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Doráti In Holland
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Vltava (Má vlast) (1874) [11:54]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Slavonic rhapsody in D major, op. 45 no. 1 (1878) [13:53]
Slavonic rhapsody in G minor, op. 45 no. 2 (1878) [14:07]
Slavonic rhapsody in A flat major, op. 45 no. 3 (1878) [12:14]
Peter van ANROOY (1879-1954)
Piet Hein rapsodie (1900) [9:05]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Overture Calm sea and prosperous voyage op. 27 (1828) [13:21]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Overture in the Italian style in C major, D.591 (1817) [8:08]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Overture Der Freischütz, op. 77 (1821) [9:07]
Overture Oberon, op. 67 (1826) [8:35]
Overture Euryanthe, op. 81 (1823) [8:30]
Overture Preciosa, op. 78 (1821) [8:12]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
‘Love scene’ (Romeo and Juliet, op. 17) (1847) [17:16]
‘Minuet of the will-o'-the-wisps’ (The damnation of Faust, op. 24) (1846) [6:01]
‘Dance of the sylphs’ (The damnation of Faust, op. 24) (1846) [2:57]
‘Hungarian march’ (The damnation of Faust, op. 24) (1846) [4:14]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Pomp and circumstance march in D Major, op. 39 no. 1 (1901) [6:43]
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Antal Doráti (Smetana, Dvořák op. 45/1 & 2, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Weber, Berlioz and Elgar)
Het Residentie Orchestra/Antal Doráti (Dvořák op. 45/3 and van Anrooy)
rec. 1952-59, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam; The Hague (Dvořák op. 45/3 and van Anrooy)
Smetana, Dvořák and van Anrooy tracks recorded in mono; all others in stereo
ELOQUENCE 482 5659 [2 CDs: 156:11]

This Decca Eloquence release seeks to convince us that the 1950s was a transitional decade in Antal Doráti's career.

Having until the end of the Second World been largely associated with the somewhat niche world of conducting ballet, first as music director of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (1937-1941) and then with New York’s American Ballet Theatre (1941-1945), he had attempted thereafter to refocus his career towards symphonic repertoire. That, however, had proved a challenging task in the cut-throat mid-century American classical music industry. Having re-formed the Dallas Symphony Orchestra after its self-imposed wartime suspension and set it on a path to becoming a fully professional band (1945-1948), Doráti had moved on in 1949 to take charge of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra where he was to remain principal conductor until 1960. The prestige associated with those positions was, though, essentially regional and certainly far short of that accorded to conductors of the era’s so-called “Big Three” U.S. orchestras - the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony and the Philadelphia (it was not until the end of the 1950s that Szell in Cleveland and Reiner in Chicago managed to elbow their way into an expanded “Big Five”).

As it turns out, however, Doráti's career was to develop in new and exciting ways in the 1950s, thanks in large part to his decision to work increasingly in Europe. He was fortunate that the immediate post-war period offered him - and other aspiring conductors - greater than usual opportunities for advancement, especially in the Netherlands where musical life was in a particular state of flux. Mengelberg’s iron 50-years grip on the Concertgebouw had come to an end in 1945 when he had been abruptly banned from conducting because of his perceived collaboration with the German occupying forces. Meanwhile, the prominent Dutch-born conductor Paul van Kempen had also been partially sidelined for similar reasons - and although he could have defended himself by pointing out that he’d actually become a German citizen in 1932, he may well have reckoned that that fact might have discredited him even more in the eyes of Dutch concertgoers.

Nike Nelissen’s usefully informative booklet essay makes a convincing case for seeing Doráti's activities in the 1950s Netherlands as pivotal to his long term career path. As he explains, in 1949 Doráti had seized on an offer to conduct a couple of concerts with the Residentie Orkest (the Hague Philharmonic Orchestra), subsequently building on their critical success to forge wide-ranging links with the movers and shakers of the Dutch music scene. Making the most of the opportunities that came his way, he soon become a frequent conductor not just of the Residentie Orkest but also, from 1951, of van Kempen's Dutch Radio Philharmonic and, from the following year, of the prestigious Concertgebouw. Yet more opportunities came knocking in due course. Directing a few performances at the Dutch Opera in Amsterdam and others at the Holland Festival, he also picked up a useful contract to record for the Philips label.

