, August 2009
I write this review in the week that saw the death of the great British curmudgeon—and national treasure—Sir Clement Freud. He was a man known throughout the world, courtesy of the BBC World Service and the radio panel game Just a minute, for striving to ensure that there should be “no repetition”.
But, in reviewing this latest instalment of Naxos Historical’s fascinating series of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s early recordings, repetition proves to something that’s hard to avoid.
Once again we have here a selection of popular classics designed to appeal to the early 1930s mass market of conservative, middle-class owners of domestic gramophones—a sort of Weimar Republic selection that might just as well have come straight from that other BBC radio stalwart Your hundred best tunes.
And, just as in the earlier volumes of this series the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductors—Furtwängler and Kleiber—demonstrate the superb standard of musicianship prevalent in the German capital at that time. This is clearly apparent even through the swirling mists of 80 years old sound.
The overture to Der Freischütz was one of Furtwängler’s favourite party pieces—indeed, he selected it for his very first commercial recording session in 1926 (as included on volume 2 in this series). Although the 1935 recording under consideration here took up three 78rpm sides as opposed to the earlier version’s two, any suggestion that it must therefore be broader is actually belied by the overall timings which are, in fact, only 2 seconds apart. This beautifully constructed and highly atmospheric performance is full of theatrical tension and drama from its very opening, so that one is made to feel that it really will be the prelude to something of great significance—which is what Furtwängler, by all accounts, believed Der Freischütz to be. The Berlin orchestra is beautifully balanced and the string tone is especially attractive, while the engineers ensure that the wide dynamic range of Furtwängler’s interpretation is very well captured. The following brief entr’acte inevitably makes a less distinctive impression, though the horns successfully create a suitably bucolic and rustic atmosphere.
The Weber/Berlioz Invitation to the Dance is heard far less often today than in the days of 78rpm recordings but, when played with the care and delicacy it receives here, is well worth hearing again. The waltz is treated with great elegance and refinement—we are dancing at the Congress of Vienna rather than in some provincial town hall—although the somewhat bass-heavy and reverberant recording unfortunately clouds some orchestral detail.
The sound quality improves markedly for the first of the Mendelssohn overtures, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In spite of noticeable background hiss, it is generally sharp and clear, although it does become rather boxier on what I presume to be the final 78rpm side. The Berlin Philharmonic strings are especially light and delicate at the opening but Furtwängler’s keen ear ensures that, when the winds come in, an exceptionally pleasing orchestral balance is established and maintained. As to interpretation, this is a slightly more restrained and deliberate account that some, and the same might be said for an account of The Hebrides that is quite carefully paced—except for the “storm” passage towards the end where Furtwängler unleashes an appropriate degree of excitement. Again, this track exhibits a very well balanced sound that allows a great deal of felicitous detail to come through, the woodwinds, in particular, standing out for playing with exceptional skill and beauty. One soon, as a result, ignores an initially annoying background swish.
The Berlioz Hungarian March proves enjoyable but largely unexceptionable, though that expertly maintained internal balance ensures once more that details like the pizzicato strings and the hearty thwacks on the bass drum come through with full effect.
The final three tracks offer something in the way of a bonus. They all date from 1929 and, in pretty good sound, showcase another of the late Weimar Republic’s rostrum luminaries, Erich Kleiber, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in three more pieces from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first is an enjoyable account of the scherzo—appropriately delicate and sprightly and with those impressive woodwinds well to the fore. That is followed by a nocturne that is, at its opening, rather less “dreamy” than most and that features what Tully Potter’s excellent booklet notes generously describe as Kleiber’s “quite personal rubato”—although one imagines that one or two of the overtaxed players might well have described it in rather fruitier terms! The subsequent Wedding march is rather grand and stately, but then Theseus and Hippolyta were, after all, a duke and duchess—and not, one imagines, necessarily in the first flush of youth.
This third volume of Furtwängler’s early recordings brings some enjoyable accounts of familiar repertoire back into wide circulation. It confirms, moreover, many of the attractive characteristics noted in its two predecessors in this series and enables us to deepen our appreciation of the conductor’s art with minimal outlay. As the late lamented Sir Clement Freud might have put it on that popular radio show, I would suggest that anyone considering buying this new Naxos Historical issue need have absolutely “no hesitation”.