Antal Doráti

The Hungarian conductor Antal Doráti (1906–1988) first made a name for himself in the 1930s as the conductor of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. After his departure for the United States in 1940, he received a similar position at a ballet orchestra in New York. In his memoirs, Notes of Seven Decades, Doráti indicated that he had reached a turning point in 1944: ‘By that time I had acquired an international reputation in that field, similar to that of Pierre Monteux and Ernest Ansermet before me. Curiously that “fame” did me more harm than good. I found out, to my surprise, that the label of “ballet conductor” had a somewhat derogative connotation. In talks with my two distinguished colleagues we established that they went through the same experience. It took some time for all of us to live down that odd kind of celebrity.’ Doráti really rose from the ballet world in 1944, when he decided to concentrate on the symphonic repertoire. He gained a reputation as an orchestra trainer, first in Dallas from 1945 and then from in 1949 in Minneapolis.

In Dallas, Doráti had to rebuild the orchestra from scratch. Dallas in those days was still seen as a backwater in the international music scene. For the future of Doráti’s career, it was important that he should not only be heard at major US venues, but also at European ones. Once he obtained a European base, the Dutchman Anthony Adama-Zijlstra played an important role in Doráti’s career. Adama-Zijlstra was the man behind the unique summer season of the Hague Philharmonic Orchestra (Residentie Orkest) at the Kurhaus in Scheveningen and he had a keen eye for musicians. In ‘his’ Kurhaus, but also at the Holland Festival (he was one of its founders), the Hague Philharmonic was directed by conductors of the calibre of Otto Klemperer, George Szell, Hans Rosbaud, Charles Munch and Eugen Jochum.

After Ernest Ansermet made him aware of Doráti, Adama-Zijlstra gave the Hungarian conductor two concerts in the summer of 1949. Doráti’s debut at the Kurhaus was a convincing success and in the years 1949–62 he was one of the regular guest conductors, both in the Kurhaus and at the Holland Festival. From Scheveningen, Doráti further built up his position in the Netherlands. In the summer of 1951, he conducted the Hague Philharmonic for an extended period in Scheveningen. Shortly afterwards, in September 1951, he made his debut with the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Hilversum, to which he often returned in the 1950s. Doráti’s name soon was well-known in the Netherlands. In 1952 he made his debut with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Up until 1961, he would conduct a total of some 35 concerts with the Amsterdam-based orchestra. In his memoirs Doráti recognized the importance of the Netherlands for his career during the 1950s: ‘Holland, for a ten-year period, became almost my musical home, with many concerts in Amsterdam, The Hague and one or two in Utrecht. I also started recording for the then very young Philips company, a relationship that has continued in an interesting manner to this day.’

Unfortunately, apart from these sentences Doráti pays little attention to the Netherlands. He gives a detailed account of two performances he gave of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the Dutch Opera in Amsterdam, but that seems to have come about largely due to the special collaboration with his daughter, Tonina, who was responsible for the staging there. Speaking about the orchestra of the Dutch Opera (not to be confused with the current opera house which carries the same name), he pronounced that is was ‘incredibly weak’. Unfortunately, in Notes of Seven Decades he barely mentions the three better Dutch orchestras, with which he performed significantly more often. Doráti also does not deal with the question of why the 1960s brought a temporary end to his productive career in the Netherlands. Perhaps this had to do with his international breakthrough and the shift of his European operations to London.

Doráti was one of the most experienced conductors in the recording studio. His first recording session with the Concertgebouw Orchestra took place on 21 February 1952 for Philips, just four days after his concert debut with them. Included in that recording program was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. In 1953 the recording would earn a Grand Prix du Disque.

At their recording sessions, Philips always had some additional music in reserve in order to use up every minute of the allocated time. For the 1952 sessions, the choice fell on ‘Vltava’ from Má Vlast, Smetana’s cycle of six symphonic poems about his homeland. Philips was sufficiently pleased with the recording and incorporated it into the complete cycle which was recorded four years later, in September 1956. In 1986 Doráti would record Má Vlast yet again with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. This time he opted for a slightly more expansive tempo in ‘Vltava’. It is the first (1952) recording of ‘Vltava’ that has been chosen for inclusion in this anthology which focuses on recordings made by Dorati in Holland in the 1950s. The complete cycle from 1956 (Decca Eloquence 476 8717) was originally released on two LPs – an expensive purchase at that time. Two of Dvořák’s Slavonic Rhapsodies made up the fourth side of the release to enhance the attractiveness of the LPs. In those days this was still relatively unknown repertoire. The first had been recorded in 1956 after the Má Vlast sessions and the second was recorded specifically for the double album a year later.

