A mysterious conductor who practically started his career with the Berlin Philharmonic without previous experience, Oskar Fried was an enigma of whom few personal glimpses remain but whose sonic legacy astonishes with its perception, vigor, insight, and clairvoyant penetration of all the music he performed.
Fried conducts the Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Charlottenburg Orchestra, Berlin State Opera Orchestra, All-Soviet Radio Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra; with Josef Wolfsthal, violin; Astra Desmond, alto.
- Mozart Symphony 40:I (USSR Radio Orch.) 7:33
- Mozart Symphony 40:II (USSR Radio Orch.) 11:37
- Mozart Symphony 40:III (USSR Radio Orch.) 3:59
- Mozart Symphony 40:IV (USSR Radio Orch.) 4:53
- Mozart Eine Kleine Nachtmusik: IV (Berlin State Opera Orch)) 2:44
- Rossini La Gazza Ladra overture (Berlin Charlottenburg Orchestra)) 8:35
- Weber Freischutz: Hunter's chorus (Berlin State Opera Orchestra) 2:54
- Wagner Tannhauser: Einzug der Gäste (Berlin State Opera Orchestra) 4:23
- Mahler Das Lied von der Erde: Von der schönheit (Desmond, BBC S.O.) 6:43
- Stravinsky Firebird Suite: I (Berlin Philharmonic) 4:20
- Stravinsky Firebird Suite: II (Berlin Philharmonic) 4:26
- Stravinsky Firebird Suite: III (Berlin Philharmonic) 3:39
- Stravinsky Firebird Suite: IV (Berlin Philharmonic) 4:53
- Saint-Saëns Danse macabre (Wolfsthal, Berlin Philharmonic) 6:34
- bonus download track: Donizetti Don Pasquale Overture (Berlin Philharmonic)
in memoriam Michele Selvini, whose writings will live on to illuminate.
Requiescat in pace, carissimo amico.
A long-forgotten old recording of Stravinsky’s Berceuse emanates a stillness, a 0visionary celestial space. Who was the conductor evoking this dream-state in the Berlin of 1928? Who was Oskar Fried? Accounts of this controversial figure veer between loathing of the man or idolization of him as a musical genius. Few remain alive who heard him or had personal connections to him. When asked about this musician, Peter Horenstein, son of the conductor Jascha Horenstein, said that Fried and Nikisch were his father’s idols in Berlin.
Fried uncannily appeared at crucial musical moments, when new works and composers emerged, as if instinctively guided to them. When Busoni hosted Bartók’s debut in Berlin (with the composer conducting an original work), the curious Fried went backstage to ask Bartók for other orchestral scores: he later gave the Berlin premiere of Bartók’s Rhapsodies for Violin and Orchestra. After its awkward debut, Schönberg’s Pelleas and Melisande languished until Fried’s performance set fires, adding to the composer’s stature. The tale of his life and art is daunting to retrieve as much is lost or remains in closed archives.
Fried was a cultured soul; we find him in the company of Rilke, Dehmel, Hamsun (during his Munich days, before he turned into a Nazi and Fried into an ardent Bolshevik), Stefan Zweig, Schnitzler, Wasserman, Wedekind and others. Painters were drawn to him: more sketches and portraits survive of him than do photographs.
