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Fritz Reiner – The Complete RCA Album Collection
See complete title/track listing at the bottom of the review

Review By Joe Milicia

 

Best Audiohpile Music Of 2014 Blue Note Award  Sony is offering a tremendous bargain with this boxed set: all of the recordings Fritz Reiner made for RCA with the Chicago Symphony at just over $2 a disc (while they last, which isn't long for many of these Sony sets), with sound that ranges from decent mono to sensationally good stereo on several of the remastered discs. There are the usual virtues and drawbacks of Sony's "Original Covers" sets: on the negative side, close to twice as many discs as would have been needed if Sony had packed 75 to 80 minutes worth of music on each CD; but on the other hand, attractive packaging, with reproductions of the original LP covers on the cardboard sleeves for nostalgia or pop-culture fans, and the back covers as well for those with eagle eyes or magnifying glasses, plus a hardbound booklet with all the technical-historical data most listeners would want, and an alphabetical list of composers and works indexed to the relevant CD. A short bonus disc contains a never-commercially-released Bach concerto and a brief announcement by Reiner promoting a Beethoven recording.

A few more words about the packaging and sound before turning to the performances. RCA made most of its recordings of Reiner and the CSO in stereo from the beginning (1954), but at first released only mono versions on LP, plus a select few stereo versions on open-reel tape. It was only in May 1958 when the first Living Stereo LPs appeared. Even then, only a limited number of the tapings in the vaults were issued in stereo; the rest eventually showed up on RCA's budget labels, Victrola and Gold Label, between the mid-1960s and early 1980s. When the mono and stereo versions were packaged with the same cover design except for the "Living Stereo" banner at the top, Sony's "Original Covers" set reproduces the stereo cover; otherwise the unique mono cover is offered (except for a new photo of Reiner for the '58 stereo release of the '54 Zarathustra). But the music on each CD itself is stereo except when it was recorded in mono only. These exceptions are the Beethoven 'Eroica' (despite the claim in the booklet that a stereo version exists) and the Mozart Divertimento, Serenade, and Symphonies 36, 39 and 40.

The sound quality varies considerably on these discs over the span of Reiner's 10-year recording career with the CSO (1954-63) — but not always in a straight line of improvement over the decade. (One constant: all of the CSO recordings were made in Orchestra Hall except possibly three with Van Cliburn and one with Leontyne Price, where the venue is not listed in the booklet.) Of course, one must take into account the fact that not every recording has been remastered with the same care or equipment, not to mention the possibility that the master tapes are not all in the same state of preservation. Even within the set itself, the 1812 Overture and Mephisto Waltz sound conspicuously better on the disc that pairs them with the Hebrides and Tragic Overtures than they do on the one that pairs them with the SchwandaPolka and Fugue and the Bartered Bride and Carnival Overtures. (Yes, there are a few redundancies here, as in other Sony Original Covers sets. The other duplications are the Tragic Overture, the Rachmaninoff First Piano Concerto, and the Liszt Totentanz.)

According to various commentators on the Amazon web page for the set, one can figure out from the fine print in the booklet the various sources for the remasterings. For this review I won't examine those details but can offer a few comparisons with previous CD editions. For example, I am very pleased that the set's Das Lied von der Erde is much superior in sound to the RCA Gold Seal "Fritz Reiner Collection" CD of 1989: it's as if a veil has been lifted, with orchestral detail notably sharper in focus and tenor Richard Lewis' voice more attractively represented as well. On the other hand, I noticed only the most marginal improvement in the new discs over the 1987 disc of three works in RCA's "DIGITALLY REMASTERED Analog Recordings" series. Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale, recorded November 1956, is dazzling in sonics and performance in both editions — a top recommendation for this work. But Hovhaness's Mysterious Mountain, recorded April 1958, is sonically disappointing in both: the wind and celesta solos stand out well enough, but the massed strings are a bit blurred and scratchy-sounding — utterly unlike the rich sound of the massed-string passages in the Alexander Nevsky recorded March 1959. The Stravinsky Fairy's Kiss music, recorded the same day as Mysterious Mountain, sounds better, perhaps because the textures are so light, allowing the many gorgeous woodwind solos to stand out.

