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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz; overture (1821) [9:28]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Rienzi; overture (1842) [12:46]
The Flying Dutchman; overture (1843) [11:03]
Tannhäuser; overture (1845) [13:38]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; Prelude to Act I (1868) [10:00]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Sinfonietta (1926) [23:29]
Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Háry János (1926) [22:24]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird (1910 rev. 1945) [30:15]
NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo/Lovro von Matačić
rec. live, HHK Hall and Bunka Kaikan Hall, 1969-73
KING INTERNATIONAL INC KKC2026/27 [57:07 + 77:07]

If a repertoire could be said to play to a conductor’s largely known strengths, then the first disc (of two) certainly does. Lovro von Matačić is captured during visits to the NHK Symphony in Tokyo between the years 1969 to 1973 essaying a series of operatic overtures that are then expanded and amplified in disc two by trips to central Europe for Janáček and Kodály and further afield to some canonic Stravinsky.
 
By now von Matačić was back in Zagreb after his many years of prestigious music directorships, principally Dresden, the Berlin Staatsoper and Frankfurt am Main. He was still an active guest at the Vienna State Opera and he continued to make recordings. The overture to Der Freischütz reminds one of his Eurodisc LP with the Berlin Deutsche Oper, one of a number of operatic and operetta discs that have continued to keep his name alive: he certainly deserves to be remembered rather more than as the accompanist to Rabin, Oistrakh and Richter in their various undertakings of standard repertoire. Wagner was a particular strength, though he was not asked to direct a studio recording of a Wagner opera on LP; too much competition and too much expense. There was, though, an orchestral highlights affair from Götterdämmerung. The Wagnerian quartet reveals his sonorous and flexible attractions in this repertoire, though he doesn’t quite manage to get the NHK to play out with requisite sonorousness. The brass is good, and corporate discipline is high, however.
 
Janáček’s 1926 Sinfonietta raises the Bunka Kaikan Hall roof and it would be interesting to know how often the NHK had played it: I suppose Václav Neumann, who guested with the orchestra, may have done so, though he’s not especially associated with the work. The playing is good but it’s by no means remarkable, and the conductor’s conception is not always wholly convincing. In the second movement he’s somewhat leaden in places. I did like that rousing ‘Moravian Flamenco’ moment in the central movement, even though it doesn’t quite come over; nor in truth is the brass always on top form, as there’s some woozy playing. Though the audience launches into cheers at the end, it’s outstandingly quiet during the performance. The Eastern European diptych is completed by Háry János, which makes even more sense given it was composed in the same year as the Sinfonietta. I took to this very much, even the eccentric moments, of which there is a major one. The bells and triangle are well centred acoustically, and the wind chording is good. The lower brass enjoys the lurching of the fourth passage and there are plenty of very personalised touches throughout. The eccentricity is the bizarre cimbalom effect generated by the Technicolor spotlit NHK piano. As the engineers have gone in as close as they could without actually burrowing their way into the piano’s wood, you hear this remarkable apparition extensively and intimately. You’re in for a treat.
 
The conductor’s Firebird is resilient, rhythmically subtle and convincing. Some of the best playing in the twofer can be found here and some of the most practised rhythmic and dynamic control too. There’s plenty of clarity and indeed refinement when required. He is, in the end, a better Stravinsky conductor than of Janáček and Kodály, at least on the evidence of these three works.
 
There are many worthwhile and musically interesting things in this twofer and it’s especially valuable in increasing the conductor’s repertoire on disc.
 
Jonathan Woolf  

Masterwork Index: The Firebird


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