Thus, although he never attained a principal conductor position with a Dutch orchestra, by the end of the 1950s Doráti was sufficiently established and well regarded in the Netherlands that in 1959 he was offered several recording projects that had previously been scheduled for the recently-deceased Eduard van Beinum. Those unanticipated sessions produced the Schubert, Mendelssohn, Weber, Berlioz and Elgar recordings included on this two-disc set which, with the addition of some earlier recordings, now offers something of a cross-section of the conductor's recordings with Dutch orchestras between 1952 and 1959.

With the exception of the Elgar, written in 1901, all the works performed here had been composed in the 19th century and their composers, with a single exception, would all have been familiar to international audiences. The odd one out is Peter van Anrooy. He had been the Residentie Orkest’s chief conductor from 1917 until 1935 and one might therefore speculate that the Piet Hein rapsodie, something of a favourite with Dutch audiences but unfamiliar and hence with dubious commercial prospects elsewhere, may have been recorded as something of a goodwill gesture to the orchestra and to local music-lovers.

In 1628, in a celebrated piece of privateering, the Dutch admiral Piet Hein had captured the Spanish treasure fleet. The quintessential musical depiction of piratical derring-do, as both music and film buffs know, is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s rousing score depicting Rafael Sabatini’s eponymous fictional creation in the 1935 Hollywood swashbuckler Captain Blood. The raw material that van Anrooy had had to work with in 1900 was, however, rather less promising, for Admiral Hein, a somewhat portly 51 year old, had hardly been an Errol Flynn type. The composer therefore eschewed any attempt at portraying the man himself and instead wrote a rhapsody based on a rather jolly 19th century song De zilvervloot (‘the silver fleet’) that celebrated Hein’s exploits. Still taught, it seems, to Dutch schoolchildren to this day, De zilvervloot is quite fun as a singalong piece, as you’ll discover for yourself if you search for it on YouTube where, incidentally, you’ll find not just van Amrooy's rhapsody but several other interpretations including a catchy 1961 pop version recorded by the delightfully named Freddy and the Fender Boys. Faced with van Amrooy’s showy, but musically fairly undemanding, piece Doráti and his Hague players pull out all the stops to present it in the best possible light and one can certainly imagine it bringing down the roof - or perhaps that should be the mainmast? - at a Dutch ‘pops’ concert.

Sticking for the moment with the nautical theme, Doráti also offers us a first-rate account of Mendelssohn's concert overture Calm sea and prosperous voyage, played this time by the Concertgebouw Orchestra and now given its first release in stereo. As has often been pointed out, the title - utilised by Beethoven in 1815 before being recycled by Mendelssohn 13 years later - initially appears oxymoronic. After all, a becalmed vessel in the age of sail would, in reality, be enjoying anything but a prosperous voyage. In fact, however, Calm sea and prosperous voyage amalgamates within its single musical span two distinct and contrastingly-themed Goethe poems - the first of which depicts placid waters while the second represents the wind picking up and driving the ship successfully to port. Mendelssohn seems to have found the ‘windy’ second section of greater interest - he dispenses with the preceding ‘calm’ episode well within five minutes - and some recorded accounts reflect that imbalance too. Doráti, however, gives a beautifully crafted depiction of a becalmed vessel that forces us and the crew to wait tensely and on tenterhooks for even the slightest initial breath of air. Once that arrives, we quickly hoist the mainsail and barrel along with the best of them, but it’s those superbly executed first four minutes of “calm sea” that stay in the memory in this particular performance.

Overtures - whether concert or operatic - were extremely popular on disc in the 1950s and Doráti and the Concertgebouw were happy to oblige. Here we have four by Weber and one by Schubert, all five composed within a span of less than a decade. After a tense, mysterious opening (00:00 - 03:23) that demonstrates both Doráti's expert command of dynamics and the orchestra’s superb playing, this performance of Der Freischütz is characterised by the players’ hugely impressive precision and the conductor’s masterful control. Doráti carefully holds the Concertgebouw’s fullest energy in reserve, releasing it only in the final minute or so of the performance so as to provide a truly rousing conclusion. The Oberon and Euryanthe overtures are well delivered - especially, once again, in their slower sections - and offer irrefutable evidence of a gorgeously balanced orchestral sound that, especially in the strings, is still somewhat reminiscent of the Mengelberg era, even if ultimately, I think, it is less distinctive.

