Sophisticated listeners may not be attracted to a record made up of such "overexposed" and unrelated pieces as Mozart's serenade "Eine kleine Nachtmusik," Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture, "The Moldau" from Smetana's epic cycle "Ma vlast," and Liszt's battered old warhorse "Les Preludes." But the name of the Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay on such an assortment makes it more enticing than it might otherwise be.
Had Fricsay not died of leukemia in his 49th year in 1963, he would surely be one of the three or four most respected conductors among us now. His recordings were almost without exception superb, and it is good to have some of them returning now in Deutsche Grammophon's Privilege series. This one (2535.406; cassette 3335.406) in which "Les Preludes" is played by Fricsay's own RIAS Orchestra (renamed Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin) and the three other pieces by the Berlin Philharmonic, are a stunning demonstration of the excitement, taste and exceptional feeling for the work at hand that characterized his music-making.
"The Moldau" is perhaps the biggest surprise, because no one would believe this work could come up with such freshness. Fricsay takes it faster than anyone else but Toscanini, but never seems breathless. In the "peasant wedding" episode, most other conductors are content to amble by and observe the bucolic scene, but Fricsay is more of a participant, taking the music briskly, giving his strings more weight and stressing the stamping rhythm to make it a real revel: The exuberance is unique, the irresistible.
DG recently issued a full-price disc on which Daniel Barenboim conducts the Chicago Symphony in the Liszt and Smetana works; Barenboim now seems somnolent in the latter, but with the Chicago brass he makes the Liszt a thrilling tour de force. Fricsay; however, made the work more exciting by making it more credible -- not a "vehicle," but something close to an article of faith. And while he had neither the brass nor the sonics to match the recent Chicago recording, he made his drums tell as few others have done in this piece.
The Mozart is crisp and elegant, with the romance taken as slowly and the concluding rondo as quickly as possible without tumbling into excess, and the minuet's trio simply floating on air. Although Fricsay took a frankly orchestral approach, the descreet double bass makes his little points with a clarity it seldom enjoys in chamber music performances of this work.
"Egmont," the earliest recording in this package (1958), still sounds grand, with the music's character unmistakably established by the beautifully defined strings and a marvelous dramatic tension sustained up to and through the rousing coda.
Don't worry about duplications in your collection: This record is too special to do without.
Another surprisingly enjoyable orchestral grab-bag is offered in Philips' similarly priced Festivo series, an uncommonly generous package in terms of playing time, in which Bernard Haitink conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in the Mussorgsky-Ravel "Pictures at an Exhibition," Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien, Glinks's "Russian and Ludmilla" Overture and Dvorak's Scherzo capriccioso (6570.176; cassette 7310.176).
The splendid performance of the "Pictures" was issued here a dozen years ago on the domestically pressed World Series label, but did not make as handsome an impression sonically as it does now, on a single side of the new Dutch pressing. I don't believe any of the other three items have appeared in this country before, and all are welcome, showing a great deal more flair for this sort of thing than one might have attributed to Haitink, the dependable interpreter of Brahms and Bruckner.
It is the Dvorak -- which, ironically, is not even mentioned on the cover or the spine, and is without annotation on the liner -- that is the biggest surprise here, comparable with the magical realization of the Czech piece on the Fricsay record. It goes with an incomparable fluency and uncontrived lilt, quite beyond what any other conductor, Czech or otherwise, has achieved with it on records. The Glinka performance is in the exalted class defined by the famous Reiner and Ormandy versions -- even though in this work the exhilaration factor may be a lit lower than in the recordings by Arthur Fiedler and Kiril Kondrashin. Haitink's account of the "Pictures" is far and away the most satisfying to be offered on a single side.