Come May this year Australian Eloquence are releasing a 29-cd first volume of ‘Antál Doráti Mercury Masters’ (484 4064) featuring the Minneapolis and Chicago Symphony Orchestras, which will include numerous first releases on CD. Subsequent to Doráti’s Mercury Mono Masters will be a set of the Stereo Masters, but prior to either Decca have brought out an 18-cd collection of Doráti’s sessions with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (485 3114, c£86.00, with spined wallets, original jackets and excellent new notes by Decca Classics’ Label Director Dominic Fyfe). In a Gramophone Collector article for May 2014 David Patrick Stearns revealed that Doráti’s 1979 Detroit recording for Decca of Strauss’s Die Ägyptische Helena caught Gwyneth Jones in a state of vocal distress but as I can’t imagine that in the wider context many potential punters will count Dame Gwyneth’s vocal improprieties as a stumbling block. Besides, Barbara Hendricks is in excellent voice while Doráti and his orchestra are on fine form. Still, best maybe to concentrate on the rest of the set which is mostly orchestral.
Bartók and Stravinsky were always writ large among Doráti’s Mercury recordings and it is interesting to compare these Detroit discs of the three big Diaghilev/Stravinsky ballets with their Minneapolis and London predecessors. How do they stack up? In the case of The Rite of Spring although well recorded Doráti in Detroit lacks the tautness and drive that made his Minneapolis recordings for Mercury so memorable. The (complete) Firebird ballet gains in atmosphere and sonic splendour what it loses in bite (on the LSO version, again for Mercury) but in the case of Petrushka this Detroit option delivers levels of colour, humour and pathos that its Minneapolis predecessors lack. Apollon musagète features some extremely fine (though uncredited) solo fiddle playing but is rather heavy in texture overall. Then again the post-Rimsky, pre-Firebird Symphony in E flat is played with conviction and makes for a happy encounter as does its fill-up, the frothy, better-known Scherzo Fantasque.
Turning to Bartok, Doráti’s name was so synonymous with the Miraculous Mandarin ballet that during his sojourn with the BBC Symphony he was known as ‘Mr. Mandarin’, or something very similar. His superbly played Chicago recording of the Suite (a mono Mercury) captures the music’s sophistication, seediness, sense of seduction and compassion like no recorded performance since. A BBC SO version of the complete ballet (Mercury stereo) was relatively dry-sounding and this Detroit successor can be a bit unsteady on its feet (try 1:04 into track 2), though the organ in the opening scene makes a Gothic din and the chase is exciting rather than manic. A word of warning though. If you’re playing this disc on a system that recognizes all twelve tracks (ie, on a computer) you won’t be wrong-footed but both the booklet and the disc jacket listing suggests that there are fifteen tracks rather than twelve, that the Mandarin concludes on track 11 rather than on track 8. Just to clarify, The Mandarin occupies tracks 1-8, whereas tracks 9-12 feature a good performance of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. There my own preference would be for an earlier Doráti recording on Philips with Philharmonia Hungarica.
Another Bartók disc pairs the youthful, bright-and-bushy-tailed First Orchestral Suite (Doráti recorded the Second Suite for Mercury) with the Two Pictures, the first like a scenic off-cut from Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle, the second, a village dance that at 7:15 takes slow, gigantic strides before disappearing light-footedly into the distance, a passage that Doráti negotiates with enormous skill. An all-Tchaikovsky disc includes a work that years ago topped the Mercury sales charts, the 1812 Overture, but thankfully this Detroit remake doesn’t suffer the ear-grazing pitch discrepancy between bells and orchestra that rather spoils both Mercury versions (mono and stereo), exciting though they are. Equally enjoyable is a coupling of Grofé’s Grand cinematic, spectacularly well-recorded Grand Canyon Suite and Robert Russell Bennett’s piecemeal Porgy and Bess ‘Symphonic Picture’ which starts off well enough but just before the end seems to take stock as if to check that no hit numbers are missing. But – shock horror! – ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ isn’t there, so Bennett dutifully tacks it on. It’s a well-played performance though, very idiomatic.
Other Americana includes Copland’s Dance Symphony, Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring Suite, Rodeo ‘Four Dance Episodes’ and El Salon Mexico, the last three less rhythmically pungent but more genial than their Mercury counterparts. There are miscellaneous rhapsodies and Strauss tone poems including a particularly impressive Also sprach Zarathustra that opens to a perfectly judged ‘sunrise’, and Karol Szymanowski’s symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, the first Western commercial record of either work that was warmly received when it first appeared back in July 1981.
But were I to single out a disc that illustrates Doráti’s journey from being a keen-edged disciplinarian who took no prisoners (the man we encounter in those unforgettable Mercury years) to the warmer, more flexible, more accommodating musician we encounter in the late 1970s to the early 1980s it would be an all-Dvorák programme that includes the Czech Suite and various shorter works including the beautiful Nocturne Op. 40. Beam up 3:47 when the trance-like music starts to gently dance to a pulse among the basses and note, aside from the Detroit strings’ rapt playing, Doráti’s masterful use of rubato. Pure magic I’d say and evidence beyond doubt that although those Mercury recordings are still essential listening the journey to Detroit proved more than worthwhile.