Vote for three Hungarian conductors
Why three great maestros need to be honoured
Categorising musicians under neat headings can be a recipe for disaster – or, at least, runs the risk of oversimplification. But I’m going to attempt it by championing three conductors for the Hall of Fame. They’re all Hungarian and, on one level, share certain characteristics; those of rigorous preparation (achieved with a variety of approach from the disciplinarian to the democratic), an ability to create a level of intensity in the recording studio that many would envy in the concert and the rare ability to ‘make it sound brand new’. My trio of Hungarians are Fritz Reiner, George Szell and, from our own time, Iván Fischer. Each one, it seems to me, is touched by real greatness and each has made a contribution to the record catalogue that is highly significant and enduring.
All three men created ensembles that set new standards. Fritz Reiner’s stewardship of the Cincinnati Symphony (1922-31), the Pittsburgh Symphony (1938-48) and, above all, the Chicago Symphony (1953-63) raised the level of playing of these three American ensembles to new heights. The Chicago years, well documented on record by RCA, bear witness to a conductor-orchestra relationship the results of which were exceptional. The Reiner/Chicago Living Stereo discs of Richard Strauss tone-poems, for example, reveal an ensemble of perfectly regulated internal balance: elegant string-writing, powerful brass (a hallmark of the Chicago orchestra ever since) and sinuous winds. Just listen to the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ from Salome and, apart from feeling your heart rate speed up noticeably from the sheer excitement of the playing, you’ll be rewarded by playing that is not only virtuoso (the oboe and flute are superb) but Reiner creates an atmosphere that is almost palpable. He may have been a monster on the podium but, my, could Reiner conduct!
George Szell was clearly no pussy cat either, and he brought a similar emphasis on orchestral discipline and technique when he took over the Cleveland Orchestra in 1946. His methods of firing and hiring and rigorous drilling of the players would not be accepted (or acceptable) today but within a decade he’d achieved an ensemble that had few, if any, rivals on the international orchestra scene. And rather like Reiner’s Chicago orchestra, the Clevelanders maintained the Szell hallmark for years after his death in 1970 (some would even say it’s still there). It was not for nothing that Szell’s successor but one, Christoph von Dohnányi would quip ‘We give a good concert and George Szell gets a great reviews’. Szell’s recordings stand up to the passing of time remarkably well: his emphasis on precision and unanimity gives them a contemporaneity that chimes perfectly with a 21st-century audience. Interestingly, when Szell was working in Europe (with, say, the Berlin RSO or Concertgebouw orchestras), there’s a warmth that some may find missing from his Cleveland recordings – listen to the Strauss songs with Schwarzkopf in Berlin, the Brahms First Piano Concerto with Curzon and the LSO or the Sibelius’s Second made in Amsterdam, and all the Szell characteristics are there but there’s also an engaging humanity. Of his numerous Cleveland recordings, I particularly treasure his ground-breaking set of the Schumann symphonies and they capture a great orchestra on top form.
Turning to a conductor from our time, Iván Fischer shares many of his great Hungarian predecessors’ hallmarks – precision of ensemble, a wide range of orchestral colour, elegance of phrasing and power of attack among them – but he exercises his podium authority in an entirely different way. In the Budapest Festival Orchestra (founded with Zoltán Kocsis in 1983), there’s a sense of primus inter pares rather than maestro and players. Attend a recording session in Budapest and virtually the entire orchestra piles into the control room for playbacks. It’s like a chamber ensemble writ large and for style and elegance they are surely up there with the greatest of today’s orchestras, and probably at the top of the list when it comes to ensembles of less than 40 years old. Fischer’s recordings for Channel Classics – always in magnificent sound – are never less than thrilling, and even a work as familiar as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony comes alive once again in the company of these superb musicians. And sample any of Mahler symphonies and you’ll be rewarded with playing of real flavour and character. And, as anyone who regularly attends a BFO/Fischer concert knows, they never fail to deliver.