A native Berliner, Fried had his city’s accent. Busoni mimicked this accent when quoting him, even in letters. Although Fried claimed an impoverished youth, he attended an elite boarding school where he met and befriended Rilke. Either poverty or wanderlust compelled him to quit school and join a municipal band in the Nowawes suburb of Berlin, later the site of a record factory. We offer a description of Fried’s youth by his Russian friend Alexander Al’schvang:
“Fried played in an ensemble as part of a school composed of thirty boys, aged nine to fourteen, terming it ‘very good’, as they were taught to play many instruments under a teacher who slept during the day and played in the orchestra at night. The boys lived in his house, paying for room and board, and were exploited as much as possible, forced to dig, wash floors, peel potatoes and cook meals. The twelve to fourteen-year-olds were farmed out to nearby villages, playing for weddings from four in the afternoon until daybreak the following morning, the master pocketing their earnings. In an ensemble with two violins, a bass, and a drum, Fried played on the latter. He kept awake through these affairs with the aid of beer, vodka, and cigars. Amidst this so-called schooling he learned the horn on his own. After arguing with his master, Fried agreed to work in Mittau (Mitava, Latvia) and was enlisted in an orchestra to tour in St. Petersburg. Afterwards, with his horn and nowhere to settle down, Fried became an itinerant, playing in many cities. Fried spoke of Liszt: ‘Once in Germany, I visited Weimar with twelve from the orchestra, where we gathered outside his house and played a serenade. Liszt came out, moved, in tears, and blessed us for our future artistic endeavors.’ [Fried would begin his conducting career with Liszt’s St. Elisabeth Oratorio.]
“At age nineteen, Fried arrived in Frankfurt am Main, ambitious, but without having had any systematic training. By chance he was asked to play in a morning concert with the symphony and made a good impression, becoming engaged with the opera orchestra and replacing a horn player in the Frankfurt theater. The composer Humperdinck was the first to notice Fried’s gifts, teaching him composition and becoming a close mentor to the young musician, inviting Fried to live with him. Fried recalled: ‘Humperdinck was very nice to me. He warmed to me and offered to have me settle down, working and living in his home. He also asked me to do the piano reduction of Hansel and Gretel and arrange a fantasia on the opera [published and twice recorded by Fried]. I said I didn’t have good reading skills and he didn’t want to hear of it. “If you don’t do it, I’ll change my mind about you.” So I did it and Humperdinck was very pleased with it.’
“Fried began composing, earning a meager living by copying compositions for Schott & Sons in nearby Mainz. He had a passion for moving about and a wild nature, the opposite of what is suited for academia. Humperdinck’s academic character left him unsatisfied. Fried moved to Düsseldorf, then to Munich, where he studied with the elderly Hermann Levy, the general music director, who was interested in Fried. Levy soon gave up on this wandering gypsy. Fried spent hungry months in Paris, not knowing the language, with no connections, trying to earn money writing literary works. This ended in early 1898 when he moved to Berlin, where Karl Muck liked him and performed Fried’s Opus 1 [Trunkene Lied] with success. [Before this event, one account finds him employed as a circus animal and dog trainer, his steeping-stone to leading an orchestra.] For some reason, this reputation led to his being asked to conduct Liszt’s St. Elizabeth Oratorio, a lengthy work, especially for one who never conducted an orchestra before. It coincided with his first fateful meeting with Mahler, who would become his mentor:
“‘It happened in Vienna  when I received a telegram from the Vienna Choral Society’s conductor who was doing my Trunkene Lied. I am a truthful person who will always say what I mean to a person if I don’t like something. At the first rehearsal, I created a big scandal because of its interpretation. Being very angry, I told [Franz] Schalk that he had no idea about the music he was performing and because of that, Schalk tried to re-establish our good relationship, and he introduced me to Mahler. Mahler found out that I would play St. Elisabeth and he wished to talk to me. Still being very angry, I went to see Mahler. A small slim person in glasses with lively manners and messy hair welcomed me. Nothing was interesting about him except for his face, which had a huge forehead and fiery eyes, the face of an ascetic. But at that time I was still too angry to become under the influence of a great artist. Unfortunately, Mahler’s first question was whether I was happy with the performance of my composition and I couldn’t control myself and I screamed, accusing everyone, including Mahler. Mahler raised his glasses in surprise, asking me “What have I to do with this?” and my answer was extremely brief: “Because you invite illiterates such as Schalk.” At the end I calmed down and we started speaking about the upcoming production of St. Elisabeth. At the same time, Mahler said that I would be a good conductor. I answered “That is not written on my nose,” but Mahler, smiling, said “I feel my people right away.” Knowing that I would stand up for the first time in front of an orchestra, Mahler gave me some advice and warned me not to be confused because my enthusiasm will overcome me and I won’t be able to hear the orchestra. Mahler was right. I asked Muck to come to my first rehearsal. Not long after the overture started, Muck came up to me and said “Don’t you think the orchestra is playing incredibly loud?” Unfortunately I didn’t hear a thing and even if I saw the moving cello bows in front of me when they started the overture, I wasn’t able to hear a thing.’
