FRITZ STIEDRY

1883-1968

Whether due to some managerial deficiency or simply a lack of personal push – and there’s the lottery of fame, sempre capriccioso! — Fritz Stiedry never had a big recording contract and he didn’t multi-task much. In his sunset years in public he appeared almost exclusively in the pit of the Metropolitan Opera, from which he conducted performances of Wagner and late-middle period Verdi that gave much pleasure indeed. Not the sort to conduct full tilt almost to the grave like Stokowski, Monteux, Wand and a number of others, he simply retired when the time was right to the happy geriatric grounds of Switzerland where so many conductors of whatever nationality have chosen to live, drawing renewal one suspects from mountain and stream not to speak of the country’s perennial while imperfect “neutrality.”

Stiedry’s credentials were excellent. Like Bruno Walter he was tapped by the great Mahler for an assistantship at the Vienna Opera, and like Walter again he conducted opera in Berlin in those golden days of the Weimar Republic. Then, just as Nicolai Malko fled the Communists, Stiedry – well, not quite simultaneously but almost  (I picture them waving at each other at Brest-Litovsk) — dodged the Nazis by taking a train in the opposite direction and doing his stint at the head of the Leningrad Philharmonic, even presiding over the famously aborted premiere of Shostakovich’s Fourth symphony. Next step New York 1937 where Otto Klemperer turned down an invitation to conduct the New Friends of Music, a Mostly Haydn & Mozart series that shone brightly for several seasons, and Stiedry got the job. The Met years followed, Stiedry evidently satisfied with the repertoire awarded him by the imperious Rudolf Bing who was not so obliging to the likes of Pierre Monteux and that excellent conductor whose lottery numbers were frequently terrible, Jonel Perlea.

Although Viennese, Stiedry had a somewhat drier beat than the Berliner Bruno Walter, his performances made their way on the evennest of rhythmic keels. But his phrasings, the inflections of his musicmaking, were lively and warm, creative. He had no trouble catching the delicacy of a musical situation. To borrow a phrase I read the other day in a jazz review in the New York Times, Stiedry relished “the possibility for transcendence on the gig.” No conductor has injected more anguish into the second act prelude of Wagner’s Die Walkuere (a Met broadcast of 1-29-49 with Rose Bampton and Max Lorenz as the lovers fleeing for their lives in this music) and no paragon of the podium has caught better the balance of sorrow and elegance in the landmark postlude to Fiesco’s Il Lacerato Spirito in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra (with Mihaly Szekely at the Met, 1-28-50). The murmurous opening of this Boccanegra, mellowly dressed by Stiedry in a little scrim curtain of sound, arrives like a gentle breeze on the bay of Genoa. In the next scene the “blessing” duet of Gabriele and Fiesco (Szekely and Richard Tucker) is unusually slow, more hymn-like than ever, the voices seeming to curl about a trellis by the sea. And of course the Council Chamber Scene sizzles with its characters on a very hot roof of emotion.

Stiedry’s Forza del Destino (3-17-56 at the Met) is another journey with revelations. There’s a spring in the phrasing from the start, but repeatedly the music is weighted by uncertainty, stern forces in the orchestra claw at the benign, the music has to push its aching shoulder against the stone wall of an unobliging forza. Relief? Let’s jump to the end of a Stiedry Goetterdaemmerung (1954 at London’s Covent Garden) and listen to the absolute Innocence of the Rhine as it appears in Wagner’s tremendous postlude — here we have a swimmers’ river, the Rhinemaidens’ own, RESTFUL! And for the record: Stiedry’s calling card in America was a lone Victor album with the New Friends mating Haydn’s 67th and 80th symphonies, gramophonic newcomers. The performances are crisp as a cold needle shower but always open to flashes of comedy or passion.