Artur Rodzinski Early Recordings – Tchaikovsky, Franck, Sibelius – Pristine Audio

by | Feb 21, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Artur Rodzinski Early Recordings = TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36; Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture; 1812 Overture, Op. 49; FRANCK: Symphony in D Minor; SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82 – NBC Symphony Orchestra (Tchaikovsky, Franck)/Cleveland Orchestra – Pristine Audio PASC 619 (2 CDs) 79:44; 62:49 [] *****:  

Recording producer and audio engineer Mark Obert-Thorn turns to the work of Polish conductor Artur Rodzinski (1892-1958) in studio recordings made 1939-1941. It was Arturo Toscanini, having heard Rodzinski perform in 1936 Salzburg, who asked Rodzinski to train a burgeoning ensemble that would become the Maestro’s own NBC Symphony Orchestra. After Rodzinski’s initial concert with the orchestra, 2 November 1937, he would lead ten more programs before setting down his first shellac recordings featured in Obert-Thorn’s remasterings.  

Tchaikovsky’s 1878 “Fate Symphony” (rec. 2 January 1939) opens forcefully, the NBC trumpet fanfare and ensuing low stings and winds in fine resonance. The sense of head-long rush to emotional catastrophe assumes momentum and then a thankful lyricism in the midst of dire premonitions, what the composer called “the sword of Damocles.”  The ensuing waltz motif enjoys Rodzinski’s tugs and ritards with a suave response from the NBC strings. The development section becomes quite manic, and the sense of perilous velocity proves equally compelling. While the culminating emotional “rockets” and their descent do not achieve the monolithic force that Koussevitzky or Mravinsky elicit in their readings, the energies from Rodzinski still warrant respect for their conviction.

The B-flat Minor Andantino in modo di canzone projects an equally dire sense of personal tragedy.  The NBC strings, in concert with the oboe, flute and bassoon, evoke a kind of rustic, martial hymn that tries to find consolation in bucolic energies from Nature. The much admired third movement, the F Major Pizzicato ostinato- Allegro, project delicacy and animation with a fierce clarity of detail. The oboe ushers in, via a high A, the Trio section for this bravura Scherzo.  The music cleverly combines balletic and martial elements with dexterity. The rustic Finale: Allegro con fuoco manipulates, in grandiose terms, a Russian folk tune and a secondary tune that itself receives modal development. Here, the NBC battery, along with energized strings and brass, delivers a virtual, rousing, whirlwind performance, quite the showpiece for an ensemble whose Tchaikovsky Fourth makes its debut in this reading.  Happily, the acoustics of Carnegie Hall well preserve the wide range of Tchaikovsky’s “fateful” dynamics.

The NBC Symphony had played (under Monteux) the 1888 Franck Symphony in D Minor, a classic exercise of the French love of structural cyclicism.  Rodzinski performs with the NBC from the same 2 January 1939 session. The opening Lento progresses with its own sense of inexorable destiny, however four-square the means. That Rodzinski was a master of building colossal pedal-points bears witness as this movement unfolds; perhaps only Stokowski rivals Rodzinski in achieving the organ sonority Franck invokes, and Stokowski had recruited Rodzinski as his assistant in Philadelphia! The woodwind and horn tissue in the development section clearly pays homage to Wagner. The final pages enjoy a thrilling clarity and nuance of orchestral definition.

Franck’s expressive Allegretto, plucked strings and English horn followed by hazy brass sonorities and later muted strings, never fails to prove effective, and the NBC realizes a lush patina. Franck himself described the movement as a “cortege.” The original, first movement motives, transformed, soon become a gossamer, polyphonic text, preparing us for the final transformation of theme – a Lisztian notion, certainly – of the last movement, Allegro non troppo.  Franck called his last movement “radiant, quasi luminous,” and Rodzinski urges this music for its ceremonial panoply. Assuming Franck meant his primary impulse to be akin to Beethoven’s Muss es sein rhetorical strategy in Op. 135, Rodzinski’s assertive performance answers in a grand affirmative.

Rodzinski – associated with the Cleveland Orchestra since 1933 – signed a contract with Columbia Records to lead the Cleveland Orchestra in recordings, and the 1880 Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture (14 December 1940) appears first among the three offerings from Obert-Thorn.  Direct and focused, the Friar Laurence motif in F-sharp Minor proceeds to the conflict in Verona between the two warring factions, this in the “fateful” key of B Minor. The linear vehemence of the reading stands in stark contrast to the musical licorice we receive when Celibidache stretches the line for twenty-seven minutes! Rodzinski discards the rhetorical strategy – mostly portamentos – of his contemporaries Stokowski and Mengelberg, but the intimate “magic” of balcony scene and swelling, D Major love theme retain their emotional conviction. At the lovers’ demise, the love theme modulates to a glowing E Major, with supporting cymbal crashes. The nice balance between winds, low strings, and harp shimmers in the seamless, restored sound of the Pristine XR process.  Rodzinski opts -unlike his mentor Stokowski who chooses the soft departure – for the traditional finale, that in forceful, B Major chords.   
The ever-popular 1812 Overture, the solennelle in E-flat Major composed in 1880 to commemorate the repulsion of Napoleon’s invading forces, has a recording by Rodzinski in Cleveland 14 April 1941. While Mengelberg also left us a potent reading, my personal favorite remains that of Igor Bouketoff for RCA. The various, national anthems and fanfares work themselves out in sonata-form, leading to the ultimate climax based on “God Save the Tsar.” In a Toscanini-like fashion, Rodzinski delivers driven performance that does not lack for charm in its relaxed episodes.

Rodzinski found the music of Jean Sibelius attractive; and besides this Symphony No. 5 (28 December 1941) made only three weeks after Pearl Harbor, we have a fascinating Sibelius Fourth from these same forces later, from 1946. Almost at once we must admire the startling, precise articulation – in pianissimos and tremolandos – as Sibelius builds his first movement arch.  The Cleveland woodwinds, especially the low colors, enjoy a vivid radiance. So, too, the brass section, which often plays in something like swooping figures. The textures often achieve a diaphanous luster, while the volatile pulse urges us to a distant Northern clime.

The second movement, Andante mosso quasi allegretto, relishes pizzicatos from the strings amidst soft harmonies in the winds and some inverted pedal in variation. The music plays in the manner of an elegy, bucolic and relatively subdued – except for some brass expletives – in spirit.  And so, we come to the epic Allegro molto finale, which combines scherzo impulses with a monumental, slow peroration in the form of a double exposition that opens out, developing into heroic vistas. Among collectors of recordings of the Sibelius 5th, this performance may not appear first on their lists, but it should not be far away.

—Gary Lemco 

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