“Fried was an instant success, asked to lead the New Symphony Concerts and the Berlin Philharmonic, the latter finding themselves directed by a master who had never trained.”
Fried championed Scriabin’s music. A letter that he wrote to the composer in 1909 survives:
I would love to write you how very much I like your Divine Poem and how happy I am to perform it [on 11] January. You can be sure that I will do my best to express all the beauty of the score. If you would honor me with your personal appearance at the performance, it would be a very good reason to try to make your acquaintance and approval. Here’s how we would arrange your trip to Berlin: If you would come in early January I would discuss the performance with you and ask for advice so you can be completely satisfied.
Hoping to receive your positive answer, with utmost respect, yours sincerely, O. F.
Scriabin’s presence at the German debut of his Third Symphony under Fried was a euphoric experience that also brought him recognition as a symphonic composer. Fried soon repeated the work in Moscow to great acclaim when Scriabin, under Serge Koussevitzky’s persuasion, returned home after a five year absence.
Fried had been a visitor to Russia since his Wanderjahre, offering cycles of Beethoven’s symphonies and Mahler there. Al’schvang recalled Fried’s performance of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique having a “loneliness in the third movement, with the scaffold scene full of daemonic energy; Beethoven’s Egmont overture bearing a very strong involvement, a Mazeppa (Liszt) that I would remember for the rest of my life,” finding an “incredible energy” in all he did, deeming his Beethoven as the most memorable. Once Fried spoke against the Tsar and was quickly sent packing, not to return until he became the first foreigner invited to the new Soviet Union, with Lenin himself greeting his arriving train. When Hitler took power, Fried fled Berlin to Russia to lead a Tbilisi opera orchestra. (Fried may not have conducted opera, as we only know of his Offenbach operettas with Max Reinhardt.)
Fried spoke of his calling:
“Now, when they ask me how to become a conductor, I answer that you have to be a true musician. You have to be born with a heart which is able to account for the smallest and most artistic experiences and impressions. You have to develop the mind to be able to take those impressions and ideas to the orchestra.”
Al’schvang noted: “His personal and artistic credo also deemed the texts of a composition to be philosophically oriented.”
Fried’s recorded legacy is misrepresented by many works alien to his repertoire, yet his pioneering work as a recording artist allowed the industry to saddle him with the trite and popular, overlooking a potential Rite of Spring, as Stravinsky held Fried in high regard, or demanding more Mahler. Several important performances were preserved. His Rossini radiates a Berliner’s gallows humor, which would underline Brecht & Weill’s Threepenny Opera. Fried and Weill once collaborated but administrators foiled their plans. The Saint-Saëns is an echo of an evening he gave (Berlin, 28 Sept. 1913) in which the composer conducted and was pianist under Fried’s direction.
A further glimpse of Fried emerges in 1928, a year of prolific recording with the Berlin Philharmonic and the time of his one tour of the United States, perhaps limited to two New York appearances (16, 18 March). Olin Downes, the New York Times’ critic, was puzzled by Fried:
“It is due Mr. Fried to say that he made the New York Symphony sound as no one of a half dozen predecessors has done this season [including Damrosch and Ravel.] For all that, and in spite of the remarkable demonstration of the audience at the end of the Brahms Symphony [no. 1] an ovation that lasted for minutes and brought conductor and orchestra to their feet the interpretation of that familiar work was as a whole manned and superficial. The first movement, from the interpretive standpoint, was the strongest. When Mr. Fried treated details in ways of his own they had logic and, above all, saliency. In the slow movement, he fell short, not only of its mood, but its musical breath.
