Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36
Symphony in D minor, Op.48
Romeo and Juliet – Overture-Fantasy
The Year 1812 Solemn Overture, Op.49
Symphony No.5 in E-flat, Op.82***
NBC Symphony Orchestra [Tchaikovsky Op.36; Franck]
The Cleveland Orchestra
*Recorded: 2 January 1939; *14 December 1940; **14 April & *** 28 December 1941
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: February 2021
CD No: PASC 619 (2CDs)
Duration: 161 minutes
Artur Rodziński (1892-1958) is nearly forgotten today, seemingly living in the shade of better-known conductors working in America between the 1920s and ’50s. In 1925 he was taken under the wing of Stokowski in Philadelphia and, later, under Toscanini’s patronage to help establish the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937. This double-CD issue is a wonderful opportunity to understand Rodziński’s significant gifts in quite wide-ranging repertoire, from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, his Romeo and Juliet Overture and the 1812 Overture, Franck’s only symphony in D minor and, best of all, Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. All are taken from recordings between 1939 and 1941. The presentation is impeccable, with a wonderful colourised image of the conductor adorning the front cover and the immaculate audio restoration that we have come to expect from the studio of Mark Obert-Thorn.
Beginning with Sibelius’s Fifth first because it receives the most imaginative and very special guidance from the conductor. This is one of the most radical works of the 20th century and was belatedly recognised as such by Peter Maxwell Davies in 1977 when he daringly took the transition passage in the first movement as a challenge to replicate the effect in his First Symphony. From being regarded as a composer of little importance by many critics, Sibelius became overnight a new sensation in the art of composition. His reputation today, at least in Great Britain, stands as a monument to Max’s inquiry mind.
Rodziński’s interpretation is one of the grandest and most perceptive that I know. I am not sure how many recordings it was up against in 1941, if any indeed. But today, with this impressive reissue, it stands as an object lesson in Sibelian control and sonic effects. He opens in tranquil mood, allowing the horns to begin their declaration of the seed that feeds into the entire work. The entry of the strings suddenly declares we have entered a much less benign world. On the original Columbia LP this moment is even more striking, and the fierceness of the scuttling strings that continue the narrative in the foreground and not the usual background remains a vivid memory of when I first heard the LP. But the price was a rawness in the whole sound world; Obert-Thorn has ironed out this defect to good purpose but the startling string entry and onwards still strikes fear in the mind of the listener, which must have been Rodziński’s intention. He reaches the transition passage with some alarm and then, onward, guides the gentle acceleration to the blazing climax with great determination. Few others give such life to this wonderful movement. Today’s generation downplays the ebb and flow in the string narrative, which diminishes the terror element Sibelius probably carried forward from the Fourth Symphony.
The slow movement allows nerves to be settled by its gentle grace before the last movement explodes in one of the fastest string passages ever to be recorded. Rodziński takes no prisoners here on in with the Swan Hymn dominating our minds as one of the greatest tunes written by any composer in the 20th century. And so simple, too! He approaches the apocalyptic moment on the brass, where we could be condemned to the same fate as heard in the cataclysmic climax in the Fourth Symphony, with perfect understanding in keeping the listener in suspense before, by one of the greatest sleight of hands, Sibelius restores our faith in humanity’s goodness whereby the remaining music offers a glorious salvation, but one ended not in the expected flourish but by six crashing chords that close in the most unexpected way a work that, not without reason, has been described as “the masterpiece of the 20th century”. Rodziński wastes no time in getting the unequal spacing right.
This recording alone demands attention for purchase. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the other two symphonies, both of which were recorded on the same day in 1939.
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony receives a vibrant, highly effective rendition, Rodziński conducting the newly appointed NBC Symphony Orchestra. There are many telling moments of interest. His rubato is believable in a way, perhaps, Mengelberg’s from a few years earlier is not, at least for purists. But who needs purists in such an emotional work? Rodziński was to up the ante in 1946 with his new recording with the New York Philharmonic, taking shorter times in each of the movements. Here we have a virile and often powerful interpretation offering excellent balance and in splendid sound.
So to in its recording twin on the same day in 1939, Franck’s delightful Symphony in D minor. The drawback is the original recording not being able to offer the gentle softness in expression that permeates the whole work. Obert-Thorn has done a splendid job in toning down the sound when needed so this remains an enjoyable experience. Rodziński is a safe guide into and through what is an almost religious experience to some listeners. The slow movement is beautifully floated with the cor anglais (alas not named) offering balm and sustenance to the more rigorous first movement. He lets rip in the gorgeous finale allowing us to simply enjoy the happy splendour Franck conjures up for our expectant ears. The coda is suitably resplendent.
Romeo and Juliet, recorded in 1940, receives powerful treatment with a lovely ambience to the glorious love melody, recorded by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra as were both the 1812 Overture and the Sibelius Fifth, in 1941. The Overture offered probably the best treatment available to any orchestra of that time. It would have been shelved, if still on sale, in 1954 when the Dorati/Minneapolis recording appeared with all guns and bells blazing, a true change agent in recording history and my first LP purchase (not in 1954!).
Available to buy or download from: https://www.pristineclassical.com/products/pasc619