, September 2008
Wilhelm Furtwangler, conductor / Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra
There are two very well known and widely acclaimed “live” performances of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Brahms’s Second Symphony.
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s Austrian Radio broadcast of 28 January 1945 has, in particular, often been perceived as especially significant because of its historical context. My own version on the Archipel label (ARPCD 0106) drives home the point by emblazoning “His last war-time concert!” on its front cover and many analysts have been tempted to read a wealth of subjective extra-musical influences into this performance. There is also a weightier, more imposing and equally striking Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra live account from Munich on 7 May 1952.
Between those two, however, the London recording of March 1948 has, over time, become rather overlooked, or even despised. Naxos booklet writer Ian Julier suggests that it was the performance itself—which he characterises as possessed of “added wilfulness, even wildness”—that failed to gel and he hints at several possible explanations. Furtwängler’s focus had understandably switched away from conducting and towards composition during his enforced de-Nazification ban from the podium. Maybe, too, the unfamiliar environment of post-war austerity London was uncongenial? Or perhaps the London Philharmonic, less than three years after the cessation of hostilities, was hostile to a German conductor? As late as the late 1950s, I recall a woman who was completely ostracised by the local community because she had married a German.
There is, however, another possible explanation. It was, moreover, put forward by Decca record producer John Culshaw, who was present in Kingsway Hall in March 1948 and so ought to have known the truth. Writing in his posthumously published memoirs, he rated the performance of the symphony as “remarkable... full of Furtwängler’s quirks, but… intense and exciting” (* John Culshaw Putting the Record Straight, London, 1981 - quoted in John Ardoin The Furtwängler Record, Portland, Oregon, 1994, page 251). The recording failed, he went on to suggest , largely because Furtwängler insisted on overruling Decca’s engineers about the number and positioning of the microphones. “It was not surprising”, he concluded, “that when the records were released all the critics were bewildered by the change in the famous Decca sound: instead of the usual combination of warmth and clarity the Brahms recording was diffuse and muddy… Not much… of what I heard in the hall itself found its way on to the record, and it was the conductor’s fault.” (ibid).
Personally, however, I find Culshaw’s description “diffuse and muddy” somewhat exaggerated. Perhaps Ward Marston has performed even greater miracles than usual in his Naxos remastering, but I find this Brahms second a generally acceptable recording for its age and certainly no worse than many others that are still listened to with considerable pleasure.
As for the performance itself, it is true that the London Philharmonic was, at the time, going through a rather troubled patch but it nonetheless copes well with Furtwängler’s sometimes surprising choices of tempo. And, while the strings do sound, in places, a little lacking in body, personally speaking I don’t mind that too much: it can, in fact, often reveal felicitous detail elsewhere in Brahms’s orchestration that, to take just one example, the lushly-upholstered Karajan-era Berlin Philharmonic strings invariably cover up.
While we may not have here a performance of the very first rank, it is nonetheless a genuinely interesting one, notable for its unpredictability and volatility and of real significance.
The Bruckner adagio is also a studio recording. So used are we to hearing Furtwängler’s incandescent and often revelatory accounts of Bruckner’s symphonies, that it is something of a surprise to learn that this single movement of the seventh was his only commercial recording. It has been suggested (Ardoin, op. cit., page 233) that Furtwängler saw Bruckner’s music as a sort of shared musical holy communion that was only validated by the presence of an concert hall audience—and that hypothesis appears to be supported by the fact that this 1942 studio recording is rather more dour and colourless than, say, the well-known 1951 Radio Cairo broadcast…Incidentally, the booklet notes’ implication that Furtwängler adopted a grey, low-key interpretation because he somehow anticipated that the recording would be used by German radio (as, indeed, it eventually was) to announce Hitler’s death in the event of a German defeat, does not hold water. After all, on 1 April 1942, a full ten months before the end of the Battle of Stalingrad marked the war’s turning point, any rational observer would have still given Germany a better than even chance of ultimate victory.
In their two concurrent Furtwängler series—one of his early recordings and the other focusing on his 1940s commercial recordings—Naxos continue to do a truly commendable job of placing some of his most significant recordings before the public in very well remastered sound and at bargain prices.