, November 2010
From the Capriccio label we have a welcome release of four scores from Oskar Fried a man who has been relegated to a mere footnote in music history. Lewis Foreman summed up the situation, writing, “virtually everything about Fried is illusive.” (The Delius Society Journal, April 1985, No. 86, ‘Oskar Fried Edition’) If the Berlin-born Fried is remembered today for anything it is for his conducting prowess. In his eminent podium career Fried made numerous recordings. There are a series of historical recordings available of him conducting with titles such as Mahler’s Disciple; ‘Oskar Fried Conducts’ and ‘A Forgotten Conductor’. As a composer I would guess that Fried, who only wrote a small number of compositions, is all but forgotten except to a handful of musicologists. The feature work here is undoubtedly Die Auswanderer (The Emigrants). It seems likely that Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) and the Prelude and Double Fugue for string orchestra together with the recently unearthed full score of Die Auswanderer (The Emigrants) are receiving their first recordings.
Little information is available on Fried so I have provided a short biographical note for background. As a music student Fried took lessons with Iwan Knorr, Engelbert Humperdinck and Xaver Scharwenka. An inveterate traveller he journeyed through many countries of Europe and to Russia. He even visited the Americas on two occasions. Fried also came to London several times. I have seen a note from the teenage Benjamin Britten mentioning Fried conducting an all-Beethoven concert at the BBC, London in 1931.
After the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Fried a Jew, had to leave for his own safety. Unlike the vast majority of émigrés who went West, Fried with his communist views felt compelled to move east to the Soviet Union a country he knew well. He settled in the Soviet Union in 1934 later becoming a Soviet Citizen. It seems that his death in 1941 was viewed as suspicious.
Fried is inextricably linked to Mahler. They first met in 1901 at Vienna and Fried soon became a disciple of the great composer. The 1904 première in Berlin of Fried’s composition Das trunkene Lied (The drunken song) for chorus and orchestra (1903) to a Nietzsche text brought overnight acclaim. A year later he conducted Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic in Berlin with the composer in attendance. Clearly a favoured conductor of Mahler, Fried was entrusted with making the first recording of a Mahler symphony when in 1924 he recorded the Symphony No.2 ‘Resurrection’ with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra.
The première of Fried’s Die Auswanderer (The Emigrants) a melodrama for speaker and large orchestra was given in January 1913 by the Berlin Philharmonic with the actress Tilla Durieux as narrator. Also on the programme was Busoni’s Brautwahl Suite (world première) and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Wilhelm Backhaus.
Thought lost for many years Fried’s handwritten score to Auswanderer was recently unearthed in Moscow where it had been stored in the KGB archives. The text is from a collection of poetry Les campagnes hallucinatés by Emile Verhaeren translated into German by Stefan Zweig. Auswanderer is an unsettling and powerful musical experience which apart from its orchestral introduction uses the narrator for a large part of its length. It is harrowing and expressionistic in its depiction of disrooted and outcast peasants trudging on foot with stoic resignation, pulling carts full of their ragged belongings towards a city of dark foreboding. The city turned out to be a horrendous place described in the Auswanderer text translation by Michael Bürgermeister as: “apocalyptic”, “sulphurous sky”, “red-hot heat” and a “gigantic whore”. The powerfully affecting score is generally dour, heavily disturbing and frequently aggressive with several loud and menacing climaxes. The orchestral introduction lasts until 4:31 when the female speaker Salome Kammer is heard for the first time and is accompanied by a snare drum.
A couple of months ago at the Konzerthaus, Berlin I was fortunate to attend a splendid performance of Auswanderer with the Konzerthausorchester under Maestro Eliahu Inbal. Jörg Gudzuhn was the narrator. The concert was part of the 2010/11 season in Berlin marking the centenary of Mahler’s birth and the half centenary of his death with a cycle of concerts titled ‘Music with Mahler - Chronicler of his Time’ focusing on Mahler’s music and the era in which he worked.
Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera Hansel and Gretel was completed in 1892 and premièred at Weimar by Richard Strauss a year later. Mahler in 1894 conducted the work in Hamburg. It was at this time that Fried was studying composition with Humperdinck and his arrangement the Fantasy on themes from ‘Hansel and Gretel’ for orchestra comes from those years. There was a great demand for various arrangements of successful operas and Fried’s attractive ‘Hansel and Gretel’ Fantasy was extremely well received. Fried conducted a recording of the Fantasy with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1928 for Deutsche Grammophon. Pleasingly melodic as one would expect I enjoyed the contrasting moods of exhilaration and melancholy. At the close of the score I especially enjoyed the ebullient climax. I did notice a slight but annoying glitch in the sound at 14:04.
German poet Richard Dehmel wrote Verklärte Nacht (or Transfigured Night) in 1896 which inspired Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht for string sextet, Op. 4. A few years later in 1901 Fried realised his version of Verklärte Nacht for mezzo-soprano, tenor and orchestra, Op. 9. Its first performance was given by the composer it seems with the Berlin Philharmonic in late 1905. It’s a lush, tender and dramatic score that deserves to be heard more often. The delicious atmosphere of the duet for mezzo-soprano Katharina Kammerloher and tenor Stephan Rügamer opens the score with the words, “Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood.” Initially to a poignant solo violin melody I enjoyed the passage at 2:22 with Kammerloher singing the affecting, “I am carrying a child, and not by you.” Impressive is the soprano’s clear diction and vocal suppleness in a passage that amply demonstrates her range. At the end of the second verse Kammerloher gives an impressive weight to her top notes emphasising the words, “met you.” At 4:48 Rügamer sings the words, “She walks on, stumbling” to be rejoined by Kammerloher in a tender duet. At 5:50 the tenor displays his impressive high register. A climax of drums and brass dominates the ending before a short quiet close.
From the same period as Verklärte Nacht came Fried’s Prelude and Double Fugue for string orchestra, Op. 10. The notes explain that Paul Becker considered the score unsuccessful for, “stand-alone performances” and felt it would be better served as incidental music to a play. The powerful score for strings is dark, grave and of an almost sinister quality with considerable forward momentum. In the double Fugue section the work’s dour demeanour intensifies considerably. On several occasions I was reminded of a chorale from a J.S. Bach Cantata.
In addition to the Grove entry one of the most informative articles that I have seen on Oskar Fried is an online PDF file from the Delius Society by Lewis Foreman: The Delius Society Journal, April 1985, Number 86, ‘Oskar Fried Edition’
This Capriccio disc is splendidly played and recorded with an excellent essay and full texts with English translations. On the evidence of these four works Oskar Fried is certainly a composer of worth. For those that enjoy something away from the mainstream this release demands to be heard.