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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