By October 1952 Doráti had already recorded the third and last of Dvořák’s three Rhapsodies with the Hague Philharmonic. What made the recordings in The Hague different from those in Amsterdam was that the Hague Philharmonic in the 1950s usually only made albums with its chief conductor Willem van Otterloo. Until 1954, when Philips signed the Concertgebouw Orchestra (formerly on Decca) to an exclusive contract, it was the Hague Philharmonic that was the ‘house’ orchestra of the Dutch record company. Doráti was one of the few conductors who worked with the Hague Philharmonic for Philips. From 6–8 October 1952 he made a recording of Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony with the orchestra. Following these sessions there was time available for Dvořák’s third Slavonic Rhapsody and the Piet Hein Rhapsody by Dutch composer and conductor Peter van Anrooy (1879–1954). Van Anrooy composed this rhapsody in 1900. It was based on the tune of the popular Dutch song about Piet Hein, the admiral who had made off with the Spanish treasure fleet in 1628.

In September 1959 Doráti would again make a recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. There was some prior debate as to whether this would be Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ or a new version of Dvořák’s ‘New World’ symphony. In the end, the Dvořák was chosen. This decision had already been taken when Eduard van Beinum died suddenly during a rehearsal on 13 April 1959. The recordings planned with Van Beinum, originally scheduled for April, June and September 1959, were now up in the air. The September recording sessions were divided between Bernard Haitink and Antal Doráti. Haitink was seen by the orchestra’s management as Van Beinum’s successor, but he was reluctant to make records so soon. However, he was prepared to accept three sessions for the recording of the seventh symphony by Dvořák. It was to become his first LP in a recording tenure with Philips that would last for 37 years. The number of sessions for Doráti was expanded to eight.

The sudden loss of Van Beinum meant that not only conductors but also suitable repertoire had to be found to fill the recording sessions. Part of the repertoire that was to have been included by Van Beinum was removed. Another part of the earlier schedule was assigned to Doráti: Weber’s overtures Oberon and Der Freischütz, Mendelssohn’s overture Meeresstille und Glücklichte Fahrt and Schubert’s Overture in the Italian Style in C major. To these were added Weber’s overtures Euryanthe and Preciosa. Philips also wanted to make a record of well-known marches, including the Coronation March from Le prophète by Meyerbeer, the Persian March by Johann Strauss II, marches by Sousa and Elgar, and two pieces that the Concertgebouw Orchestra had previously recorded with great success: Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary and the first Marche militaire by Schubert. Marius Flothuis, artistic director of the Concertgebouw Orchestra and a musicologist of very refined taste, probably frowned upon this ‘light’ program. However, it is not known whether he vetoed it, or whether this was done by Doráti himself. That Philips foresaw a market for it is evident from the fact that the marches were included on a later recording by the Hague Philharmonic under Willem van Otterloo. The ‘fillers’ to the recording sessions that Doráti was to conduct included the ‘Marche hongroise’ from Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 and Sousa’s Semper fidelis. In addition, two other short orchestral pieces from La damnation de Faust were recorded, as well as the love scene from Roméo et Juliette, a favourite of Berlioz himself.

The yield of Doráti’s eight sessions was impressive, both in quality and in quantity. The ninth symphony by Dvořák was released on a ten-inch LP. The same format was used for the four overtures by Weber. A third ten-inch LP was filled with overtures by Mendelssohn and Schubert. The Sousa and Elgar marches were assigned a side each of a 45rpm record. For the orchestral works by Berlioz, which completed one side of an LP, a suitable coupling had to be found. Three of the four overtures by Weber were ultimately chosen for the reverse side. This twelve-inch LP went on to do well as a reissue of Fontana, a budget label owned by Philips. The fourth Weber overture, Preciosa, fell by the wayside and makes an appearance for the first time in quite a while as part of this collection.

Philips had planned to schedule more recordings with Antal Doráti in Amsterdam. In May 1960, the company wanted to make a recording of popular Russian orchestral works, but Doráti was not available. A few years later this Russian album was made with Igor Markevitch instead. Doráti’s relationship with the Concertgebouw Orchestra came to a temporary halt in 1961. At the end of 1977, when he wrote the last lines of his autobiography, it had been more than sixteen years since he last stood before this orchestra. When Doráti’s book was launched in 1979 – now one of the world’s celebrated conductors – he had picked up where he left off with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It was the beginning of his second fruitful period in the Netherlands, one which proved to be as intense as that of the 1950s and resulted in further recordings for Philips. In November 1987 this second period came to an end when, one year before he died, Doráti conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra for the last time. If Doráti had written his memoirs a few years later, he might well have had more to say about his long-standing relationship with the Dutch musical scene. Perhaps he would also have provided more reflections about his work in the Netherlands during the 1950s, which contributed to his international breakthrough and to which we owe the recordings on this anthology.