, July 2008
Furtwängler goes Pops? Not really, but when it comes to listening to Wilhelm Furtwängler conduct, I am accustomed to listening for the overarching lines in a Bruckner symphony or the long thread in a Brahms symphonic motif. This disc shows that with someone of the Maestro’s artistic depth, there is no "lighter side, but it is all music, thought out and considered". This CD also shows us a rare glimpse of him in brilliant artistic partnership with another great artist, Yehudi Menuhin.
All of the pieces on this CD are taken from commercial 78s and sound remarkably clear, with very little extraneous noise. There is some flattening of the mid-range, but overall the audio side is good, with credit due to Ward Marston for the fine digital transfer. Their original HMV catalogue numbers are provided, and they have all been released variously on LP and CD, most notably the Brahms concerto, coupled with the Brahms Violin Sonata no. 3, and 5 Hungarian Dances on the Menuhin "Great Artists of the Century", fortunately later remastered on EMI Références 63496, coupled with a Double Concerto featuring Willi Boskovsky and Emanuel Brabec. There is another recording of the concerto from Lucerne in 1949 on Tahra, dated 7 October 1949.
The CD opens with The Hebrides overture. It is reported that Mendelssohn was inspired by the strange sounds and echoes he heard when he visited the sea cave in 1829. Indeed, in Gaelic this cave is called Uamh-Binn, meaning "cave of melody". This piece, like Smetana’s Moldau, is often played simply as a watercolor sketch, but in the hands of Furtwängler it becomes an oil painting, with broad, dark strokes laying the ground for the play of light and air. Through the mist we see the outline of the Scottish Islands on the dark waters. The clearing light reveals the majestic colonnade of stone which frames the entrance to the great cavern. The pacing is what one would expect, slow but not dragging, and Furtwängler’s rubato ebbs and flows like the dark waters that enter and disappear into the cave.
In the hands of Furtwängler, the Hungarian Dances are like tone poems. They are still dances, but they imply much more. They seem to be more "Brahms" than Hungarian, and to my ears they are imbued with a gravitas usually reserved for the "deeper" repertoire. But perhaps that is one of the things I love about Furtwängler — in his hands all is important and replete with depths to be plumbed.
Speaking of plumbing depths, next comes the Brahms Violin Concerto. I find this to be one of the most lyrical and satisfying performances of this concerto on record. My comparisons are, for historical performance, Neveu and Dobrowen on Dutton CDBP 9710, and for modern recordings Mutter and Karajan on DG 400 064-2, Bell and von Dohnányi on London 444 811-2, and lastly, Salerno-Sonnenberg and de Waart on EMI CDC 7 49429 2 - a quirky but interesting interpretation.
The opening movement is charged with anticipation and excitement, but with the broadness to which we are accustomed from Furtwängler. When Menuhin enters he charges right into the opening solo phrase, without holding the first note as many soloists do. From that moment on there is a balanced and charged exchange between the orchestra and the soloist, carrying them along to the soft, poetic end of the first movement. It is so satisfying that one could almost stop listening there and be quite content.
The Adagio is a paragon of lyricism and elegance. At 9:56 it is longer than all the others on my list except for Nadja Salerno-Sonenberg and Edo de Waart’s version coming in at a whopping 10:25; I did say it was quirky. The difference is that their thread is sometimes strained, while Furtwängler never loses the line. The sweetness of Menuhin’s melody never becomes sticky, and the silences are as charged with meaning as the music.
The finale, marked "allegro giocoso" is truly joyful. The pace feels vivacious but unhurried, and yet, at 8:09, this version is among the shortest times — only Neveu and Dobrowen make it significantly shorter, coming in at 7:42. In Furtwängler’s hands, and with the complicity of Menuhin, the syncopation has an elastic lilt that plays slightly with one’s expectations, making it all the more playful. This spirit carries over into the closing chords, when everything slows to a breathless pause and I imagine an imperceptible nod to each other to bring the concerto to a satisfying close.
There are quite a few satisfactory recordings of this concerto, my comparison discs among them, each having their particular high points. But this transfer puts the listener in the Lucerne Kunsthaus in 1949, to hear a great European orchestra and two of the greatest artists that ever lived, making full-blooded music in one united spirit. It doesn’t get much better.
Furtwängler only recorded the Siegfried Idyll once, although his Wagner conducting is legendary. This tone poem was written in 1870, for a small chamber orchestra since the musicians had to fit in the staircase landing of Wagner’s villa at Tribschen — today, coincidentally, part of Lucerne. Today it is commonly performed by a full orchestra, and on this disc the Vienna Philharmonic truly make it sound like an instrumental excerpt from an opera. Furtwängler’s command of the Wagnerian sound-world is in evidence, and the piece is performed with love and reverence, as befits its original purpose as a birthday present for Cosima.
Ian Julier’s liner-notes are informative, if not copious. He gives much interesting information, such as Yehudi Menuhin, despite being Jewish, pleading Furtwängler’s case over and over again, when many were trying to brand him as a Nazi collaborator.
This CD is an important document, giving the listener a glimpse of Furtwängler arguably at the height of his powers, during a six-month period in 1949. It shows him triumphing over politics and human intrigue, to exercise his gift and his mission: to make music that stirs the human soul and lifts the spirit to a higher plane.