, February 2005
"This latest release in the Naxos Great Conductors series neatly coincided with the 50th anniversary of Furtwänglers death on 30 November 1954.
Understandably, Naxos give top billing to what I think was the first of his two studio recordings for HMV of Beethovens Fifth. For some years Ive had in my collection his later recording, made in March 1954 with the Vienna Philharmonic but I hadnt heard this earlier traversal before. In general the 1937 reading is to be preferred. Its much more lithe and urgent where the later version is heavy, almost portentous by comparison.
On this occasion timings are instructive, I think. In 1954 Furtwängler took 3535", almost a full four minutes longer than in 1937. Thats a large difference in a relatively short work. In the first movement I make the speed of the basic tempo around 93 bars to the minute. In 1954 that had broadened to approx. 87 bars per minute. As a result the whole movement lasts for 833" in the later version, compared with 738" in 1937. Thats not all. The sound produced by the VPO is much fuller and bass heavy and I dont think thats simply due to the respective ages of the recordings. No, in 1937 Furtwängler drives the first movement along with a relentless, fiery energy that I dont find present in 1954.
At the start of the second movement I thought initially that Furtwänglers pace was a bit too stately (though, once again, hes even more measured in 1954). The initial marking is Andante con moto and it seems that hes overlooked the fact that an andante should be around walking pace. At this point my inclination was to prefer, say, Erich Kleiber in his 1953 Concertgebouw reading (Kleiber takes 915" for this movement against Furtwänglers 1012" here.) But as the movement progressed Furtwänglers powerful, serious conception of the music drew me in further. His is a profoundly shaped reading of the music which, in its own terms, is very convincing.
He’s extremely "subjective" at the start of the third movement, pulling the speed about significantly. In Furtwängler’s hands the movement is full of hushed drama and of tension worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. The transition to the finale is masterfully controlled, with the energy held in check like a coiled spring. The finale itself is full of controlled exuberance and I much prefer this to the substantially weightier 1954 reading, which by comparison has too much gravitas and, to my ears, little genuine joy.
So this 1937 reading is much to be preferred, I think, to the later version. Interestingly, I have another Furtwängler recording with the BPO. This is a live recording from June 1943, included in the first of DG’s two boxes of wartime recordings (471 289-2.) The interest here lies in the fact that the 1943 traversal is in many respects "betwixt and between" the two recordings discussed above, and not just in terms of chronology. The whole performance lasts 33’08" and, for example, I find the first movement not to be quite as taut as was the case in 1937 but the finale is perhaps the most powerful and strongly projected of the three (because it was ‘live’?) I’m aware there are other Furtwängler recordings of this symphony available (which I haven’t heard) but these three seem to offer some indication of his evolving approach to the work.
This Naxos CD also includes an example of Furtwängler, the composer. He made this commercial recording of the middle movement (only) of his Symphonic Concerto with Edwin Fischer in 1939. (I believe this to be the same performance that’s included on a (more expensive) Testament CD, SBT 1170, where the coupling has the same artists in the Brahms Second Piano Concerto.) This is only the second piece of music by Furtwängler that I’ve heard. Like his Second Symphony I find that it is rather long-winded for the material. There’s lots of rumination from the soloist but the music doesn’t seem to me to get anywhere in particular, though there’s no denying the sincerity of the enterprise. I doubt I shall return to this recording, especially as the sound quality is not especially good. The orchestra is not very well reproduced and the piano sounds clangy at anything above mf.
As I said, Naxos give top billing to the Beethoven but I actually think the performances that have the greatest stature of all are the excerpts from Parsifal. The Good Friday music is noble and intense, the BPO playing the long lines demanded both by composer and conductor with incandescent intensity. However, it was the performance of the Prelude to Act One that really took my breath away. Just the first few notes convey the spirituality and spell-binding intensity that are to be the hallmarks of this performance. The whole reading is profound and searching. Furtwängler displays infinite patience as he lets the music unfold in a timeless fashion. He is rewarded by elevated, rapt playing from the BPO. This is a truly visionary performance which, in my opinion, is alone worth the price of the disc.
Here, then is a very fine example of Furtwängler in Beethoven and some supreme (and rare) Wagner performances. The transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn reproduced well on my equipment and Ian Julier’s notes are, as usual, interesting, informative and convey enthusiasm for the performances about which he is writing. This disc offers a good example of why Wilhelm Furtwängler is regarded by so many good musical judges as a great conductor. These are performances that will grace any collection and I strongly recommend this disc."