Mravinsky’s or Koussevitzky’s, though the trio (2’45”) has a wonderfully tensile irony. Balefully launched, the Largo is finely handled, Rodzinski ensuring the passacaglia theme is audible throughout, and with a telling ‘lightening’ of mood so that the close (8’14”) is a perfect transition to the finale. Its subtler shades yet to be explored, this emerges as cautiously optimistic, with a suave second theme (1’38”) and a climax (6’38”) that exudes defiance rather than despair. Ensemble falters thereafter, but the coda (10’39”) still impresses through its hardwon poise.
While it has previously enjoyed limited circulation (on the Fonotipia label), this charged account – with Rodzinski just into his second season with the `Philharmonic
Symphony Orchestra of New York’ – needed to be widely disseminated. The present release, transferred at a high level that conveys the limited hut natural dynamic range, does it full justice. All credit to the American Rubber Company for sponsoring the original broadcast and to Guild for releasing it some 63 years on.
MusicWeb Monday June 11 2007
Hitler’s attack on Russia and the consequent Soviet shift of allegiance towards the British-American axis meant that competition became hot for the first western performances of Shostakovich’s great symphonic fresco the “Leningrad” Symphony, his seventh. Sir Henry Wood was first off the mark with a BBC broadcast only three months after the Russian première, which had been conducted by Samuel Samosud on 5 March 1942. A week after the broadcast, Wood gave the first western concert performance. Then, on 19 July, Arturo Toscanini gave the first American broadcast.
The surviving recording shows that Toscanini managed to conceal his lack of sympathy with the musical idiom, but he never conducted the work again and declined to give the western première of no. 8 without even seeing the score. This new work had been completed on 9 September 1943 and had its first performance in Moscow, under Mravinsky, less than two months later. The honour fell to Artur Rodzinski to unveil the symphony to the west at the Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra on 2 April 1944. He repeated it later the same year in the performance preserved on this disc. The sound is remarkably clean and clear for the date. The dynamic range is obviously limited, the quality a little shallow with some shellac hiss, but quite frankly I wouldn’t expect a studio recording from the same time to sound any better.
Mravinsky’s several recordings, some in fairly recent sound, obviously have a very special authority. Rodzinski, however, yielded to no one in his understanding of the music. No less a martinet than Mravinsky himself, he sees that the long, mainly slow, first movement has a suppressed tension, rather than the sense of doleful meditation which more recent western conductors such as Haitink and Previn have found in it. Like Mravinsky, he dares the woodwind to push their tone to within a millimetre of overblowing. When the explosion comes it is a fearful one.
The savageries, drolleries and violence of the next two movements are resolved with whiplash attack while the ambiguous nature of the final passacaglia is realized with great insight. The pessimistic tone of the symphony won it few favours at the time, on either side of the Atlantic. Even in 1967 Robert Layton could write that “it is not a work in which the composer evinces complete mastery of his material”. Another decade and a reappraisal of Mahler had to intervene before it came to be seen as one of Shostakovich’s most searching masterpieces. Sometimes a new work falters because of poor initial performances. We can hear that Rodzinski’s advocacy and understanding left nothing to be desired.
A disc for connoisseurs and specialists, I suppose, but Rodzinki’s art deserves investigation and the present production is as good a place to start as any. Robert Matthew-Walker’s excellent essay provided me with the information for my introductory paragraphs.