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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, September 2009

…in 1954 [Furtwängler] recorded the complete Freischütz but it’s pleasing to hear these 1935 extracts. He was attracted by the overture which he’d already recorded in 1926, on an early electric, and was to do so again in Berlin in 1944, twice in 1952, and again in ’54. In fact that 1926 disc was his first commercially released recording. There’s foreboding in the Overture—fine horn playing as one would expect—and a sense of linearity and tension throughout. The horns are on equally vivid form in the Entr’acte. The Overture was spread over three 78 sides whilst the Entr’acte was on the fourth.

Unlike the Weber this performance of the Invitation to the Dance in the Berlioz orchestration was his only recording of it. It’s well textured, elegant, forthright, but not punctilious over repeats; it’s also true to say that on this evidence, given the orchestration, he was no match for Harty as a Berlioz conductor. Moving on, this isn’t the sole example of the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in his discography as there’s a 1947 recording. This earlier recording is sympathetically contoured and well recorded into the bargain. Fingal’s Cave comes from a 1930 session and is briskly dispatched without over-much warmth, one feels…There’s a welcome return to form, interpretatively and in terms of recording technology, for the Rakoczy March even though the two pieces were set down very close together. The Kleiber envoi is full of his vitalised rhythmic brio, warmly moulded and trammelled, and with fine string tone, cultivated and unflabby, from the Berlin Philharmonic…extremely well transferred.

Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, 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”.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Most remember Wilhelm Furtwangler in the LP era when his performances had often become overly spacious. These recordings, mainly from the 1930s, afford a more balanced view of his achievements. True, you still find his later predilection for expansive tempi in the opening passage of Weber’s overture to Der Freischütz, and in his jog-trot approach to Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. Yet while we may quibble over niceties of interpretation, it is the remarkable quality he had generated in the Berlin Philharmonic that is the disc’s most striking point. Listen to the gossamer quality of the strings in Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to enjoy the precision of their playing and the sheer beauty of the closing passage. A wind-swept Hebrides Overture, that here ends in a storm, is a valid view of Mendelssohn’s seascape, and it must have been very risky at the time to include such a prominent bass drum in a spirited reading of Berlioz’s Hungarian March. Naxos then do him a disfavour by using as the disc’s filler a 1929 recording of Erich Kleiber and the Berlin Philharmonic in the Incidental Music to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and, from an interpretation point of view, we find a conductor even more gifted. I guess the restoration experts at Naxos had problems with this material, the results not quite to their usual high standard.

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