“The finale, with the wondrous introduction and the victorious conclusion, told, and roused the audience to one of the greatest ovations that has been witnessed this season.
“[The] Stravinsky [Firebird Suite] on the whole, was worse than Brahms. There is poetry and romantic feeling, as well as color, in the Russian score. It was distorted in tempi and its phrases and ‘jazzed up’ to make a virtuoso’s holiday. Most of the music rushed by at a pace so breathless that it was all but unintelligible, and as in the Brahms symphony, the lyrical passages were mainly conspicuous for the unlyrical and unpoetic manner in which they were played.”
An unsigned reporter (Downes?) had interviewed him a fortnight earlier:
“Mr. Fried, who was an associate of Toscanini at the series of concerts given last Fall at La Scala, said that Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. . . was the most significant and important composition of recent years:
“‘It opens up tremendous new possibilities in opera,’ he declared, ‘for in it Stravinsky has utilized modern technique and orchestration to revivify the old opera forms. He has breathed a new spirit into an old body creating something that is refreshingly different without being eccentric. I feel that it cannot help but influence future operatic composition.’ Another new opera of importance is Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, said Mr. Fried.
“The new conductor has for many years appeared exclusively in Europe as a ‘guest,’ a position which, he points out, prevents any given public from ‘tiring of him.'”
One of Fried’s close friends, the cultural protagonist Count Harry Kessler, left a diary entry [24 February 1926, Berlin] describing Fried at play::
“Invited for dinner [Maximilian] Harden [journalist], Max Reinhardt, Oskar Fried, Vollmoeller, Miss Landshoff, [Max] Goertz and Guseck. Stag-party, including Frl. Landshoff in dinner-jacket, very attractive, her boyish appearance enhanced by horn-rimmed spectacles and a cosmetic intimation of black down. Harden, who looks every day more like a cross between Voltaire and an old actress, was entertaining and witty. He keeps quiet a long time, then suddenly looses a stinging shaft, his tone almost timidly gentle and his manner faintly recalling the ancien régime. An amusing war of words, mainly about Jews and Soviet Russia, was waged between him and Fried, who is less subtle and much clumsier in repartee.
“Around midnight the Landshoff girl and Guseck went to fetch Jospehine Baker. I had cleared the library, so that she should have room to dance. But at first she was not in the mood and sat for a long time in a corner, evidently embarrassed at exposing her nudity in front of Helene and Luli Meiern, who had also meanwhile arrived, because ‘they are ladies’.
“She did not recover from her shyness until I began to describe to Reinhardt and Vollmoeller the first scene of the ballet I plan for her. My plot is how Solomon, handsome, young, and royal (I have Serge Lifar in mind), buys a dancer (the Shulamite, Miss Baker), has her brought before him, naked, and showers his robes his jewels, his entire riches upon her. But the more gifts he lavishes, the more she eludes him. Finally, when it is the King who is altogether bare, the Dancer utterly vanishes from his sight in a tulip-shaped cloud, first golden in color and composed of all the jewels and stuffs of which he had stripped himself to adorn her, then turning black. At the end of the scene, in the semi-gloom, there enters the young Lover, wearing a dinner-jacket, and. . . . For the present, I told them, I would keep the continuation to myself.
“Reinhardt and Vollmoeller argued that this scene should really be the end. It has such dramatic and choreographic tension that they cannot imagine it rising to a higher climax.
