Artur Rodzinski at the NBC Symphony, Vol. I = HANDEL (arr. Harty): Water Music Suite; SIBELIUS: Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49; DEBUSSY: Two Nocturnes; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Artur Rodzinski – Pristine Audio PASC 633, 79:29 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Pristine and Andrew Rose restore the concert of 4 December 1937, the collaboration between conductor Artur Rodzinski (1892-1958) and the NBC Symphony, the result of five weeks’ preparation time to hone this newly formed ensemble into a musical entity worthy of its principal conductor, Arturo Toscanini, who would ascend the podium officially 25 December 1937.
Rodzinski, at the time leader of the Cleveland Orchestra, had established himself as a fine builder of symphonic ensembles, and his choice of programming means to display the new NBC in its various choirs and sound combinations. So, he opens with Hamilton Harty’s 1920 arrangement of the 1717 Water Music of Handel. The fine tone of the NBC winds and brass soon, in the opening Allegro and pursuant Air, finds lush harmonization in the NBC strings. Rodzinski’s tempos keep the music active, avoiding its tendency to seesaw merely from tonic to dominant, altering repeated phrases just enough to keep the ear in thrall. A whiplash Bourrée and delicate Hornpipe lead to the famed Andante espressivo that permits the NBC strings and selected winds a generous cantabile. Toscanini himself had remarked, “When I heard the strings after the first rehearsal I wept for pure joy.” The final movement, Allegro deciso, bears that robust tune in strings, horns, and timpani that virtually defines the Handelian pomp and ceremony.
These words of Sibelius help define his creative aesthetic: “Music is for me like a beautiful mosaic which God has put together. He takes all the pieces in his hand, throws them into the world, and we have to recreate the picture from the pieces.” The 1906 symphonic fantasia Pohjola’s Daughter, who embodies the Daughter of Nature, seems built up from a series of symphonic fragments, most often on the progression G-A-B. The sheer virtuosity of the orchestration bears favorable comparison with that of Richard Strauss. The oboe, English horn, and flute testify to the beauty of Nature’s Daughter. Rodzinski, who would champion the music of Sibelius on record in Cleveland, makes of the score a totally kinetic, pungent experience, raising harmonies and dissonances that will likewise inform the composer’s Fourth Symphony.
Rodzinski then turns his attentions to the 1900 “night pieces” or grisailles that Debussy meant to avoid “the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather [to designate] all the various impressions and the special effects of light the word suggests.” The elusive Nuages captures “the immutable aspect of the sky, and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds.” The various colors of the orchestra blend in an erotic haze, in which the grays dominate. The second piece, Fêtes, captures a vibrating, dancing rhythm that soon coalesces into a procession that both passes and merges with the festive scene. The brio of Rodzinski’s rendition brings a nervously virile energy to the score, redolent as well as auditory in its special effects. Once the NBC harp and trumpets enter, the momentum sets in that culminates with the snare drum, and then the fur flies. Debussy himself spoke of the “cosmic rhythm” of the music, though Rodzinski’s muscle brings it down to a grateful earth.
The Beethoven Fifth would soon become a staple led by Arturo Toscanini, whose 1939 cycle of Beethoven symphonies stuffs legends. Rodzinski’s reading is linear, driven, and lyric, a pointed reading with its predestined course quite set. No repeat of the first movement’s exposition; instead, a development that exploits the competing, even explosive, choirs of the orchestra while maintaining the basic pulse. The Andante, with its theme and variations, achieves a fluid motion and hearty resonance imbued with high drama. John Wummer’s liquid flute makes its presence known. The Scherzo signals the NBC trumpets to announce their force, and the subsequent polyphony testifies to brilliant ensemble. We hear a subtle sense of transition and graduated dynamics, pizzicato figuration, well articulated in the timpani, and then the grinding urgency to the vivacious finale, Allegro. The movement splice here could be improved. Nevertheless, Rodzinski’s vivacity, sans repeats, reigns supreme, and the Mannheim rockets fully announce our transition into heroic C Major. After the galloping coda, this audience goes wild.
It has been a most exciting inaugural concert under Rodzinski, and we might wonder if anything of the earlier, three Monteux-led performances with the NBC endures. The accompanying notes, by Richard and Halina Rodzinski, make a decided contribution to the context of this historic concert.
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