STRAUSS:  Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 (with violinist Hugo Kolberg) (rec. Nov. 10, 1947).  Der Bürger als Edelmann, Op. 60 (rec. Feb. 4, 1946).  Don Juan, Op. 10 (rec. Jan. 9, 1941).  Don Quixote, Op. 35 (with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and violist Vladimir Bakaleinikoff) (rec. Nov. 15, 1941).
Pittsburgh Symphony Orch/Fritz Reiner, cond.

BIDDULPH 83067/68 (2 CDs) (F) (ADD) TT:  74:42 & 69:32 

  (THIS SET HAS BEEN DISCONTINUED)

A maestro at Biddulph whose name is new to me -- Rick Torres -- has digitally remastered these earliest Reiner recordings of Strauss' music, made with the Pittsburgh Orchestra in 1941 (the two Dons), 1946 (the Bürger als Edelmann Suite, all of it), and 1947 (Ein Heldenleben) for Columbia Masterworks. In Chicago Reiner re-recorded all of them in stereo for RCA Red Seal -- Don Juan twice in fact, in 1954 and again in 1960. But Heldenleben came first on March 6, 1954, followed two days later by Also sprach Zarathustra -- instant classics when they were new, and still regarded as such by many aficionados almost a half-century later. Today they're coupled on a single Living Presence CD, available separately as well as in a five-disc box containing all but one of Reiner's Chicago recordings of Strauss -- 11 works in all, including a second Zarathustra -- issued in 1997.

Reiner's first Chicago Don Juan was recorded on the spur of the moment in a single take, minimally retouched, during time remaining at a session for other music. Six years later he redid it, a performance not included in RCA's boxed collection although available in the Wagner collection on a Living Presence CD. His Pittsburgh version, when that orchestra was not yet fine-tuned, is just 15 seconds faster than 1954 but leaner, meaner, and arguably a lot closer to Tirso de Molina's original Spanish serial fornicator than we are accustomed to hear, especially today. Some listeners and critics never liked it, preferring their Don to be romantic rather than a sexual predator. Even Reiner mellowed some in the interim -- the difference between a 52-year-old conductor and one who turned 66 just two weeks after the 1954 recording. In 1941 he also recorded his first Don Quixote, with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky in the title role, Henri Temianka as violin soloist, and Reiner's longtime first violist and associate conductor both in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh as Sancho Panza. Their playing is collectively fine, although cellist Emanuel Feuermann on Ormandy's competitive Victor version in the same time frame with the Philadelphia Orchestra was incomparable.

The 1941 Don Quixote disappoints, however -- I had wrongly remembered an LP remastering of it on the Columbia Special Products label (for sale in drug stores at the time) as being superior. The playing is revealed here as sometimes scrappy, Reiner notwithstanding -- especially by the tenor tuba, whose part is extensive but whose tone and intonation are execrable. The recording itself was made in Pittsburgh's notorious Syria Mosque and sounds thin, edgy, and often badly balanced. But Torres had to work with 78 pressings, rather than the American Columbia master discs that Sony had access to for its CD remasterings of the Shostakovich Sixth Symphony (coupled with other Russian repertoire), and the Beethoven Second Symphony reissued with Mozart's "Haffner"and G-minor Symphonies.

All that having been said, more in sadness than in anger, I prefer Reiner's 1941 reading of the music to his Chicago remake in 1959 with Antonio Janigro as the Man of La Mancha. (By then, Janos Starker had left the orchestra and was recording for EMI, which blocked any recreation of their historically beautiful collaboration --- twice during his 1953-58 tenure as Reiner's principal cellist in Chicago. A mono broadcast exists of the Thursday night validictory in April 1958, but it's never been published in the Chicago Symphony's annual archive series, perhaps because clarinetist Clark Brody screwed-up in the final bars.) Reiner's 1941 textures were clearer, more detailed, sonically less plush than his Don Q nearly 18 years later -- almost a blueprint of the score but heartfelt and touching . He loved Don Quixote, going back to his Dresden years (1914-21).

He loved Ein Heldenleben, too, and by November 1947 had drilled the Pittsburgh Orchestra to play better than any of its second-tier peer groups. Columbia had learned to produce a reasonable facsimile of orchestral sonority, if hardly the equal of London/Decca's "ffrr" 78s beginning to arrive from England, or Victor's Boston and Chicago opulence. Syria Mosque was still a misshapen beast of a hall that sorely taxed the ingenuity of recordists then and later. Even so, Roy Torres' expertise lets us hear this Heldenleben as it never sounded on 78s or Columbia's scabrous Special Products LP.  What he uncovered is a performance of dash, Član, drama (without descending into melodrama), vividly played (virtuosic at best if not always), with real tenderness in the domestic episodes. By 1947 Reiner's concertmaster was Hugo Kolberg, who'd been Szymon Goldberg's Berlin Philharmonic alternate until the Nazis got really nasty about Jews in the ranks. (I got to know Kolberg's playing later on as Chicago Lyric Opera's concertmaster in the early seasons, when it was still properly called the Lyric Theatre of Chicago.) As for timings, Strauss' Hero completed his Pittsburgh tour in 40:34, whereas seven years later the timing was almost three minutes longe -- 43:28. Pittsburgh playing and recording don't match Chicago's, but Reiner in 1947 had interpretive fire in his belly that Reiner in 1954 had brought under control, perhaps too much so.