“Josephine Baker was as though transformed. When, she implored, will the part be ready for her to dance? She began to go into some movements, vigorous and vividly grotesque, in front of my Maillol figure, became preoccupied with it, stared at it, copied the pose, rested against it in bizarre postures, and talked to it, clearly excited by its massive rigor and elemental force. Then she danced around it with extravagantly grandiose gestures, the picture of a priestess frolicking like a child and making fun of herself and her goddess. Maillol’s creation was obviously much more interesting and real to her than we humans standing about her. Genius (for she is a genius in the matter of grotesque movement) was addressing genius. Suddenly she stopped and switched to her Negro dances, spicing them with every sort of extravagance. The climax was reached when Fried tried to join in the clowning and she caricatured, even more preposterously, ever more dizzily, any and every movement he made. Where Fried was just ungainly, with her it became a wonderfully stylish grotesquerie which struck a balance between what is depicted in an ancient Egyptian relief frieze and the antics of one of George Grosz’s mechanical dolls. Now and again Lulli Meiern also improvised a few movements, very delightful and harmonious; but one twist of the arm by Josephine Baker and their graces were extinguished, dissolved into air like mountain mist.”
Little is known of Fried’s end in Moscow other than that a serious illness dominated his last four years. The official Soviet account is that he died cursing Hitler from his hospital bed during the bombing of Moscow. Others wonder if Fried had been murdered, as the date coincides with the undoing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty; when the former allies declared war, Stalin tidied up by eliminating stray Germans. Fried enjoyed certain privileges: before his conducting ceased by 1938, a high-ranking official under Stalin allowed him to travel outside the USSR, a favor forbidden to citizens (Fried took Russian citizenship in 1940), for he visited London in 1936 to conduct Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Until the discovery of the fourth movement of this final work, our only evidence of Fried’s Mahler was his 1924 account of the Second Symphony, compromised by a reduced orchestra, its continuity halted every four minutes to prepare a new wax master; furthermore there has never been a vivid restoration of these shellacs. The survival of Fried’s Mahler caught by a microphone is due to one B.B.C. listener who owned a disc cutter and sporadically recorded British composers and artists on acetate discs. Perhaps it was the presence of Astra Desmond that prompted a recording of a segment from their 1936 broadcast. Anticipating a longer duration, the machine was set to a slower speed, preserving all but the last eight bars of Von der Schonheit. The collection is now with the British Library, whose archivist Jonathan Summers uncovered this performance.
Fried’s Mahler is heard in its fullness for the first time, the colors, balance, tempi, and dynamics coming to life. It predates Bruno Walter’s live Vienna recording by three months, revealing quite a different approach. Walter subdues a trombone passage beneath the violins’ thematic phrasing, adopting a faster tempo throughout (nearly one minute quicker). Fried elongates, obscures the bar lines, sculpts longer phrases, and allows the tumultuous trombones to roar as if played by a Klezmer band, depicting a tranquil world disturbed by outsider elements, perhaps a reflection of the composer’s inner conflicts that Walter, out of reverence, chose to smooth out. Until now, Walter has enjoyed an unchallenged hegemony over the Mahler tradition. This new perspective is most welcome, as it extends the music’s interpretive tradition. Kurt Sanderling met the ailing Fried in Stalin’s Moscow, to whom he complained of being neglected as the more authentic representative of the Mahler tradition. Is either approach the genuine path to Mahler? Each offers insight, as both lived in his orb and understood Mahler as few were able, with one revering his craft, the other probing his psyche.
Fried wrote on Mahler in 1919, his observations informing us of himself as well as his subject:
“[Mahler] showed a very strong interest in me. I spent the rest of the day in the Director’s office [at their first meeting in Vienna]. What I saw before me, this unjustly feared and notorious master in his own house, can be described as wonderfully beautiful. Above all, on a human level. This man looking at me through stern and aloof spectacles, yet with childlike curiosity and an unadulterated openness intent upon discovering and penetrating the essential humanity in others, this man with his childlike yet entirely masculine head seemed to me simply beautiful to look at.
“His gaze, which cut through everything and laid bare the innermost, his deep bell-like voice, his mouth whose fine shape hinted at unshakable energy while its almost feminine line spoke of his goodness and inner warmth, and last but not least the intensity of his gestures and whole being all these together made him irresistible.
