OSKAR FRIED

1871-1941

Oskar Fried made his American debut with the old New York Symphony in 1928 and the New York Times didn’t come. He also had the ill luck to be overlooked by editors of several important encyclopedias. But Fried survived oversights of this sort and like the great blue cars of a vintage Wagons Lits Express he’ll always have his fans, with excellent reason. Otto Klemperer no less tosses him a nice bouquet in his Minor Recollections: “He was a brilliant conductor, an extremely gifted composer, and a most original personality.” Yes, I don’t think any of the other conductors in this volume ever worked as a circus clown.

Fried was, as Lewis Carroll might have put it, originaler than many: his dangerously nuanced Moscow recording of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique from 1937 is possibly the most weirdly wonderful performance in this volume. If it were going through Airport Customs they’d have to invent a new category: “Tons to Declare.” And heavens, the Internal Security people would collapse in a heap. It’s not quite acceptable by the rather dainty standards of interpretive etiquette of the mid-twentieth century — and I have to say the present era, too: some jacket notes-smiths cowering under a terrible super ego still feel they must condemn that nasty dragon “interpretation” – but this Fantastique Sovietique amounts in fact to a highly appropriate response to the literary content of a very literary symphony, perhaps the ideal response. In it we hear the edgy, insolent, accent-oriented Fried who might at times be mistaken for Willem Mengelberg.

Now Fried was a conductor who knew all there is to know about elegance and line but who, like the Mengelberg we will meet shortly, understood how music can be a metaphor for the “volatile mess” (was it Paul Theroux who said that?) which is life. An Eroica or a Brahms First as well as a Fantastique can run into good luck, bad luck, ecstasies, barriers along its way – the “ecstasy and hubbub of the soul,” to quote our old friend Virginia Woolf writing in a different context. This means succeeding passages in a Fried performance can change flavor felicitously rather than run together like scarcely distinguishable elements on a lunch counter plate.

And Fried in his penchant for intense and instant detail, the FedEx messengers so to speak of fluctuating fortune, has what Lisa Zeidner writing in the Times Book Review about James Salter’s fiction has called a skill in “composing revelations from the ephemera of moments.” The happier moments are like finding a coin in the street, receiving an unexpected postcard from a dear friend, walking innocently into an epiphany . . . And there’s the cinematic parallel too: in a review by A.O. Scott of a lyrically intense coming-of-age film he writes about how “tight closeups and abrupt shifts in perspective” bring the viewer into “a private world [that’s] a little scary” – well, he could be talking about some Oskar Fried performances.

Now a bit of chapter-and-verse: Beethoven in the introduction of his Second Symphony asks for adagio molto and at the same time a somewhat speedier eighth note = 84; Fried in his 1924 Berlin recording sides with the notion of adagio molto, thinking too of what might be argued is the lazy legato and the looking-searchingly-into-infinity of the composer’s opening bars, seizing therefore on a tempo of only eighth = 60. The result is gripping and, dare one say it, right. And when Fried encounters the cascading thirty-seconds and upstepping staccato arpeggiations commencing at bar 12, music that obviously doesn’t want to dawdle, he simply shifts, under cover of the composer’s change of texture, to eighth = 88. Off he goes. And right again! Is Beethoven still thinking in his tousled head adagio molto?

Very interesting is the delightful “problem” of tempo in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Second, a larghetto containing a succession of themes with quite different personalities, all saddled with  the rather hyper metronome marking eighth = 92. Invoking his theory-of-evolution if you will (you’ll find a brotherly echo in Mengelberg a few pages along in this volume) Fried terraces upward from approximately eighth = 58 (for the sweetly cantabile opening theme, which seems a response to or solution for the symphony’s questioning opening one movement back), eighth = 72 (for the perky lifting-its-petticoats tune at measure 32), and eighth = 80 (for the fluid and frilly theme at measure 47).

And if we consult our old friend Weingartner about this “evolution?” Well, he simply doesn’t mention such changes of tempo. He does think 92 eighths to the minute is too fast as the movement’s core tempo, he suggests instead 84.

