Saturday, March 25, 2017

Who needs the Berlin Philharmonic?


A conductor making great music with a first class orchestra is a delight. A conductor making great music with a third class orchestra is a miracle. I will remember Louis Frémaux, who has died aged 95, for the miracles he worked with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In the 1970s when Frémaux was its principal conductor, the CBSO was a third rate and ill-disciplined band: Simon Rattle tells of how at the time if a conductor asked the violin section to play a passage using the same part of the bow the players would laugh and ask why. Given this, Frémaux's recordings with the CBSO such as the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony - still one of the finest interpretations committed to disc - and Massenet's ballet music from Le Cid are nothing short of a miracle.

EMI recorded the Saint-Saëns in the Great Hall of Birmingham University, although the artwork, of course, shows the Cavaillé-Coll instrument in La Madeleine, Paris. In 1978 relations between the CBSO's management and players broke down completely and Frémaux walked out on the orchestra on the same day as the general manager. This left a gap which Simon Rattle filled; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Above and below is my 1973 SQ quadraphonic pressing of the Saint-Saëns Symphony. That year I worked on EMI's SQ demonstration at the Olympia Audio Fair. This involved playing the Allegro moderato - Maestoso - Allegro final movement of the Saint-Saëns repeatedly at very high levels for three days. Louis Frémaux's interpretation is indeed miraculous. But almost half a century I still cannot hear the work without shuddering.



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6 comments:

Pliable said...

Sadly, but very appropriately, Warner are releasing the 12 CD box 'Louis Frémaux: The Complete CBSO Recordings' on April 21 which includes the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony - http://www.prestoclassical.co.uk/r/Warner%2BClassics/9029588673

MarkAMeldon said...

But I bet the recordings haven't been remastered to SACD Hybrid thus letting us hear the "Quad" mix! I do note, however, that Mike Dutton seems to have recently developed and interest in SACD in order to release under licence multi-channel recordings. I guess that's a bit like Polyhymnia/Pentatone with the old Philips quadraphonic recordings?

Glad you are back, thought you were gone for good!

Pliable said...

Mark, you make an important point. My linked post about multi-channel sound, which was written in 2013 was essentially negative. Since then my view has shifted; experiences such as listening to John Luther Adams' Become Ocean in 5.1 surround and my own experiments with headphone listening have convinced me that the immersive aspect of surround and binaural/headphone ('in head') sound cannot be ignored if classical music is to reach a new audience.

I no longer have an SQ decoder in my audio systems. But one of my secondary systems uses a Haffler four speaker configuration. When correctly adjusted this can subtly enhance engagement with the music, particularly with the old SQ recordings as it partially recovers the phase-shifted rear channel information. There is not much clickbait potential in this important subject; but that will not stop me returning to it in an upcoming post.

Graeme said...

Anytime I see someone under 30 alone, they are wearing earbuds. Do they get born wearing them? When do they acquire the habit? How does it affect their hearing - I worry that my daughter will be self-imposed deaf at age 30 from habitually listening through ear buds from a very early age. The big musiczaals for Rattle and Co to shake their egos like maracas at each other are an irrelevance as the boomer generations slowly decline m

Graeme said...

Mmm polyhymnia... The muse of choral singing, music as a social event rather than.....

JJ said...

I have most of the recordings of the Saint-saens 'organ' symphony from the Piero Coppola to the present on 78s, LPs, and CDs. I first heard it live with Munch and E. Power Biggs at Symphony Hall in Boston of which there is no acknowledged recording because of contract problems [BSO & Munch on RCA; Biggs on Columbia] and this my measuring stick [I'm an organist]. There are many great recordings; there are too many so-so recordings. Among the best [IMHO] in no special order Tjeknovarian-Rawsthorne, Munch-Biggs, Paray-Dupre, Cluytens-Durufle and several others. The best performance -- I heard it the other night on Music Choice, a cable service. It literally would have knocked my socks off, if I were wearing socks; it was with Munch and the Berlin Philharmonic and it was all of what I heard at Bymphony Hall in Boston in the late 50s when Munch gave Biggsy full reign in the final movement. Now I am in search of it.