Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Radiothon 13 Premium S15-35 (LP), S17-50 (CD)

(Reviewed on CD)

“Mr. Still, have you ever played this piece before?”

“Of course I have.”

“Oh yes, I forgot. It must have been in Baltimore–with the Orioles.”

This infamous little exchange took place in Orchestra Hall over 30 years ago, when Ray Still, the new principal oboist, came to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from the Baltimore Symphony. It is one of dozens of often-told stories from the Fritz Reiner era that illustrate Reiner’s most memorable human characteristics–wit and sadism.

That the man was unmercifully cruel to his orchestra is well-known. Twenty-five years after his death, there are still CSO players who flinch at the mention of his name. Perhaps less understood, for a variety of reasons, is that Reiner was responsible for the finest music the Chicago Symphony is ever likely to produce.

It is not that Reiner was necessarily a “better” music director than is his fellow Hungarian colleague, Sir Georg Solti. But consider the fact that when Solti steps down as music director at the end of the orchestra’s centenary season of 1990-91, having been music director 21 years to Reiner’s 10, he will still have conducted the orchestra less often than Reiner did. This is because Solti conducts the CSO only eight to ten weeks a year, and Reiner led it 20 to 23 weeks. As Reiner was at least as gifted a conductor as Solti is, his greater contact with the orchestra yielded both a more unified vision and tighter execution.

It must also be remembered that, in its day, the Reiner/CSO magic was not widely known beyond Chicago. During his decade (1953-63) here, Reiner and the CSO made annual runs to Milwaukee, but there was but one east-coast tour–in 1958. Reiner refused the terms of the one European tour that the CSO might have made during his tenure, and thus the orchestra that Igor Stravinsky then called “the most flexible and precise in the world” remained a largely unfamiliar quantity until the grand Solti tours of the early 1970s.

If reports of Solti’s younger temper are accurate, his preferred method of dealing with the CSO would probably have been similar to Reiner’s. But after ten years of Reiner, the orchestra had had enough. By the time Reiner’s gentler successor, Jean Martinon, came in, some musicians had themselves mastered sadism so successfully as to break Martinon down and eventually force his resignation. When Solti took over in 1969, the union element in the orchestra was so powerful that a dictatorship was not thinkable. A more democratic but less precise orchestra became the result. The price had been a high one in terms of emotional carnage, but Reiner literally had scared the best possible music out of the CSO.

Reiner recorded more music with the CSO than has any other single conductor–117 works in all. All of these were for RCA, and were among the earliest stereo recordings ever made. The recording technique was simple back then–two to four microphones were suspended a few feet above and/or in front of the orchestra, and recording takes consisted of entire movements. The results, given Reiner’s precision, are considered even in today’s digital age among the finest classical recordings that exist, and they are now enjoying a renaissance on compact disc. The Reiner/CSO releases of music by Richard Strauss, Bartok, and Wagner are still considered unparalleled in the catalog even after three decades; they were among the first orchestral recordings to win Grammy Awards.

Today, the CSO is heard on weekly stereo radio broadcasts throughout the country. During the Reiner tenure, however, the orchestra broadcast only for a single season, 1957-58, and was heard only in New York. It seems that a neighbor of Reiner’s owned a classical FM station there, and during a backyard discussion arrangements were made to have station WBAI carry the CSO concerts. The original plan was to broadcast the concerts live, but when AT&T was unable to provide a powerful enough circuit, tapes of the Thursday evening concerts wound up being flown to New York for broadcast the following evening.

Low-quality bootleg tapes of these broadcasts circulated underground for years. Now, thanks to the original producer and engineer, Stephen Temmer, a collection of pieces culled from the original mono master tapes is being offered this weekend as a premium for the WFMT/CSO radiothon (nee marathon). This is the second Reiner collection to be offered in this fashion, the first (no longer available) being a premium of the marathon two years ago. This new collection is more significant than the first, both in terms of the music collected and because it is being offered on double compact discs as well as in a double phonograph album.

The quality of the recordings is much better than one would expect, given how they were made–the sound was collected by a single microphone suspended above the third row, and transferred completely unprocessed onto a copper master tape. There is the occasional blurring and interference, but overall the sound is full, deep, and balanced, revealing a wealth of orchestral detail as well as (alas) the usual coughing and bustling, laying to rest the myth that CSO audiences were more attentive then than now.

The first disc contains complete performances of Haydn’s Symphony no. 104 and the Beethoven Fourth Symphony, both works that Reiner conceived of as very much in the romantic tradition. The orchestra Reiner employed for both was very large, and, not surprisingly, his tempi were usually slow. Amazingly, though I had never heard so slow an introduction to the Beethoven, Reiner managed it with such conviction that it worked. By the time the symphony’s frenzied climax comes around, the release of tension is extreme and dramatic. Equally amazing are the precision of attack, especially by the strings, in both the slow and quicker sections, and, in the Haydn as well as the Beethoven, the pellucid articulation of the classical construction that Reiner managed despite his bombastic forces and slower tempi.

The second disc begins with the Berloiz Roman Carnival Overture, given a sparkling reading featuring the magnificent CSO brass and percussion sections that Reiner shaped so carefully and that have endured to this day. But exceptionally loud hisses, clicks, and thumps that are found here and nowhere else suggest this music was transferred from an LP, not a master tape.

Faring much better in reproduction is the Hindemith Cello Concerto, given a beautifully lyrical account by then principal cellist Janos Starker, another Hungarian whom Reiner brought into the orchestra, although he’d leave the following season because the board of trustees would not let him tour and record as a soloist during the weeks Reiner did not conduct. The Reiner accompaniment is, despite constantly changing time signatures, extraordinarily precise and lively.

The real gems of the album are the concluding Wagner excerpts, the prelude and “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde and the “Good Friday Spell” from Parsifal. Has there ever been a more glorious Wagner conductor than Reiner? The shimmering, haunting beauty of these excerpts suggests not. The Tristan music is so airborne that the textures and timbres seem to melt one into another; this dreamlike, timeless quality ultimately builds to a tension and release that leave you on the edge of your seat. Likewise, the “Good Friday” music, though a brief excerpt, achieves a transcendent texture that is spellbinding. This is Wagner as he should be, but so rarely is–full of color, balance, effortless rhythm.

There is only one way to own this unique collection–by pledging the CSO $35 (for the double album) or $50 (for the double compact disc) during this weekend’s radiothon, which lasts from noon Friday to midnight Sunday. To do so, call 565-5050 or stop by either Orchestra Hall (220 S. Michigan), a Mark Shale store on Michigan Avenue, at Northbrook Court, or at Oakbrook Center, or the Nieman-Marcus on Michigan Avenue. Otherwise, the album is not for sale.