This leaves Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer and the slight but charming concert suite Strauss fashioned from his failed music for Der Büger als Edelmann, recorded in its nine-movement entirety in February 1946, probably in the ballroom of the Schenley Hotel where the Reiners kept an apartment (home after 1939 was "Rambleside" near Weston, Conn., to which they repaired whenever his schedule permitted). Coming immediately after the spacious acoustic of Heldenleben, the dry sound of Der Bürger -- Le bourgeois Gentilhomme in MoliËre's original French -- is a shock, yet proves eminently suitable to the music's intimate character. Any who add this set to their collection are advised to stop after Heldenleben, and play Der Bürger separately. When Reiner remade it in stereo a decade later, with Starker as solo cellist but a lesser artist than Kolberg as concertmaster, he omitted the fifth and sixth movements -- "Minuet of Lully" and "Courante" -- why we'll likely never know. If you buy Biddulph you can enjoy the whole suite, as Reiner obviously did. And get as a bonus the first American recording of Mahler's earliest song-cycle for solo voice and orchestra, with the Afro-American contralto Carol Brice as soloist. Her career was too brief for a voice so beautiful, more authentically a contralto than Marian Anderson's, without the latter's register breaks or tonal mismatches. She may not have sung German as idiomatically as a native, but remains no less moving. Reiner's accompaniment is painstaking; after all, he'd been conducting this music as far back as Cincinnati. They also made Falla's El Amor Brujo Suite in Pittsburgh, excitingly too. Perhaps Sony can be lobbied to give us that and other Reineriana still in their stateside vaults.

It was Reiner's fate not to succeed Leopold Stokowski as the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, although he was on site at the Curtis Institute as conducting professor and orchestral maestro from 1931 until 1941 (when wartime travel restrictions curtailed frequent commuting from Pittsburgh). Philadelphia's then-general manager, Arthur Judson -- who was also general manager of the New York Philharmonic, founder of CBS radio, and president of Columbia Artists Management -- had been grooming Eugene Ormandy for a decade to be co-conductor starting in 1936, and then music director after two seasons. Since Judson had been Reiner's first manager at Cincinnati when the latter arrived there from Europe in 1922, he knew Der Fritz's temper as well as his volatile temperament, and preferred the more amenable and malleable Ormandy, likewise Hungarian (and 11 years younger in the bargain). Not until Chicago was Reiner gifted with a comparably great orchestra -- and only then after Ormandy wisely declined an invitation to leave the City of Brotherly Love for the Windy City.

Of the two, Reiner was a superior interpreter and orchestra builder (what Ormandy received in 1936 was already one of America's Big Three, although to his credit he remolded Stokowski's sonic signature in his own violinistic image over a period of years, and after the middle '50s matured outstandingly as an interpreter). But Reiner's personality was autocratic, sadistic at times; his methods terrified all but the finest players in his orchestras (even those were put through "basic training" to test their steadfastness under fire). Off the podium, Ormandy was a consummate charmer socially, whereas Reiner may have seemed sexy to women but was disliked by most of their menfolk. The irony today is that Ormandy, despite a mammoth discography on Victor, Columbia, and RCA again before EMI entered the picture, is sparsely represented on CDs while Reiner, who didn't begin to record until 1938 (anonymously with the New York Philharmonic for a New York newspaper promotion) and then not under his own name until Pittsburgh, is generously documented on digitally remastered CDs that sound, the best of them in RCA/BMG's "“Living Presence"” series, better than the LP and SD originals.

On the other hand, Reiner died in 1963, whereas Ormandy lived until 1985. It is eerily axiomatic that sales even of Toscanini's, Stokowski's, Furtw”ngler's, Karajan's, Solti's (and, yes, Bernstein's) records have declined sharply after their deaths, usually for 15, even 20 years. But then comes a renaissance. Or used to, before the Big-Gun companies here and abroad began phasing out their classical product, in part by boosting list prices a dollar per disc annually until RCA's "Living Presence" CDs, for example, which used to sell at Tower stores for $8.99 a couple of years ago now list at $12.99. Manufacturing costs haven't increased anywhere near that steeply, nor has the cost of producing CD jewel boxes. (But then, analogously, a migraine prescription medicine I was able to buy two years ago at $128 -- for nine tiny tablets -- now costs $145..) Go figure, and meanwhile stock up on CDs before the next escalation.

R.D. (Oct. 2000)