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Paul Orgel
Fanfare, November 2009

After being diagnosed with the cancer that was to cause his death at age 49, the Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay (1914–1963) spent his last five years giving concerts, conducting opera, and making recordings at a frenzied pace. He was based in Berlin, where he led the Berlin Radio Symphony or RIAS (Radio in the American Sector), an orchestra founded in 1946, when the city was in ruins. The DVD booklet compares Fricsay to Bernstein or Karajan in terms of how far his career might have taken him, but a more appropriate musical comparison might be with his compatriots Georg Solti, Antal Dorati, or István Kertész, all of whom studied with some combination of Bartók, Kodály, and Leo Weiner at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest and considered them their formative masters.

The best parts of this film, which follows a loosely biographical structure, consist of archival footage of Fricsay rehearsing with the Berlin and Stuttgart Radio Orchestras in the early 1960s. He’s demanding, speaks extremely fast with an urgent, italicized quality, and accomplishes much in a short time. Fricsay was particularly drawn to music that tells a story, and the brilliantly played excerpts that we hear from Smetana’s The Moldau, Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Kodály’s Háry János Suite bear this out.

Not all of Fricsay’s many recordings have the lucidity and energy of his best efforts. “Music Transfigured” contains the bonus of two complete performances by Fricsay and the RIAS of overtures by Rossini (La scala di seta) and Beethoven (Leonore No. 3). The Rossini doesn’t quite have the infectious sense of fun that is the essence of this music, and the Beethoven, though tightly controlled, is a middle-of-the-road performance surprisingly lacking in drama as the music moves faster.

There’s no doubt that Fricsay was a major conductor of the mid 20th century, with many varied musical affinities and interpretive ideas that would have developed in ways that couldn’t be predicted. He didn’t live long enough to conduct the Mahler symphonies and late Verdi operas that he wanted to do, but his DGG recordings of the three Bartók piano concertos with Géza Anda, the Beethoven Ninth, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, and especially Die Entfürung aus den Serail are all classics that hold up beautifully approximately 50 years after they were made.

Aside from rehearsal and concert footage, the film presents a distinguished group of interviewees—Antonio Pappano, Támás Vásary, Yehudi Menuhin, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Professor Lutz von Pufendorf of the International Fricsay Society, and (briefly) Kurt Masur—who each contributes admiring commentary. “Music Transfigured” was directed by Gérald Caillat. It is strongly recommended, particularly to anyone who isn’t familiar with Fricsay’s work.

Gramophone, August 2009

CLASSIC ARCHIVE: Ferenc Fricsay (NTSC) 3078528

CELIBIDACHE, Sergiu: You Don’t Do Anything – You Let It Evolve (Film, 1992) (NTSC) 101365

TOSCANINI IN HIS OWN WORDS (Docufiction, 2008) (NTSC) 3077928

Profiles of three legendary conductors

All three of these biopics are recommendable as introductions to those who know little or nothing about their subjects. With that stricture in mind, Gramophone readers will likely be drawn first to a life-and-work portrait of Ferenc Fricsay with a chronological backbone taken from the autobiography that he recorded for DG in 1962, and which was reissued to conclude a carefully compiled Original Masters set (Al03). His own story is illustrated by stock footage of varying relevance, but the talking heads are renowned and thoughtful. Antonio Pappano emphasises the importance of private study, how Fricsay arrived at a rehearsal with all points fixed, how persuasive he was in music with a story, and how his stickless technique engenders the Fricsay sound—hair-trigger yet supremely well balanced. Rehearsal excerpts from Vltava and Háry János are garrulous and compelling but clearly staged.

Celibidache is much more comfortable with a camera pointed at him, and happily dispenses his familiar but unpredictable round of scornful put-downs, avuncular humour, offbeat aperçus and mystical pronouncements whether rehearsing his Munich Philharmonic, coaching young musicians or addressing no one in particular.

Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, June 2009

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!”

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4:28:27 PM, 13 October 2015
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