As for the recent SACD reissues of a number of Reiner recordings, the "Living Stereo Super Audio CD" series, I've listened to the one from 2004 containing two of Reiner's very first recordings with the CSO, Zarathustra and Heldenleben. Listening only in stereo rather than surround, I must say I found the discs on the new set notably superior to the 2004 issue: the instruments of the orchestra are more sharply located and "rounder" (seemingly more three-dimensional), the whole orchestra more "live."

One more sonic comparison within the set itself: the second Don Juan that Reiner recorded, only 5 years and 2 months after the first, is very strikingly superior in sharpness and presence — i.e., on these particular discs. For further comparison I listened to a new CD of Don Juan from Reference Recordings — Manfred Honeck with the Pittsburgh Symphony (Reiner's pre-Chicago orchestra), recorded in Heinz Hall. More typical of contemporary recordings, the perspective on the Pittsburgh Orchestra seems to be from, say, Row E of the first balcony, while that on the CSO seems to be hovering above Row E of the main floor. The RR recording has a wider dynamic range, and some might prefer the more distant but still crystal-clear aural perspective, but I love the impact and tremendous clarity of RCA's up-front recording. Naturally, different orchestral details of this dense and complex score are more prominent in each recording, but this would be inevitable with different interpretations and mic placements; there certainly are not fewer details in the 1960 recording.

As for Reiner's interpretations, both of his Don Juans show why he was regarded as one of the greatest Richard Strauss interpreters. Fans have long debated the merits of the two recordings. I would suggest that the more relaxed tempos of the slower passages in '60 let the glorious oboe and clarinet solos bloom a bit more. (Timings are 16'35"/1960 versus 16' exactly/1954.) But the '54 performance has a white-hot intensity that must be heard to be believed, with turn-on-a-dime shifts of mood and tempo and incredibly sharp attacks. Considering Reiner's famously minimalist close-to-the-chest conducting technique — he was the anti-Leonard Bernstein—and the fact that he was only in his second season with the orchestra, the combination of precision and passionate sweep in the 1954 performance seems downright beyond belief. Reiner captures the fever of Strauss' character, based on a poem that portrays the Don not as a cynical ladies' man but as a neurotic driven to endless yearning, restless even in moments of repose, inevitably a burn-out. By comparison, Honeck's Don Juan is more of a Robin Hood — I'm thinking of the Korngold/Errol Flynn incarnation — surrounded by his Merry Men.

Reiner recorded quite a lot of Richard Strauss for RCA — just as Charles Munch over in Boston recorded a great deal of Hector Berlioz for the same company. (Generally, RCA avoided duplication in repertory for its Hungarian and Alsatian maestros — e.g., Munch recorded Brahms' 1st, 2nd and 4th symphonies while Reiner recorded the 3rd and the Violin and the two Piano Concertos — but there was still considerable overlap, notably in Beethoven symphonies.) There are more minutes of music by Richard Strauss on these discs than any other composer (Beethoven being in second place), all of it superb. That includes two Zarathustras, recorded eight years apart: here, I find the '54 version more exciting overall, and the sound is hardly inferior to the '62 (perhaps thanks to better remastering of the '54 Zarathustra than the '54 Don Juan). I'm happy to report that the wonderfully warm and characterful 1959 Don Quixote is one of the best-sounding recordings in the set.

