Great Conductors of the 20th Century: Fritz Reiner (CD review)

Emil Gilels, Carol Brice, soloists; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, NBC Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 672866 2 7 (2-disc set).

This two-disc set that EMI released in 2004 represents the quality one can find throughout EMI's "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" series, a series I'd like to see Warner Classics continue.
The set covers Hungarian-born conductor Fritz Reiner (1888-1963), who came to America in 1922 and established himself as one of the leading conductors of his day, culminating his career as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1953 until his death ten years later. Those were ten glorious years, especially as they represented his work in the forefront of the stereophonic recording era.

The Reiner recordings in the present two-disc set include over two-and-a-half hours of music by the conductor, covering most of the man's later career, about half in stereo and half in mono, and containing complete tracks from some of his best EMI, RCA, and Sony (Columbia) recordings from 1946 to 1959. Given that and other retailers are selling the set new and used for anything from $4 to $35, I'd say it's still a bargain.

Fritz Reiner
The set contains a boatload of music, but the centerpiece is the Brahms Second Piano Concerto with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony supporting pianist Emil Gilels in a performance from 1958. Gilels would, of course, go on to make an even more-celebrated recording of the work for DG some years later, but this one is more detailed in sound, one of RCA's "Living Stereo" productions of the time, and just as surefooted in execution. Think of it this way: For the price of the set, you get a terrific Brahms Second Piano Concerto, plus almost two more hours of equally good material. Do I have to say again that it's a bargain?

Among the other pieces in the set are an adrenaline-rushing Beethoven Coriolan Overture in stereo with the CSO from 1959; a terrific Mozart "Linz" Symphony with the CSO in some of the best monaural you'll find; a sparkling Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream Scherzo with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, actually the Philadelphia Orchestra, from 1951; Brahms's Tragic Overture, with the CSO in stereo from 1957; some of Wagner's Gotterdammerung and Siegfried's Rhine Journey, also with the CSO in stereo from 1959; Bartok's Hungarian Sketches, CSO, 1958; and Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel, Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Falla's El amor brujo, complete, the latter three items in mono.

Reiner continues to be one of my favorite conductors because like others of his era--Klemperer, Walter, Szell, Stokowski, and many more--he wasn't afraid to be himself, to let his own vision of a composer's work permeate the music, all the while maintaining a strict adherence to the printed score. It's a fine balancing act, to make old standards sound fresh and alive but not to violate their intent. Reiner could do it. Many of today's top conductor's seldom manage the feat, and compared to the vintage maestros they can appear almost commonplace, dull, or boring. And when the older conductors come to us in such good sound and at such reasonable prices, the proposition seems to me irresistible. But, then, maybe it's just me.


To hear a brief excerpt from this set, click on the forward arrow:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa