Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ferenc Fricsay Rehearses The Moldau

(Fricsay's rehearsing starts at 2 minutes)

When I first watched Ferenc Fricsay rehearse one of my favorite pieces: The Moldau by Smetana, I quickly realized this document one of the most inspiring examples of the difference conductors are capable of making in rehearsal. Conductors are usually discouraged from using any sort of excess verbiage in rehearsal, and for good reason. Often too much verbal instruction can be pointless and distracting, often leading to poetential minefields of a conductor's own creation. But occasionally one finds a conductor who functions as he should, like a brilliant teacher who is able to open the mysteries of a score to his orchestra and remind them of why the first became musicians. When this happens, any amount of insight shared is forgivable. It's just a shame that the whole document does not exist on youtube right now, because it is truly something wonderful to watch.

Fricsay was one of that extraordinary batch of Hungarian conductors to train at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest before World War II when students had the opportunity to learn from Bela Bartok - the greatest composer of the 20th century who also taught - and Zoltan Kodaly - the greatest teacher among great composers of the 20th century. Other teachers included less well-known but excellent composers like Leo Weiner and Erno Dohnanyi, whose grandson Christoph von Dohnanyi is one of the great maestros of our own age. For whatever reason, these masters didn't seem to usher in a new era of great Hungarian composers (that came later). But the list of conductors whom they educated is kind of awe inspiring: Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy, Antal Dorati, Janos Ferencsik, Georg Solti, and Ferenc Fricsay all passed through their classrooms at one point.

Like Fritz Reiner and George Szell, Fricsay was known for much of his career as a podium martinet. He was a musician much more feared than loved. Orchestral musicians described the young Fricsay as a dictator who temperamentally insisted on the highest technical standards. His tempos were uniformly fleet, and his manner with even the most delicate music was almost completely unyielding.

But throughout his career, Fricsay had to go on temporary retirements. Each sabbatical brought on by a cancer that became more serious with every reappearance. In his forties Fricsay, who as a younger man was a picture of podium vitality, began to take on the frail look of a conductor at least thirty years his senior. But with every recurrence, Fricsay seemed to become more human both in his treatment of others and in his music-making. The great conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt began his career as a cellist in the Vienna Symphony, and he once said that he learned more of how to conduct from Fricsay than nearly any other conductor - he learned through his hatred of Fricsay at the beginning of Fricsay's career and through his love of Fricsay toward the end.

The portrait you see above is not the portrait of a musical martinet. It is of a master whose understanding of what he directs is complete, and conveys it to his musicians through persuasion. Conductors always seem to get more profound as they draw closer to death, and Fricsay was at death's door. As he drew closer, he came to trust in the qualities that make music worth making and trust his musicians to understand it as well as he does. He became, in every sense, what conductors should aspire to be.

(The performance. The Moldau is a piece that never gets old for me.)

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