While the incidental music that Weber wrote for Pius Alexander Wolff's Preciosa, an 1811 dramatisation of a Cervantes novella, is somewhat less familiar fare, Doráti's account of its often rather dainty overture, released here for the first time in stereo, is once again executed with appropriate precision while he simultaneously avoids any temptation to over-egg its ‘Spanish’ musical idiom. The lightness of touch in Preciosa is also exhibited in this performance of Schubert’s Overture in the Italian style, yet another track that hasn’t been released in stereo before now. Schubert was something of a personal favourite of Doráti’s. When, in 1960, the conductor was a guest on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs, he nominated the Austrian as one of just eight composers to whose music he’d volunteer to be limited for life (the others, incidentally, were Bach, Kodaly, Bartok, Brahms, Mozart, Verdi and - his top choice - Beethoven). Conductor and orchestra have full mastery of the appropriate Schubertian style and deliver the music with both precision and verve: one can almost see the smiles on their faces as they do so.

As those radio choices of Kodaly and Bartok remind us, Antal Doráti was, of course, of Hungarian origins. While the only ‘Hungarian’ piece on these discs is actually Berlioz’s famous pastiche march, eastern Mitteleuropa still gets a substantial look-in with repertoire by Smetana and Dvořák. Smetana’s Vltava, the earliest of the tracks presented here, was recorded as a one-off in 1952 but enjoyed an elongated shelf-life after its incorporation into a fully-completed Doráti Má vlast cycle four years later. Listening to it on this new release, one can see why the Philips label executives had not felt any need to re-record it. This Vltava is a fine account that judges tempi and orchestral balance very finely and depicts the river’s many moods in immensely characterful orchestral colour.

Doráti’s recording of Dvořák’s three op. 45 rhapsodies was undertaken in an even more piecemeal fashion than Má vlast. After the third had been set down with the Residentie Orkest in 1952, the first and second, both this time with the Concertgebouw, didn’t follow until 1956 and 1957 respectively. The conductor’s approach is, though, a pretty consistent one that results in thoroughly idiomatic accounts where finely judged orchestral balance and carefully nuanced rhythmic control produce some delightfully bucolic and pastoral images, full of characteristically merrymaking peasants, bubbling brooks and twittering birdsong straight out of the Bohemian Forest. At times, indeed, I felt - especially in the D major rhapsody - that I could easily have been listening to the distinctive woodwinds of the Czech Philharmonic itself.

The Concertgebouw still doesn't generally play the music of Elgar that often - indeed, they performed the Cockaigne overture in concert for the very first time only this year - but the crowd-pleasing Pomp and circumstance March no. 1 is an exception. Doráti's 1959 recording tackles it idiomatically but unremarkably, with the distinctive touches that he lavished on Dvořák entirely absent on this occasion. Much more enjoyable, though, is his way with Berlioz. The ardently conceived and executed excerpt from Romeo and Juliet is delivered with expert attention to detail and real emotional conviction and is one of this set's highlights. The Damnation of Faust dances are delivered with the appropriately idiosyncratic, perky charm. The subsequent Hungarian march, however, while entirely serviceable, is somewhat anonymous and paprika-lite until Doráti slams his foot on the accelerator to ratchet up the excitement somewhat artificially and unconvincingly for the final few bars.

In spite of the odd underpowered or anodyne track, this remains a set that is generally enjoyable to listen to and is frequently rather more than that. It is, moreover, an historically useful release, for Doráti's work in the Netherlands has sometimes been overlooked. In, for instance, John L. Holmes's usually comprehensive - if necessarily succinct - Conductors: a record collector's guide (London, 1988), the three pages allotted to the conductor jump straight from considering his work in America to his 1963 appointment to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with no mention at all of the arguably pivotal role that, as we have seen, Dutch orchestras played in Doráti’s career. This Decca Eloquence set is due a warm welcome, therefore, not only for redressing the balance but also for offering us more than two and a half hours of finely delivered and enjoyable music-making.

Rob Maynard

Recording details
21 February 1952 (Smetana)
6-8 October 1952 (Dvořák op. 45/3 and van Anrooy)
15 September 1956 (Dvořák op. 45/1)
22 October 1957 (Dvořák op. 45/2)
23-25 September 1959 (Mendelssohn, Schubert, Weber, Berlioz)
25 September 1959 (Elgar)

 

 




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