Several Strauss items that were unusual recorded repertory of those days stand out: the Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite with its ravishing woodwind, trumpet and string solos; the SymphoniaDomestica (still one of the best performances with the tranquil and the passionate episodes as convincingly painted as the frantic ones), and about 40 minutes from Elektra — the address to Agamemnon, the Recognition Scene, and the Finale — featuring IngeBorkh, supported by Paul Schöffler as Orest in the second excerpt and Frances Yeend as Chrysothemis in the third. Borkh was probably the most celebrated Elektra of her day, and while I wouldn't put these recordings in the same league with the comparable sections in the complete recording featuring Birgit Nilsson and Georg Solti/Vienna Philharmonic (Decca), they contain plenty of thrills. As for the final scene from Salome, again with Borkh, the ultimate here is surely LjubaWelitsch, especially in the 1944 broadcast with Lorvo von Matacic (though she is pretty amazing too in the pairing with Reiner and the Met Opera Orchestra in 1949). But Borkh lightens her rather imperious voice to convey some of the girlishness of Salome, and Reiner's CSO provides the requisite shivers of horror.

I won't attempt to comment on every disc in this set, especially the many concerto recordings; lovers of Heifetz, Rubenstein and Cliburn in particular will want to explore their favorites' own boxed sets from Sony. But I will offer the following observations on some of the other recordings, in no particular order:

  Reiner conducted Mahler at various points in his career, but with the CSO recorded only the Fourth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, neither of which ever found great favor among the critics. The Fourth was all the same a longtime favorite of mine, but I confess that upon hearing it again I found it a bit too inflexible in tempo, especially in the first movement, and Lisa Della Casa, the celebrated Mozart/Strauss diva, was not in good voice when she recorded the finale. Still, the architecture of each movement comes across clearly, and the many wind solos are superb. As for the 'no disappointment here! Richard Lewis and Maureen Forrester may not be your first choices for the tenor and contralto parts, but they sing with great character and sensitivity, and the Chicago players are so spectacularly good — and recorded so extremely vividly, with an ideal balance between vocalists and players — that this recording must be heard, especially the 30-minute finale, which Reiner conducts as if in a single arc.

  The two Prokofiev works on these discs, both derived from movie scores, are sensationally well performed and vividly recorded. Has there in fact ever been a more "alive" Lt. Kijé Suite, right down to the timbres of the tenor saxophone and the soulful trumpet solos? As for Alexander Nevsky, today's listeners might frown on having the chorus and mezzo solo sing in English, but the barbaric power of the score has never been more thrillingly displayed in my experience, with Chicago strings, brass and percussion outdoing themselves. Rosalind Elias' lovely voice is a pleasure to hear in the second-last movement.

  Reiner had a strong affinity for other Russian music as well, as the set amply demonstrates. The LP titled Festival (which really should have been called Russia to match the preceding Spain and Vienna LPs — Cold War jitters?) features gems like Kabalevsky's Colas Breugnon and Glinka's Russlan and Lyudmila Overtures. The Pictures at an Exhibition from 1957 is justly famous (the "Market at Limoges" alone sets a standard for brilliant ensemble), and sounds particularly fine in this edition. Reiner's 1812 Overture treats the piece as a tone poem, not a "pops" spectacular; his buildup to the final climax is the most inexorable I can recall hearing, and the conclusion seems deeply felt even though (or partly because?) he eschews the off-the-beat cannon-bursts. His ' Symphony is also impressive, with the first movement played for the most shattering dramatic contrasts.

  I find myself less enthusiastic about Reiner's Debussy and Ravel compared to Munch's and Monteux's Boston recordings of the same era: some ultimate degree of atmosphere and rhythmic suppleness seems missing. Still, his La Mer is quite unlike any other: the first movement is   downright strange, certainly not "marine," but fascinating, and accorded some of the best sound in the whole set. Equally superb in sound and dazzling in performance is the classic Pines/Fountains of Rome pairing.

