Music Transfigured – Remembering Ferenc Fricsay (DVD)

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Music Transfigured – Remembering Ferenc Fricsay
A film by Stephen Wright & Gérald Caillat; directed by Gérald Caillat

Bonus tracks:
La scala di seta – Overture
Overture, Leonore No.3


Reviewed by: Peter Joelson

Reviewed: July 2009
3078528 (DVD)
Duration: 51 minutes plus 23 minutes of extras



Ferenc Fricsay was born at midday on 9 August 1914, at the start of the First World War, growing up in a musical family. His father was the conductor of the military band in Budapest, and from a very young age Ferenc followed him around and so got to know the workings of an orchestra.

He studied at the Budapest Academy of Music, having lessons in piano, violin, clarinet, trombone, percussion, composition and conducting from such as Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Ernö (Ernst von) Dohnányi and Leo Weiner. In an interview reproduced on this DVD he said the students looked up to their mentors in admiration, treating their words like gold. Fricsay later became conductor of the military band and took up teaching and, from 1934, also ran the opera house.

Tamás Vásáry describes how Fricsay’s eyes seemed to be everywhere, and gave the immediate impression he was the one in charge. Rehearsals were very efficient, with the minimum of talking as Fricsay was always meticulously prepared. Antonio Pappano describes his conducting technique, using no stick, but achieving his results with small, intense gestures. Strangely, Fricsay’s photograph on the DVD cover shows a baton being used, though all the film extracts do indeed show him without one.

The rehearsals shown are excerpts from programmes of the series “Fricsay on Television”, which do not reflect a normal rehearsal, Fricsay talking largely for the audience. The rehearsal and performance of Smetana’s ‘Vltava’ (from Má vlast) with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra is familiar to LP and CD collectors, and indeed is already available on DVD, and is a fascinating insight into the way Fricsay worked. There are excerpts as well from Dukas’s The Sorceror’s Apprentice and the Suite from Kodály’s opera “Hary Janos”.

Fricsay remained in Szeged until late 1944, returning to Budapest to stay with family. He conducted at the re-opening of Budapest Opera and was invited in May 1947 to assist Otto Klemperer. In June, Klemperer became ill in Salzburg, and Fricsay, not yet internationally known, took over conducting the premiere of Gottfried von Einem’s “Dantons Tod”, the success of which brought a huge boost to his career.

He went to devastated Berlin to conduct opera; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a long-time friend, speaks eloquently about Fricsay’s arrival in late 1947. Soon, Fricsay became conductor of the newly-founded Berlin Radio (RIAS) Symphony Orchestra and quickly began to broadcast and make recordings for Deutsche Grammophon. Lutz von Pufendorf, of the Fricsay Society, tells how this orchestra became Fricsay’s life’s work, an extension of the family.

No mention of Deutsche Grammophon is made in the film, so it should be pointed out that Fricsay is unusual for making many recordings for just one label. No mention is made, either, of Fricsay’s very short stay in Houston, where his excessive demands led to an early parting.

Fricsay became seriously ill in 1958, and returned to work a somewhat changed man. The commonly held view is the illness altered his music-making, but Fischer-Dieskau, who knew him very well indeed, proposes that Fricsay was the same musician. Some of the very slow tempos in his final recordings of Mozart and Beethoven symphonies were put down to newly-increased spirituality; in fact, the broadcast performances issued recently by Audite show similar tempos in Mozart’s Symphony No.40 as in the very early 1950s.

Fricsay became well enough to work in 1959, giving his last performances in London in 1961, a couple of which are the extras on this DVD – a fine, crisp piece of Rossini, and a dramatic Leonore No.3 Overture. Fricsay also recorded for the BBC at this time a performance of Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin. On this DVD there is footage of Menuhin playing Brahms’s Violin Concerto, and home-movie footage of his visiting Fricsay.

Both von Pufendorf and Fischer-Dieskau describe Fricsay as warmly intelligent and humorous, though he was known to have been somewhat inflexible at the start of his tenure in Berlin, and in his final illness his patience was sorely tried by continuous pain. He was as demanding a parent as a conductor. His son (also Ferenc) wrote: “Father was domineering, led the ‘Family Orchestra’, but without rehearsals. He was commanding and fair, praised what deserved praise but he demanded discipline, like at his conductor’s desk. He was warm-hearted – humorous – and he had a real Hungarian temperament; full of fun, sad, happy, witty, hot-tempered and loving.”

Although Fricsay said his heart beat faster for Mozart than for Wagner, he left some fine performances of the latter, too.Deutsche Grammophon has reissued on CD at one time or another nearly all of his recordings for it. Some still compare extremely well today, his recordings of Bartók, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony, Dvořák’s ‘New World’ and Verdi’s “Messa da Requiem” are some of the highlights of his catalogue, as are recordings of twentieth-century music.

Fricsay, who died at the age of 49, is as much admired today as he was half-a-century ago, and his legacy continues to give enormous pleasure to succeeding generation of music-lovers.

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