Arthur Fiedler has the distinction of being the best-selling classical conductor of all time, due in no small part to his immense popularity as the musical director of the Boston Pops, a post he held for fifty years. His recordings of so-called “light” classics and orchestral settings of show tunes, jazz, and popular songs sold 50 million copies during his lifetime. After listening to this collection, it’s not hard to see why.
All the selections on this release are sure-fire crowd pleasers, and I have to admit to being pleased to hear them myself. Although the Rimsky-Korsakov Suite from Le Coq d’Or is not truly one of my favorites, Fiedler’s deft touch brings out all the color and drama of Rimsky-Korsakov’s score. Where I start to get really involved is with Rossini’s Overture to William Tell, which, as the theme to the Lone Ranger television series, was undoubtedly my first exposure to classical music. From the brooding opening through the headlong rush of the main theme, the listener is not only caught up in the music, but is struck by repeated flashes of recognition — in addition to the Lone Ranger theme, there are other very familiar motifs: Disney got a lot of mileage out of this one. One thing that caught my attention on this recording is the absolute clarity and precision of the orchestra: the whole piece is like crystal, and at the tempo Fiedler has chosen, that is no small feat at all.
Even something as familiar as Tchaikovsky’s Marche slave takes on freshness in Fiedler’s hands. All of Tchaikovsky’s characteristic devices — the accents on woodwinds coming just after the downbeat, those fragmented passages with the music passed from section to section of the orchestra like a game of soccer, the ascending scales on strings that never quite complete the phrase until the very end, and the Imperial Russian national anthem, which seems to sneak into everything — are all in sharp relief here, and manage to seem new. Emmanuel Chabrier’s España has all the charm one could hope for, with that lighthearted character that only a Frenchman could put into the music of Spain.
Franz Liszt gets good treatment here, with a Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 that is certainly one of the best I’ve heard, from the passionately brooding opening through the moments of whimsy that lead into the rollicking czardas. This is another one that’s notable for the clarity and precision of the rendering. The Rákóczy March, as well, gets full-dress treatment that brings out all the fire and drama of Liszt’s work.
I’ve written on some fairly substantial and sometimes difficult works in the classical canon, but it all starts from the idea that music should be fun, and if anyone could make classical music fun, it was certainly Arthur Fiedler. Sure, I like strange and esoteric stuff, but I also treasure my warhorses, and these are some of the finest recordings I’ve heard.
(Boston Pops, Arthur Fiedler, cond.)
(Sony BMG Music Entertainment (orig. released on RCA Red Seal), 2005)