  Reiner conducted contemporary music but RCA let him record very little of it. At least we have Mysterious Mountain, the first and arguably the best performance of the piece on discs, with haunting trumpet solos and staggering string virtuosity in the double fugue. The other contemporary piece on these discs is the German Rolf Liebermann's Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra. Fortunately the solo ensemble, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, was under contract to RCA, so we have this delightful concerto grosso of sorts — based on a 12-tone row, no less — with sections titled "Jump," "Blues," "Boogie-Woogie" and "Mambo." I've always greatly enjoyed this work, originally paired with the 1954 Don Juan (recorded on the same day!) and was glad to discover that the remastering is excellent. Reiner gave the American premiere of the piece ("Long-Hairs, Hepcats — Dig That Crazy Combo," ran one headline) and clearly could mambo with the best of them: the energy and precision of his Mozart and Strauss are on display here too.

  Speaking of Mozart, Reiner conducted a good deal of Classical-Era music and brought his distinctive sound to it. He did reduce the CSO strings for Haydn and Mozart, though not to "chamber size," but the "Reiner Sound" (to borrow the title of one LP) with its precision and vigorous drive (without insensitive rushing) is well suited to the music. One special pleasure is the Mozart Divertimento No. 17 in D, K. 344, as graceful as it is energetic. Or check out the first movement of the "Linz" Symphony, the finale of the 39th, or all of the magisterial "Jupiter" Symphony, notably its Menuetto, which Reiner gives a waltz-like sweep, and the exhilarating Finale. In a very different vein is the performance of Haydn's "Clock" Symphony, whose Adagio Introduction is given an especially mournful reading, and then, after the brio of the Presto, a strikingly slow and--again I would say--mournful reading of the Andante "clock" movement. (Compare Reiner's 9'04" to Colin Davis/Concertgebouw's 6'55".) In No. 95 in C minor Reiner may overlook wit in bringing out the high drama, but gives a convincing reading nonetheless.

  Reiner's Beethoven is a topic for a lengthy essay in itself, especially given the abundance in the set: six symphonies, two concertos and two overtures. For now, I will strongly recommend the mono-only "Eroica" Symphony, with one of the most intensely dramatic and well-paced first movements you are ever likely to encounter, and a memorably rich contribution from the horns in the Trio of the Scherzo. Also worth investigating is the 'Pastorale,' a performance new to me. I wasn't swayed from my all-time favorite, Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony (currently on the Cala label) but was still taken by the loving care given to the first movement and the leisurely but compelling pacing of the "Scene by the Brook." The "Storm" is, if not the grandest on records, possibly the most vicious.

  One can't survey a Reiner/CSO set without taking note of his Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and Hungarian Sketches, all of which still set the standard for performances of these works. Unfortunately, the remastering of the Music for Strings… is a disappointment in regard to metallic string sound; but the Concerto fares better.

  Like a number of other great conductors — Toscanini comes most immediately to mind — Reiner gave the same serious attention to overtures and "lighter" short works that he gave to major symphonies and tone poems. Among the must-hear — I'm tempted to say "best-ever"--performances in the set are the Schwanda Polka and Fugue and the Mephisto Waltz, along with some of the Russian favorites. Also quite special are his six Rossini overtures — not the most "Italian" in flavor or the most playful, but certainly incisive and dramatic, even The Barber of Seville. Reiner made two LPs featuring Johann Strauss waltzes that are very worth hearing for their (perhaps unexpectedly) genial, lilting flow, the CSO's muscular power well reined in.

  An extra bonus is a performance of Falla's Nights in the Garden of Spain with Rubenstein partnered with Enrique Jorda and the San Francisco Symphony (the B side of the original stereo release of the Rubenstein/Reiner Paganini Rhapsody). Jorda goes for intense Spanish drama rather than misty Impressionism, while Rubenstein demonstrates his well-known flair for Spanish music.

 

The accompanying 156-page mini-book contains an essay by Kenneth Morgan, a biographer of Reiner, which is valuable but tantalizingly brief in its reporting on the maestro in the recording studio. I wish some of the 36 pages of photos could have been dropped in favor of more commentary by Morgan and also texts for the vocal works. As I've already indicated, the sound quality of these discs varies unaccountably, but the best CDs in the set are superior to all but the top-level orchestral recordings of recent years.