On to Beethoven’s Ninth, second movement, bar 17, POW! At the third fugal entrance of this scherzo’s bouncy lead tune Fried tosses in a healthy accent, utterly gratuitous but enlivening. An energy has risen. Here’s a conductor thinking in terms of impressions as much as patterns. And with the da capo of the scherzo after the trio Fried ups his tempo a notch, from 126 beats to 132 (the composer suggests 116), because the music for him isn’t a machine prized for its regularity in dispensing perfectly-formed notes in black and white as if they were Coke bottles or candy bars, but has a life. But Benjamin Britten as a young man heard Fried conduct the Ninth in London and wrote a friend that the scherzo was too fast. Me, I think the shift in tempo in the da capo is even more interesting than Fried’s not altogether irrational response to Beethoven’s call in this scherzo for molto vivace!

Fried’s 1923 Brahms First lives on a high wire, the introduction combining deep reflection with brave impetuosity, the attendant allegro coming on brisk and balletic, the lyric second subject easing slower and slower but the closing theme a finger-wagging wakeup call, tension in the development multiplyimg almost out of sight with a wild alternation of tempo before the recapitulation, then in a state of greater agitation the closing theme returns really ANGRY. Yes the music evolves – from, relatively speaking, the amoeba of simplicity to the ape of Mrs. Woolf’s hubbub. And more to come: after a tearful slow movement and a nervous intermezzo Fried attacks the ominous introduction to Brahms’ finale in combat gear, almost magnetizing his listeners out of their chairs two measures before the famous and hopeful horn solo, delivering the curling little previews of said tune in flutes and lower woodwind with Brahms’ sforzandi so screechingly huge it’s as if the painter Nolde’s famous Scream had come alive at Star Wars volume or Alfred Hitchcock with his directorial megaphone had scared a flock of neurasthenic birds into a war cry.

Can the fascinatingly labile Fried top this? Well, the grand tune of Brahms’ finale he launches at a noble 120 beats to the minute, only to fly at the music’s subsequent animato to a record 168. Hubbubical indeed. Then in Fried’s landmark Tchaikovsky Pathétique with the old Royal Philharmonic – how many of us grew up on this recording! – his raising of the timpani’s tattoo from piano to mezzoforte in the midsection of the 5/4 movement creates a cardio-musical wonder, a heartbeat evoking great pileups of inexorability.

Fried was born in Berlin and most of his career was centered there, much of it taken up with the performance of new music: Schoenberg was a plat du jour, Stravinsky a high priority, he didn’t frown on Delius. Nor was he restricted to the heights, there’s a Fried recording of Rimsky Korsakoff’s ornate, sinuous Scheherazade, that blockbuster of the Pops, that positively oozes from the turntable with its relaxed, soft-grained delicacy. Mahler had a prominent place in Fried’s career and there’s documentation via an acoustic 1923 recording of the Second Symphony, a swinging and ardent performance employing eight or nine Mephistopheles in the bass viols. A performance, this, in which the menace and the longing are wonderfully effective, in which the long slowings and speedings of the composer’s directive-heavy score, an operating manual if ever there was one, are warmly embraced but with Fried’s own particular ammunition – as when at Number Eleven deep in the first movement development the martial repetitions of a dire choralic variation on the second theme of the symphony’s opening page lug forward the music’s thread at considerably less than the prescribed Tempo I. The high-stepping accumulation of a fearsome “pesante” (Fried hasn’t failed to notice the inverted “v” accents on virtually every note) makes the subsequent flight of a lyrical flute at Number Thirteen all the airier by contrast.

But the Fried recording to put at the top of your desert island pile is that Fantastique with the USSR State Symphony. The blaze ignited in his visionary interpretation is something else, an hallucinatory blaze suggesting the ravings of a drug addict under the influence, and it’s a perfect fit for the published program of Berlioz’ music which introduces “a young musician of abnormal sensitivity and perfervid imagination” who “poisons himself with opium in a paroxysm of amorous despair . . . the narcotic dose, too feeble to cause death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the weirdest visions . . .”

Now you violins, violas, oboes, will you please be paroxysmatic? Why yes, all in a day’s work, it can be done. But many conductors forget the Fantastique’s “program” and its socially unacceptable, maybe concert-unacceptable behavior. Not Fried. To borrow a phrase from Richard Strauss’ admirable librettist von Hofmannsthal, he heads straight for the music’s “psychical texture.”

