ARTUR BODANZKY

1877-1939

Artur Bodanzky presided over the then-segregated German wing of the Metropolitan Opera for almost a quarter century, conducting a steady and to him perhaps endless diet of the same dozen or so operas which came round and round again like Cognac, or Coke, bottles on a factory conveyor belt. A consideration of his broadcasts from the Met (“there go the house lights,” says Milton Cross from his perch in Box 44, “and here is Artur BodANZky entering the pit”) reads, alas, like a ledger of profit and loss, for, not counting the likely factor of boredom, Bodanzky was artistically a bit like the clock that strikes thirteen times, his taste could falter, his commitment lapse. A loose cannon compared to that precision gunner Fritz Reiner who was also conducting a lot of Wagner in the Thirties, Bodanzky with his rather irascible baton was a more brittle and highstrung maestro than the glowing Fritz with his full tank of finesse. Bodanzky had good wheels as they say, he favored brisk tempos and sometimes faster ones than that, so he wasn’t dull, just boring sometimes.

At his best he was a wonderful excavator of near-hidden felicities of expression, as when in the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (1-2-37) he reveals the golden, sexy sound of the high horns whose rapturous sequences are shared with other instruments tending in many performances to obscure the horns’ engaging color. The desperation in the violins’ runs on the fraught final page of act 2 of Tannhaeuser (1-18-36) is also memorable. And who has made Bruennhilde seem to CRY OUT so vividly from the Walkuere Magic Fire via that repeated falling phrase in the winds (2-3-34)? — “Dad, don’t do this to me!”

But the Parsifal of 4-15-38 seems dead on arrival: very slow, insufficient tension. The Transformation music once reached is ecstatic, but plodding. Of course Bodanzky was suffering from exhaustion on this occasion and surrendered the second act to his young associate Erich Leinsdorf (under whose baton the wattage of the performance zips upward), but there’s no published excuse for the automatic pilot on which Bodanzky’s Der Rosenkavalier (1-7-39) frequently runs. Lyrical passages looked forward to by hungry Straussians tend to be as cold as pats of butter taken straight from the fridge. As for the pompous and ponderous orchestral recitatives Bodanzky concocted to replace the spoken dialogue in Fidelio (12-31-38) – the tension-starved tremolo as Pizarro menacingly reads the dispatches is a low point – these must charitably be considered flukes of history lodged inside a performance in this case not without its appropriately feisty excitements. Happy New Year.

Clean articulation was not one of Bodanzky’s strong points and the Walkuere (2-2-35) in which Kirsten Flagstad made her American debut, while fond and exciting, suffers from great honey-pots of syrup from the strings, the solo cellist in particular is urged on to fits of portamento. It’s as if there were gum on the performance’s shoes. In Goetterdaemmerung (1-11-36) the Immolation scene is for the most part ardently and satisfyingly done, until Bodanzky flies into the orchestral postlude in a near-frantic rush not in sync with Bruennhilde’s majestic personality, and when the Rhine flows into the orchestra it has the sing-song voice of a provincial tributary. Better by far is the moment in Siegfried (1-30-37) when our hero comes close to that strange breast-plated object (Bruennhilde) lying on a rock and Bodanzky’s brass sound off pingily from their high orchestral horse. Then in the Venusberg music of that ’36 Tannhaeuser the bustle coming out of the Met’s pit is wonderfully wild. But just try to have sex at this speed.

By the way, connoisseurs of Die Walkuere haven’t finished their homework until they’ve heard the broadcasts by Riccardo Muti (La Scala 1990s) and Ferenc Fricsay (Berlin ‘51). Not to mention late bloomer Reginald Goodall and his English Ring at London’s Coliseum in the 70’s — gods and dwarfs and slow tempos inside and snowball fights outside in St. Martin’s Lane. Muti transmutes podium glamour into a broad legato sweep, the short-lived Fricsay slips magically in and out of a suave and inner interpretive world woven in an Olympian ermine, echt-tragic and absolutely individual. My how Fricsay could do heartbreak — as subtly yet searingly as Penelope Lively delivers by implication the heroine’s death at the end of her novel Moon Tiger. To borrow from another of my favorite writers, this is “the transmission of sore spots into beauty.” Curious that some commentators link Fricsay stylistically with Toscanini. In my role as a non-combative chronicler I must remain silent on this; however, as Mr. Gilbert’s Pooh Bah would say, in my role as a purveyor of public service of a sort I must own that such a linkage makes no sense at all. The only conductor in my estimation who really wanted to “do a Toscanini” was George Szell, a conductor felicitous on Monday and crude on Tuesday.