C1537. ISTVAN KERTESZ Cond. Cleveland Orch., w.Birgit Finnila & Simone Mangelsdorff: 'Resurrection' Symphony #2 in c (Mahler). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-451, Live Performance, 31 Oct., 1968 (both Severance Hall). Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
"To my knowledge this is the first Mahler symphony conducted by the great Hungarian Istvan Kertesz to appear on disc. Kertesz who died while swimming off the coast of Israel in 1973 at the age of 43, had already developed into one of the most admired conductors of his generation. The Cleveland Orchestra had a strong relationship with him; the musicians even petitioned the board to engage Kertesz to replace George Szell after Szell died. (I base this on personal reports that the attempt was made but did not succeed.) I can report from first-hand experience, having managed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, that the musicians who knew Kertesz from his time as principal conductor at Ravinia adored him.
This live Mahler Second from 1968 is an extremely interesting and somewhat unusual performance. Despite tempos that are generally on the quick side, never does the music sound rushed. I have 45 recordings of this symphony in my collection (sadly, I do know what that says about my addictive personality), only five of which are shorter than Kertesz's timing of 78:12. (The timing in the headnote adds 10 seconds of ovation at the end). The norm would appear to be around 84-86 minutes. This is definitely not a performance that emphasizes the angst in Mahler’s music in the manner of Bernstein, nor does it have the gravitas of a Klemperer (whose recorded performances range from 73:30 to 79:20!). Kertesz emphasizes the lyrical elements of the music, reminding us that songs were at the core of Mahler's writing. Kertesz trades ferocity for warmth, providing supple phrasing and the kind of flexibility that keeps the performance alive, never becoming stiff or too driven. The Cleveland Orchestra plays gorgeously for him, displaying a warmth of string sound that is not what they are normally known for.
You might get the impression from what I have written that the performance is too light, or lacks the intensity that Mahler requires, but that is not the case. Because of the way Kertesz gets the musicians to dig in (and remember, 1968 was still fairly early in the Mahler boom, so this was not music in the musicians’ fingers), along with his careful judging of tempo and dynamic relationships, this performance be called lightweight. In some ways it reminds me of Kubelik's Mahler. There is an urgency to the playing, a palpable sense of excitement, of being present at an event (as early Mahler performances were considered), that keeps the momentum going without letup. Kertesz also has a very strong sense of architecture, of where the music is going, and he avoids giving too much too soon. As a result, the apocalyptic climax of the finale is overwhelming.
Swedish contralto Birgit Finnila sings 'Urlicht' beautifully, and German soprano Simone Mangelsdorff floats ethereally in the finale, though occasionally starting under pitch and sliding up. Still, she sounds lovely, and I wondered why I was not familiar with her name, before learning that Mangelsdorff died in 1973 at the age of 42. There is a very strong sense of concentration in the choral singing, too.
The result is a performance that combines beauty and drama in a blend that is ultimately quite powerful. The St. Laurent Studio sound is a very accurate representation of the fine Cleveland Orchestra FM-stereo broadcasts at that time. As usual from this label, there are no notes accompanying the disc, just basic track and performance information. Those of us who have admired Kertesz's Brahms, Dvorak, and Bartok recordings now have something new to rejoice in. This release is available from Norbeck, Peters & Ford (norpete.com)."
Henry Fogel, FANFARE
"An inordinately gifted conductor, Istvan Kertesz died at age 43 in a tragic drowning off the Israeli coast. He had already reached full maturity as a musician, proving his worth in opera, oratorio, and the symphonic repertory. His interests were wide-ranging, including works from the Classical and Romantic periods and large portions of twentieth century music.
Beginning with private lessons in childhood, Kertesz studied piano and violin. He continued with violin training at the Ferenc Liszt Academy in Budapest, adding composition under the supervision of such teachers as Weiner and Kodaly. He pursued his conducting studies with Laszlo Somogyi, at the same time benefiting from studying the performances of Otto Klemperer, who was then working at the Hungarian State Opera. In 1953, Kertesz was appointed resident conductor at Gyor, two years later transferring his activities to Budapest, where he was hired as coach and conductor. Following the political uprising and Soviet response in 1956, Kertesz moved with his family to Germany, subsequently acquiring German citizenship.
From 1958 to 1963, Kertesz was general music director at Augsburg. His British debut took place with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 1960, followed by appearances with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1961. His American debut came with a tour with the NDR Symphony Orchestra in 1961, during which he made a positive impression on American audiences and critics alike. An appointment as general music director in Cologne came in 1964, and 1966 brought both a Covent Garden début, directing UN BALLO IN MASCHERA. A global tour with the London Symphony Orchestra led to his succeeding Pierre Monteux as LSO principal conductor in 1966. In 1971, he became music director of Cologne's Gurzenich-Orchester, a position he held until his death two years later.
Kertesz was decidedly non-interventionist as a conductor. With scrupulous attention to the composer's directions, his interpretations were more remarkable for sound musicianship than for striking individualism. Still, his performances often held high drama, and he was intentional about advocacy of works he believed in which, in light of his broad interests, were numerous. At Cologne, he presented the German premiere of Verdi's STIFFELIO as well as Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO (a work he recorded in its first complete edition on disc).
For Decca, Kertesz recorded a superb BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE with Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry, still unsurpassed after several decades. His complete recordings of the Dvorak, Brahms, and Schubert symphonies still enjoy honorable places among the best versions committed to disc. The first Western recording of Kodaly's HARY JANOS (the complete opera) was made with the London Symphony under Kertesz's direction. The Decca label coupling of Dvorak's REQUIEM and Kodaly's PSALMUS HUNGARICUS is another fitting tribute to a superb artist too soon departed.
In addition to Bartok, Kertesz was an indefatigable champion of works by Stravinsky, Henze, and Britten. Britten's BILLY BUDD was first presented to German audiences under Kertesz 's baton and he directed the first performance of the WAR REQUIEM heard in Vienna. For Ravinia Festival audiences, Kertesz directed the WAR REQUIEM with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus shortly before his death. With soloists Phyllis Curtin, Robert Tear, and John Shirley-Quirk, the conductor's shattering interpretation left audience members limp."
- Erik Eriksson, allmusic.com
"Birgit Finnila, the Swedish contralto, is one of those artists who create advance excitment through word of mouth. She has a long list of credentials: Gerald Moore accompanied her in England in the spring of 1966; it was her debut and his final London appearance. She has sung with an impressive list of conductors and on five continents. The name of the music she chose to sing [for her New York Town Hall debut] was good taste: four Brahms lieder; the Schumann cycle 'Frauenliebe and Leben'; three Wolf Lieder and two each by Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Grieg and Randström. But the recital itself was tantalizing. Miss Finnila is a finished interpreter. Each song is a fully charged theatrical episode, and she has every detail, down to the last eyelash, exactly in place. Her phrasing, her rhythm, her stance, her gestures, all lend meaning to every speck of the text."
- Theodore Strongin, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 17 April, 1971