WEBER Oberon Overture. HUMPERDINCK--FRIED Hansel und Gretel Fantasy.1 WAGNER A Faust Overture. STRAUSS Alpine Symphony
Except among “serious” collectors, Oskar Fried (1871–1941) truly is “a forgotten conductor.” A contemporary of Weingartner, who was eight years older, Toscanini (four years older than Fried), Monteux (four years younger), and Walter (five years), he was among the prominent European conductors of his time. Unlike most of the refugees from Nazi Germany who escaped to the West, Fried, who had been a popular guest conductor in the Soviet Union, fled East, where he continued to conduct until his death. He became a Soviet citizen in 1940 and, a widower, he married a descendant of Glinka during his exile. This wasRead more all well and good for Fried but not for his reputation, since he pretty much disappeared from Western consciousness in 1934 when he fled Germany. Prominent among his discographic accomplishments was the first recording of a Mahler symphony (No. 2) in 1923.
I recall it as a strong performance, somewhat frustrating to listen to through no fault of Fried’s—it’s an acoustic recording, quite amazing by its very existence, much less its quality, but still subject to the limitations of that process. The same thing might be said of his recording of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony; perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that two acoustic recordings of the Alpine Symphony (the other was by Eduard Mörike) existed at a time when the Brahms Third and Fourth Symphonies were yet to be recorded. You are correct in assuming that the Alpine Symphony with its colorful orchestration, huge orchestra, and wide dynamic range wasn’t an obvious candidate for recording in the early 1920s¬—the producer, who isn’t sure, gives the date of Fried’s recording as “1925(?).” Still, the necessary reduction in forces and narrowed dynamic range is not without its fascinations, rather like a two-piano arrangement of some orchestral favorite—it’s not the real thing but one often hears melodic and rhythmic details that are unclear in the orchestral version. I can’t say how many players they squeezed under the recording horn but everything you need to hear, including the organ, makes its appearance. Perhaps, facing limited space on the 78s, Fried takes the piece faster than he would have under concert conditions. The 40:15 timing is a world’s record; even Strauss himself, who was no dawdler in his own music, took more than 45 minutes to dispatch the Alpine Symphony.
The other acoustic recording is a noisy, somewhat distorted pressing of the Oberon Overture (it sounds like someone played it to death); there’s nothing wrong with the performance, but it’s strictly for Fried completists, speaking of whom, I might mention that the thorough annotations, which are, unfortunately, in German, only, include a Fried discography whose completeness I cannot vouch for but which was certainly interesting to read. Among the listed recordings were two of the Symphonie fantastique—an acoustic one made in Germany and a 1937 electrical one that was done in the Soviet Union. I mention this because Fried also conducted a performance of the piece on a silent film. If that seems crazy, the idea behind it was, apparently, to allow future musicians to play the piece with Fried “conducting.” Unhappily, the film seems to have disappeared.
Fried’s own fantasy on themes from Hansel und Gretel starts off with the act III prelude—he jumps around the opera arbitrarily and, somehow, ends up with a reasonably coherent digest of the “best-hits-of-the-show,” including the “Dream Pantomime,” the Witch’s House music, “Brother, Come and Dance with Me,” some of the spooky Forest Music with the bird calls, the “Witch’s Ride,” the pronouncement of the magic spell, and the final dance. Thank goodness, it’s a decent electrical recording as is that of the Faust Overture, a dramatic performance of a work that needs a conductor with the kind of strong personality that Fried possessed. If my suggestion that this release is strictly for the curious and the historical-minded seems dismissive, it is not intended to be; Fried was someone who could be mentioned in the same breath as his (now) more famous contemporaries and almost anything of his that I have heard was worth hearing but, just be warned, you might find the acoustically recorded selections to be a trial rather than an interesting curiosity.