Arthur Bloomfield’s Guest Commentary on mid-20th Century Conductors, Part 2: Fritz Reiner

This is a continuation of Guest Commentator’s Arthur Bloomfield’s “time machine” journey back to the early and mid-20th century to explore the works of great conductors of the age. The journey began at Guest Commentator Arthur Bloomfield: “A Great Time Machine Trip”. The second part of his journey begins here:

Now our Machine zips back to May 18, 1936 for a Covent Garden Tristan act 1 conducted by the incomparable Fritz Reiner, just your man if you want an ideal mix of craftsmanship and soul.

[Below: the young Fritz Reiner; resized image of Bain New Service photograph, c. 1920; Library of Congress archives, call number LC-B2-5795-1 (P&P)]

Notice the innocent, quietly persistent movement of the almost jolly Sea theme, Tristan’s care not to lag as he tells Isolde in their first and formal encounter “the journey will soon be over,” the attention to passing staccati like dancing reflections on water, and legati that warm the orchestra navigating a salty course.

But most remarkable in the slightly more than hour-and-a-quarter of this opening act is the generalship of a conductor who balances calm and heat in exquisite proportions. And at a paltry fee of 66 pounds sterling for an evening’s work!

Act 1 is of course a dance of veils with the TRUTH the naked thing to be duly revealed. Reiner knows he musn’t burn too many expressive bridges on the long route to a bull’s eye of dramatic climax, the point at which Tristan and Isolde drink the potion, embrace, and are released to the truth of their feelings.

He has on stage before him a heroine who shuttles from a core stateliness to near-hysteria, she is quelque chose and she musn’t drown in her own lava. At the risk of binge-ing on the epigrammatic let’s put it this way: Reiner creates a real time in which the act seems to heat up at a rate more or less precisely equaling the increase in risk, via a combination of will and fate, confronting Isolde and friend. But that, a famous and eccentric novelist and professor of Russian literature would say, is Tolstoyian!

[Below: Fritz Reiner on his travels; resized historical photograph from the Archives of the Library of Congress.]

Our Time Machine can also produce for you the Reiner-led prelude from a Covent Garden Tristan of June 2, 1936. This is an exceedingly clever piece of work. It begins in intimo-pathetico mode, slightly clouding with doubt as Reiner carefully lapses into his one of his trademarks, a subtle but persistent retardation of the tempo, the music amorous enough but sober, dignified. Well, this is the negative space on Reiner’s canvas which before we know it will be invaded by what’s really on the music’s mind. Sex!

Amazing enough in hearing this prelude hundreds of times I never realized until Reiner’s clarity of purpose outlined it so vividly here that the road to the music’s climax — and I use the word climax innocently for the moment — is in point of fact the road to that other sort of climax, the one involving consciousness-raising orgasm.

As if some pre-ejaculatory fluid smartly making its way along the long corridor of arousal were driving the Royal Opera Orchestra in that oldtime Coronation (excuse me, Abdication) year, this lubricant captures for our amusement and in deft crescendo the gradual but absolutely favorable approach to the great Moment of a heated male who will, with the help of appropriate music and an energizing maestro, achieve his goal.

Next year the great Fritz was in Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium for a San Francisco Opera Tristan, the second act of which was broadcast on November 15. After the home season ended the San Francisco Opera would take a midnight train down the coast to L.A., poker games afire as the Southern Pacific ambled pre-Amtrakally along Mr. Steinbeck’s valley. Then instead of rehearsing between performances the company could sit by the hotel pool.

Presumably the aquatically inclined Dr. Reiner took some dips. Whether or not there’s a correlation with all this laidbackness, the second act from Figueroa Street opens in a quite different tone from its Covent Garden counterpart of the year previous.

While Reiner in London comes on as an elegant snake, the sinuous Mayfairian carrier of nocturnal illicit passion, the identical podium hawk let loose in the Wild West is a veritable tiger, his introduction more urgent, enflamed, even slightly jagged. Wagner’s poco accelerando crescendo going into the eighteenth bar is perceptibly more tenacious than on Bow Street back across the Atlantic.

[Below: Here at age 62, Fritz Reiner, right, listens to the playback of the RCA Victor recording of “Carmen” with RCA executive Richard Mohr; resized image from]

But hark, subtleties abound! Very instructive, this performance, in what it tells of the interaction between a “dictator” of the baton and an idiosyncratic singer like Kathryn Meisle whose white voice rode the thinnest line of intonational purity but who interpreted the role of Brangaene with such zest for nuance it could be lieder.

Reiner admits readily to the orchestral bloodstream Meisle’s dainty but magnificently provocative sotto voce, clearly he relishes the shadowy shadings of this Brangaene who in her great warning speech early in the act pulls back, at the mention of spy (meaning Melot), to a slightly delayed piano more naked and conspiratorial than I ever remember hearing it, fairly taking a Wagnerian half note for a dance in her nimble, secretive head tone. Sui generis!

Note: Arthur’s new e-b00k on the styles of the great oldtime conductors is at