Fricsay: Music Transfigured – Remembering Ferenc Fricsay

by | Jun 28, 2009 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Fricsay: Music Transfigured – Remembering Ferenc Fricsay–Une vie trop breve

Director: Gerald Caillet
Studio: Medici Arts DVD 3078528 [Distrib. by Naxos]
Video: 4:3 Black&White and Color
Audio: German PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English
Length: 51 minutes; Bonus tracks – ROSSINI: La Scala di seta Overture; BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 3 (23 minutes)
Rating: ****

From beneath the stage, the late Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963) emerges, smiles congenially to his ensemble, acknowledges the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, and together they rehearse (1960) Smetana’s The Moldau from Ma Vlast, the village-dance section. “Play it as a peasant dance. . .with a vital force that turns into tenderness,” urges Fricsay. Leading without a baton, Fricsay makes his bare hands, eyes, feet, and hips suffice to manage the beat and capture every nuance from the ensemble. He adjusts the string tone, their attack, insisting on short bow strokes, more rhythm, crisper attacks and a pounding, earthy rhythm. “I am Hungarian, and I know these people, this music.”

“If you watch him,” offers conductor Antonio Pappano, “you see everything is keen, controlling every detail and gesture and how it tells a story. . . .His gypsy downbeat is so quick, it growls. Everything is raised up, intense, quicksilver, transparent. When he senses something is not alive, his radar hones in–it’s frightening.” Tamas Vasary, the pianist-turned-conductor, remarks, “You can see who is in control. . .his eyes are everywhere, and he speaks so fast, covering all the details; it’s like ten rehearsals in one, so it saves time for all concerned.”

Fricsay, doomed to die young (cancer or peritonitis; it’s all the same); so he becomes a rabid workaholic in the last five years of his life, and director Caillat assembles concert footage from the period, interview sequences, home movies, rehearsals, and Fricsay’s own narrative for DGG’s “A Life,” to create a flowing collage of Fricsay’s meteoric career which blazed forth from the ruins of post-WW II Germany and Hungary.  We see historic footage of Fricsay’s family, his band-master father. Fricsay is born in August 1914, the very day WW I started. From his father he learns violin, piano, the “insides” of music of the military band. He will master every instrument except the harp. He leads Hary Janos by his teacher at the Franz Liszt Academy, Zoltan Kodaly. We see color movies of him and Kodaly at the Fricsay estate, where Yehudi Menuhin is kissing both men on the cheek good-bye. We will see excerpts from the Brahms and G Minor Bruch concertos with Menuhin and Fricsay. As  Fricsay narrates his life, the director cuts to the modern Liszt Academy, where a student practices the piano near a bust of Bartok. “We never questioned the wisdom of our teachers,” proffers Fricsay. “Were we cowards? No, their words were full of a wisdom we wanted without revolution.”

Fricsay embarks to rebuild European music in bombed-out, postwar Berlin. Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recalls that he had recently been released from a POW camp. “I met Fricsay in a burnt-out area of the Opera. At first he was skeptical, but after I sang for him, he exclaimed that he’s never expected to meet an ‘Italian baritone’ in Berlin!” Fischer-Dieskau delivers a hearty “Champagne Aria” by the Don. We see artists like Fournier and Menuhin in profile with Fricsay. Fricsay leads his favorite, Mozart, in Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, some extensive shots from different angles of his The Magic Flute Overture.  In a panel discussion on Wagner, Fricsay says his blood beats faster to Mozart, but he has a passion for Tristan and Die Meistersinger. We see an excerpt, lovingly phrased, from A Siegfried Idyll. The head of the Fricsay Society remarks how much Fricsay shares with Toscanini, their technique, their service before a military band as a training ground for larger forces.  We have more of The Moldau, which opened the video. Fricsay coaxes the nocturne segment, then the waters cascade to The High Castle, and the tension, majesty, and jubilation of the piece resounds.

The two, brief concert pieces, the bonus segment, gives us a rousing Silken Ladder Overture of Rossini, Italianate and diaphanous; then, Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 in C, the canvas large and dramatic enough to substitute for the actual opera. Fricsay’s concentration is fierce. Several commentators have by now remarked that since his illness and operation, Fricsay is a changed man, one back from the grave, from a confrontation with the Infinite. His emaciated features, his eyes, measure every musical nuance against Eternity.  He has no time left; he has all the time in the world. As one recent initiate into the Fricsay “mysteries” remarked, while hypnotized by his performance with the Berlin Philharmonic of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, “What a patient conductor!”

–Gary Lemco