Oskar Fried showed strong musical ability as a child, learning to play the piano, violin and horn. Coming from a humble background he was soon encouraged to earn money through his musical skills, which he did by playing in amateur orchestras in Berlin. He left Berlin for Frankfurt in 1889, where he initially played the horn in the Palmgarten Orchestra before joining the orchestra of the Frankfurt Opera House and taking composition lessons with Engelbert Humperdinck. He wrote an orchestral fantasy based on Humperdinck’s best-known work, the opera Hänsel und Gretel, and also made piano and orchestral arrangements of the same work for the publisher Schott. Fried also spent some time in Munich, where he was given tuition and advice by several musicians, including Hermann Levi. His first major composition, a setting of Richard Dehmel’s Verklärte Nacht for mezzo, tenor and orchestra, appeared in 1901, not long after Arnold Schoenberg’s 1899 work of that name for string sextet, inspired by the same text. More compositional studies followed with Scharwenka in Berlin, where Fried enjoyed great acclaim in 1904 when Karl Muck conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Wagnerverein Chorus in his setting of Nietzsche’s Das trunkene Lied, taken from Also Sprach Zarathustra. He followed this with another Dehmel setting, Erntelied for male chorus and orchestra.
Also in 1904 Fried began to conduct, initially with the Stern Choral Society, where Otto Klemperer was the accompanist and his deputy. Having scored a major success with the choir in 1905 in a performance of Liszt’s Die Legende von der Heiligen Elisabeth, he was as a result invited to conduct the Neuen Konzerte in Berlin, and in the same year directed a highly praised performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’, in which Klemperer conducted the off-stage band. Mahler himself was in the audience for this performance and commented afterwards that he could not have conducted the scherzo movement any better. At this performance Fried evidently ran out of rehearsal time, and before the actual performance said to the members of the orchestra, ‘This evening I shall use entirely different tempi. Please follow me,’ thus giving some idea of contemporary attitudes to performance.
Fried was now establishing himself as a conductor: in Berlin he conducted the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde between 1907 and 1910 and the Blüthner Orchestra from 1908. His contemporaries admired his discipline and his knowledge of orchestral instruments, and his programmes were resolutely contemporary: he was the only German conductor to consistently introduce new works to Berlin during the first twenty years of the last century. Included in his concerts were works by, amongst others, Busoni, Delius, Pfitzner, Scriabin, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss; it was to Fried that Busoni dedicated his Nocturne Symphonique of 1912. Fried also studied all the symphonies of Mahler with the composer himself, conducting the Berlin premières of the Symphonies Nos 6 (1906) and 8 ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (1910).
As Fried’s reputation grew, so the international demand for his services as a conductor also increased to the point where in 1913 he decided to give up composition altogether. In the same year he, together with a number of other contemporary conductors, was invited by the Messler Film Company of Berlin to conduct on the relatively new medium of silent film; but whereas the other conductors were asked to direct short overtures, Fried was invited to perform complete Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Evidently this film made a strong impression upon anther major contemporary conductor, Felix Weingartner, himself a noted exponent of this work. After World War I, Fried’s advocacy of the music of Mahler continued and in 1920 he conducted a complete cycle of the symphonies in Vienna. The following year, having previously led the first Russian performance of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony in St Petersburg in 1906, he was personally welcomed to Russia by Lenin as the first major musician from the West to visit the new socialist state. He went on to make more than twenty more visits.
With growing competition in the recording industry, Fried was invited to record several large-scale works by the German Polydor company. These included the first recordings, made in 1924, of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie, and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, with the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera, the Berlin Staatskapelle; he also set down established repertoire such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 and Brahms’s Symphony No. 1. The appearance by Fried on the Polydor label, alongside other major German musicians of the period such as Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner and Wilhelm Furtwängler, consolidated his reputation. He founded and conducted the Berlin Symphony Orchestra (actually the Blüthner Orchestra in other guise) during the 1925 and 1926 seasons and subsequently toured throughout Europe, the USSR and the United States. He continued his association with Polydor, in 1928 recording a memorable account with the Berlin Staatskapelle of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’, to rival Weingartner’s first recording, made in 1926, of the same work for the Columbia label. Other recordings from this period for Polydor included powerful accounts of Liszt’s Les Préludes and Mazeppa and the Suite from Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, all with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Fried also recorded Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pathétique’, with the Orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society for Columbia.
The rise to power in 1933 in Germany of the National Socialist Party, with its racist policies, made it impossible for Fried, a Jew, to remain in that country. Unlike the majority of musicians in the same predicament he chose to go east rather than west, settling in Moscow in 1934. He was soon appointed chief conductor of the Tiflis Opera, and ended his career as chief conductor of the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. A recording of a 1937 broadcast of Fried conducting this orchestra in a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique testifies to his continuing and extraordinary powers as an interpreter of Romantic orchestral music. He became a Soviet citizen in 1941, the year of his death.
Otto Klemperer described Fried as ‘a brilliant conductor and an extremely gifted composer’. His style of conducting may seem unrestrained to the modern ear, but perhaps less so to the ears of his contemporaries, to whom abrupt tempo fluctuations, consistent application of subtle rubato, and strong dynamic contrasts were all more common in performance. Fried frequently changed his interpretations, experimenting constantly. His recordings demonstrate clearly the individuality of interpretation, typified by great flexibility of phrasing, that flourished up to the middle of the last century and by which musicians were judged before the concept of the ‘single definitive performance’ arose, itself a product of the developing marketing strategies of the recording industry.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).