BARTÓK: The Miraculous Mandarin Suite KODÁLY: Peacock Variations SCHOENBERG: Five Pieces for Orchestra HINDEMITH: Symphonic Metamorphosis
Chicago Symphony Orch/Antal Dorati and Rafael Kubelik (Hindemith, Schoenberg), cond.
Mercury Living Presence 434 397 (mono) (F) (ADD) TT: 79:45 

From the Mercury archives that Polygram acquired, these four works from the first half of the 20th Century, played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, offer a max-load of music on an upper-midprice CD. Caveat emptor, nonetheless. The Hindemith and Schoenberg were led by Rafael Kubelik prior to his Orchestra Hall farewell in late April of 1953. When Fritz Reiner succeeded him the following September, he brought an RCA Red Seal affiliation that yielded, on balance, the Chicago Symphony's finest cache of recordings before or since. But Mercury was still owed two LPs when Kubelik left, and so it was arranged for Antal Dorati to come from Minneapolis for a week and finish the job.

A single subscription program in January 1954 featured the contents of those two LPs: Schubert's Unfinished and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, bizarrely coupled on one, Bartók and Kodály more suitably on the other. None was distinguished in concert, and on discs only the suite from Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin woke one up. But then, unless a conductor decides that Bartók was Debussy with a Magyar accent, or his/her orchestra plays on some Balkan state radio, the music is virtually impossible to deaden. Kodály's subtler variations on a Hungarian folksong, however, need a lot of caring for, which Dorati didn't, or couldn't provide. In concert (my first exposure to the music) they seemed blandly interminable, and did so again on LP. And still do on this CD, which only too faithfully reproduces the laceratingly shrill violin sound that C. Robert Fine favored -- "Living Presence" for the hearing-impaired only. It may be that home-applied equalizing (beloved by my former Fanfare colleague Mortimer Frank) can tame what has always sounded like screech to me -- fingernails dragged across slate. But Hindemith's Teutonic drollery on this CD is unlistenable. When Kubelik's performance first appeared, it one-upped Szell's on a dry-sounding Columbia LP from Cleveland, but a host of others since have equaled or bettered both. David Hall's program note doesn't specify which edition of Schoenberg he co-produced with Wilma Cozart Fine -- the 1909 original for a Strauss-size orchestra, or the composer's 1949 modification -- which still required quadruple flutes and clarinets, but only four instead of six horns, and three instead of four trombones. The work remains a 20th century benchmark, but in the early '50s it wasn't a repertory piece, even for the best orchestras. And this performance has simply too many errors, whether rhythmic or intonational, to be other than a period relic, sorry. I wasn't anti-Kubelik -- heard only his last six weeks, which he conducted heroically, in the spirit of "we who are about to die." But he did accept the Chicago Symphony podium prematurely in terms of professional experience, and failed in three seasons to rally a dispirited orchestra.

R.D. (Sept. 1999)