 

 

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Album/Track Listing
Fritz Reiner – The Complete RCA Album Collection

Albeniz: Navarra, Fête-Dieu a Seville, Triana (orch. Arbos)

Bach: Harpsichord Concerto No. 5 (w/ Andre Tchaikowsky, piano)

Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra; Hungarian Sketches; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

Beethoven: Symphonies 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 (w/ Phyllis Curtin, Florence Kopleff, John McCollum, Donald Gramm, CSO Chorus); Piano Concertos 4, 5 (w/ Van Cliburn); Coriolan and Fidelio Overtures

Berlioz: Les Nuitsd'été (Leontyne Price)

Borodin: Polovtsian March

Brahms: Symphony No. 3; Piano Concertos 1 (Artur Rubenstein) and 2 (1958: Emil Gilels; 1961: Cliburn); Violin Concerto (Jascha Heifetz); Tragic Overture

Debussy: La Mer; Ibéria

Dvorak: Symphony No. 9; Carnival Overture

Falla: El Amor brujo (Price); Three-Cornered Hat Suite No. 2; La vidabreve: Interlude and Dance; Nights in the Gardens of Spain (Rubenstein; Enrique Jorda conducting the San Francisco Symphony)

Glinka: Russlan and Lyudmila Overture

Granados: Goyescas: Intermezzo

Haydn: Symphonies 88, 95, 101 (last two with "His Symphony Orchestra," which included some CSO musicians)

Hovhaness: Mysterious Mountain (Symphony No. 2)

Kabalevsky: Colas Breugnon Overture

Rolf Liebermann: Concerto For Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra (Sauter-Finegan Orchestra)

Liszt: Mephisto Waltz No. 1; Totentanz (Byron Janis)

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (Lisa Della Casa), Das Lied von der Erde (Richard Lewis, Maureen Forrester)

Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture

Mozart: Symphonies 36, 39, 40, 41; Piano Concerto No. 25 (A.Tchaikovsky); Divertimento No. 17, K.334 (320b); Serenade No. 13, K.525 ("EineKleineNachtmusik"); Don Giovanni Overture

Mussorgsky: Night on the Bare Mountain; Pictures at an Exhibition

Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky (Rosalind Elias, CSO Chorus); Lt. Kijé

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 (Janis) and 2 (1956: Rubenstein; 1962: Cliburn); Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Rubenstein); Isle of the Dead

Ravel: Alboradadelgracioso, Pavane pour uneenfantedefunte, Rapsodieespagnole, Valses nobles et sentimentales

Respighi: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Rossini: six overtures

Schubert: Symphonies 5, 8

Schumann: Piano Concerto (1959: Janis; 1960: Cliburn)

Smetana: Bartered Bride Overture

John Stafford Smith: The Star-Spangled Banner

Johann Strauss Jr: seven waltzes; Thunder and Lightning Polka

Josef Strauss: two waltzes

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra (1954; 1962); Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite; Burleske(Janis); Don Juan (1954; 1960); Don Quixote (Antonio Janigro); Elektra: three excerpts (IngeBorkh, Frances Yeend, Paul Schöffler); EinHeldenleben; Der Rosenkavalier: waltzes (arr. Reiner); Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils, Final Scene (Borkh); SymphoniaDomestica

Stravinsky: Song of the Nightingale; The Fairy's Kiss: Divertimento

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6; Piano Concerto No. 1 (Gilels);Violin Concerto (Heifetz);1812 Overture; Marche Slave; Marche Miniature; The Nutcracker (excerpts)

Wagner: Götterdämmerung: Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey, Funeral March;   Die Meistersinger: Preludes to Acts I and III, Dance of the Apprentices, Entry of the Masters

Weber: Introduction to the Dance

Weinberger: Schwanda the Bagpiper: Polka and Fugue

Fritz Reiner, conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (with Falla and Haydn exceptions noted above)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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