When the 50-year-old Fritz Reiner was appointed conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1938, he was still relatively unfamiliar in his adopted American homeland. This pupil of Bartók at the Academy of Music in his native Budapest, former conductor of the Dresden Royal Opera, where he worked with Richard Strauss, and for the past 16 years music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was still rarely mentioned in the national press and never in record reviews. Although he had actually made some discs in 1938 with the New York Philharmonic, they were issued anonymously.
Everything changed for Reiner when his move to Pittsburgh led to nearly a decade of major recordings for American Columbia. Sony Classical is now pleased to present a new 14-CD box set collecting all of Reiner’s Pittsburgh Symphony discography together with the Columbia recordings he made after moving to New York in 1948 to become a principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera.
Reiner was already an experienced Wagner conductor when he came to Pittsburgh and, not surprisingly, his first sessions in February and March 1940 included, among other popular selections, the “Ride of the Valkyries”. This is the oldest recording in the new set and Reiner’s first credited commercial record. Electrical problems unfortunately spoiled the remaining 1940 Wagner masters, so those works had to be re-recorded in 1941, but now at the huge Syria Mosque, the orchestra’s regular venue and site of all the other Pittsburgh recordings collected here. Others dating from before the war include Strauss’s Don Juan (from January 1941) and Don Quixote, with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (November 1941), as well as Debussy’s Ibéria (also November 1941).
Following the wartime national recording ban, Reiner and the orchestra returned to the Syria Mosque in March 1945 to set down some prime examples of the conductor’s widely varied repertoire: Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony; the premiere recording of Robert Russell Bennett’s suite from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, commissioned by Reiner; his Hungarian friend Léo Weiner’s Divertimento No. 1; the Galánta Dances by another compatriot, Zoltán Kodály; and Beethoven’s Second Symphony.
A number of his most memorable Pittsburgh recordings were made in February 1946: the first-ever studio production of the Concerto for Orchestra by his erstwhile teacher Bartók; Brahms’s Hungarian Dances and the First Piano Concerto with Rudolf Serkin; Falla’s El amor brujo, a perennial Reiner favorite, with the fine mezzo soloist Carol Brice, who also recorded Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen during those sessions; and the suite from Strauss’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which Reiner had introduced in the US at Cincinnati. None of these except the Brahms concerto and the Strauss has ever before appeared on CD at Sony Classical.
Reiner conducted his last Pittsburgh recording, Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, in November 1947. Two years later, his first New York sessions for Columbia took place at the 30th Street Studio, producing a remarkably stylish complete set of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Also being released by Sony Classical on CD here for the first time, it features such illustrious names as harpsichordists Sylvia Marlowe and Fernando Valente, flautist Julius Baker, trumpeter William Vacchiano, oboist Robert Bloom, violist William Lincer and cellist Leonard Rose. A few months earlier, Fritz Reiner made one his most famous recordings of all. He was at the Metropolitan conducting Strauss’s Salomé with the finest exponent of the title role, Ljuba Welitsch, making her house debut. In the midst of the run in March, at the 30th Street Studio, Columbia captured the final scene on disc, a recording that has retained its benchmark status.
In 1953, the final chapter of Fritz Reiner’s long career began when he became music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and began a celebrated series of stereo recordings for RCA Victor. But any full appreciation of this legendary conductor’s legacy has to include his earlier achievements for Columbia Records in Pittsburgh and New York. For all Reiner’s countless aficionados around the world, Sony Classical’s new 14-CD box set will be essential listening.
Because Fritz Reiner’s reputation primarily rests with his “golden age” recorded legacy as the Chicago Symphony’s music director, it’s easy to overlook his 1938-1948 stint in Pittsburgh. Reiner essentially rebuilt the Pittsburgh Symphony from scratch, raising its standards to a level worthy of the so-called “Top Five” American orchestras (New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia). This boxed set brings Reiner’s commercial Pittsburgh sessions together for the first time under one roof, along with the conductor’s other Columbia recordings. For the most part they attest to Reiner’s wide repertoire affinities, his concern for precision and balances, and his brilliance as an accompanist.
Pittsburgh’s long-demolished Syria Mosque was not a particularly conducive venue for recording, and Reiner biographer Kenneth Morgan’s excellent booklet notes mention how Columbia’s engineers attempted to improve the sound quality with drapes and padding. As a result, sound quality varies from session to session, although Sony’s transfers markedly improve upon all previous incarnations. Indeed, sonic and musical considerations are difficult to separate in certain instances.
For example, some listeners might find the dry, analytic clarity of Reiner’s Pittsburgh Debussy Iberia lacking requisite “Impressionistic” atmosphere vis-à-vis his Chicago version. To my ears, the sonic image heightens the music’s concertante-like textural interplay, as well as the guitar-like pizzicato string chords in Le Matin d’un jour de fête (sound clips). As much as I admire the fervent sweep of the Pierre Monteux/San Francisco Symphony Ravel La valse on 78s, the comparable Reiner/Pittsburgh version boasts a wider dynamic scope and far more accomplished orchestral execution.
Drab, boxy sound, however, impedes Reiner’s 1940/41 Wagner excerpts. Rhythmic instability in the finale undermines Reiner’s otherwise staggering Beethoven Second symphony, while his Shostakovich Sixth provided a grittier, no-holds-barred alternative to Stokowski’s earlier premiere Philadelphia Orchestra recording. While Reiner’s Chicago Falla El amor brujo stands out for blended refinement and for soprano Leontyne Price’s sexy musical and verbal elocution, the relatively literal-minded Carol Brice’s hefty lower register lingers in your inner ear, as do Reiner’s more incisive faster movements. If you like Kathleen Ferrier’s lustrous timbre in Mahler, you’ll find Brice comparable yet better-controlled in the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.
The Reiner/Rudolf Serkin Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 may fatigue listeners with its dry recorded ambience, yet this characteristic enhances the Brahms Hungarian Dances’ stinging vivacity, where the Pittsburgh musicians thoroughly outclass their swimmy and slurpy Vienna counterparts under Reiner.
It’s hard to choose between the harder-edged Pittsburgh Mozart 40th symphony and Reiner’s refined yet less interesting Chicago remake. Both Richard Rodgers’ Carousel Waltzes and Robert Russell Bennett’s Symphonic Picture based on Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess are insouciantly idiomatic–just listen to the orchestra let rip in “There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.”
Reiner’s ability to balance and clarify Richard Strauss’ complex orchestration permeates his Pittsburgh Don Juan, Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben, where the musicians take the conductor’s headlong tempos in stride. Despite the 1946 Bartók Concerto for Orchestra world-premiere recording’s historic importance, I find it proficient but faceless.
Perhaps the best-known recorded souvenir from Reiner’s 1949-1953 Metropolitan Opera tenure was the Finale Scene from Strauss’ Salome, where Ljuba Welitsch’s agile, silvery pipes evoke a depraved 16-year-old. Conversely, the usually cavalier Oscar Levant behaves himself in Honegger’s Concertino as he falls in line with Reiner’s iron-clad stewardship. Despite a stellar coterie of soloists in the 1949 Bach Brandenburg Concertos, Reiner’s mechanical and perfunctory performances sound like top-notch freelancers sight reading. In all, a fascinating and often illuminating collection that reveals as much about Reiner as it does the Pittsburgh Symphony’s formative years.