“And I confess I liked him immediately. Apart from anything else, he was exceptionally pleasant with me and unexpectedly warm from the moment we began to talk. We took to one another instantly, talking like two old friends to whom nothing is worse and more banal than wasting time on showing-off and self-indulgent courtesies designed to ingratiate. Thus our first conversation was a serious discussion of each other’s artistic plans.”
Mahler arranged for Fried to conduct his Second Symphony in Berlin, with the composer in attendance. Fried soon became a famulus and champion of Mahler’s music.
“What I adored and valued in Mahler beyond measure was not so much his strengths. It was his weaknesses. And they took on the fascination of tragedy by being essentially so very human. He was a God-seeker. With incredible fanaticism, with unparalleled dedication and with unshakeable love he pursued a constant search for the divine, both in the individual and in man as a whole. He saw himself bearing a sacred trust; it suffused his whole being. His nature was religious through and through in a mystical, not a dogmatic, sense. He talked of this to me time and again on our walks in Toblach and he would be filled suddenly with earthly rapture as if he had just come from heaven.
“But from time to time he would doubt this heavenly mission and worry momentarily whether he had the ability to carry it through, even though he was convinced of nothing so firmly as his faith in himself. In such moments of inner conflict, he needed, so as not to perish in the mortal wilderness, some earthly support to cling on to: to recover from outside himself an echo of the credo he bore within him in his reverence for the divine. A servant, a disciple on whom he could test the reality and validity of his religious mission. His unconscious was always on the look-out for someone around him whose degree of enlightenment and salvation he could use as a measure of the security and implications of his religious powers. And if he received no answer, no echo from my direction, if I was not immediately ready and willing to follow him wherever he desired to go, his face would become remarkably set and he would retreat into his impenetrable spiritual shell, a child enduring mortal disappointments and bewailing his divine origins. Such moments shook me greatly. They weighed heavily on my heart. How I would have loved to say something, to have lied a little and feigned sympathy: all this for the love of this tremendous human being, in recognition of the colossal workings of his soul. But it was just not possible. We would proceed in silence side by side; he perhaps recognizing that it was after all not his mission in life to set a religious example to mankind but rather to bear witness and fulfill himself through his art. Thus he was always a fighter and a wrestler. Perhaps more than any other he had to wage a titanic struggle to wrest the smallest victory from himself. And he, the notorious despot, needed in his art to find comfort and recognition and love as much as any other spurned and lonely soul. That is how vulnerable he was, and how love-starved. Yet he did not receive the slightest recognition or the faintest degree of understanding merited by the meticulous and unblemished way he exercised his high office. He was really superhumanly pure. A redeemer in his profession.
“This remoteness from the world, added to the burdens of running the opera house, gave him little time and scope for deep involvement in other people’s problems. Moreover, he was so immersed in his own creative work that he kept himself at arm’s length from other people’s productions. Yet not a single thing happened in music that he was not aware of. Emotionally he stood aside from anything that did not conform with his own outlook. That is why his views on contemporary musicians are very sparse. Schoenberg was one of [a] few whose prominent personality and enormous ability commanded huge respect from him. And he never begrudged him recognition, even when he was vainly struggling to follow compositional idiosyncrasies from his own utterly different standpoint. Schoenberg was the only contemporary composer on whom Mahler worked intensively to the end of his life. . .
“The last time I saw him was six months before he died. He was on the point of returning to America. On the way there, between Berlin and Hamburg, he came to visit me in Nikolassee [Fried’s Berlin residence until 1933]. We did not exchange a word about future plans, his or mine He just played in the garden with my child.”
In 1937, his last active year, an unknown number of Fried’s broadcasts were recorded onto film sound tracks, from which the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique was once published. Swedish Radio received his Mozart K. 550, a remarkable interpretation. Dare we hope that more performances survive?
Allan Evans © 2007