We wait no time at all in his R-rated performance for the atmosphere to arrive: measure 1 of the introductory largo and tiptoeing triplet eighths in the wind are chiming with a mystic half-sweet lilt. Measure 3, muted violins whisper a motif that has about it a certain foot-dragging quality and Fried underscores our hero’s “weariness of soul” (feet too, perhaps) with a sad and fluctuant tempo a mere sixteen or twenty points below the score’s eighth = 56! Not only is the tempo of this much-dotted theme fascinatingly subnormal — it could, one supposes, be mistaken for that of an unambitious pre-Cambrian lizard — but Fried opens a not inconsiderable crack between the unslurred first note and the stragglers that follow, the effect of this ominous fissure being to question the protagonist’s ability to clear his head sufficiently to move on.

Then Fried pops one of his trademark firecrackers in the form of a stabbbing little sforzando on the first note of measure 7, just after a long pause. Berlioz’ marking under this note is a decrescendo “second half of a hairpin” suggesting the need for a reasonably forceful sound to make a decrescendo from – well, the mark could be an overgrown accent sign! Whatever the case, many conductors ignore this signal, missing the chance for a paroxysmatic exclamation from an orchestra which, metaphorically at least, has taken to the needle. Another twinge, a more violent one, at the start of Berlioz’ crescendo two measures later, then the misty-eyed Moscow violins tingle at the top of their ascending phrase, dropping off to expose dumbly rocking cellos. The effect is one of profound desperation and emptiness, a kind of orchestral sewage.

And so on, Fried lurching forward in a contorted tempo rubato . . . one could write a book about this performance. As the ever-delightful Professor Tovey recalls, Mendelssohn declared that what he found so Philistine in Berlioz was that “with all the effort to go stark mad he never once succeeds.” Except that, guided by Fried, he manages to come dangerously close.

Oskar Fried was the first foreign conductor to visit Soviet Russia after the smoke of Lenin’s Revolution had cleared sufficiently to permit a cultural exchange so to speak; and when, in 1934, life in Nazi Germany became quite impractical he emigrated to the USSR. There his work continued, until he died four years after his incroyable Fantastique, under mysterious circumstances (suicide?), just as the Nazis launched their attack on the Eastern front. And that was the sad end of this chapter, until . . .

Hot off the press! Back in circulation after a couple of generations are Fried’s 1928 recording of Wagner’s Faust overture, perhaps the most gooseflesh-producing ever, and, from the tail end of the acoustic era three years earlier, a compact, structure-clarifying performance providing a first class ticket through Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, that mountaineers’ answer to Beethoven’s Pastoral. And there’s more from Weimar Berlin, a Fantasia on Haensel und Gretel, for instance, which is wreathed in a childlike innocence, molto grazioso. The 1928 Euryanthe overture sets off in a fiery and festive rush, the beefy conviction of this superb performance suggesting at the outset Pierre Monteux’ San Francisco broadcast of this ever-engaging comfort music, but Fried is brisker, and sweeter, in the central nocturne.

From the same year and orchestra comes a Liszt Les Préludes existing in another space. If the Euryanthe is all about completing the journey without delay, Fried in Liszt’s set of variations tells us how important it is to pick flowers along the way. Three lumps of nostalgia in the symphonic cup are our reward when the cellos melt into their expressive cantando after the big maestoso early on. An expansive performance this, with a story-telling quality. And speedy it is when essential: who after all could do allegro-AGI-tato-tempesTOSO better than the dashing Oskar?

Fried’s acoustic version of a Stravinsky Firebird suite is not to be confused with an electrical re-do in which the gliding basses of the opening are considerably plummier and the several added cymbal crashes in the finale must have raised an army of eyebrows over the years. What comes through especially well in Firebird One is the crazy rain shower of orchestral tootliness as the prince tries to catch the titular bird in the suite’s second movement. And vivid indeed are those lost souls, the nubile and eligible maidens under the demon’s spell who engage so wistfully in the sonic equivalent of silent screen sorrows in the Ronde des Princesses.

The Infernal Dance sounds like a New Year’s Party gone a bit wrong. And how about those pre-Gershwinesque taxi horns Stravinsky must have been hearing as he nailed to music paper the terrible Katschei.