, April 2010
As part of their ‘Great Conductors’ series Naxos Historical have issued a splendid coupling of recordings made by Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954).
It is good to have these renowned performances now available on Naxos. Their international marketing coverage will enable the disc to reach out to more than the specialist listener. Without having the precise details to hand these performances will in all probability have been reissued several times over the years. The recordings are around sixty years old now and the sound quality that has been achieved by audio restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn is impressive. My ear soon adjusted to the challenges and taking the age into account the remastering process has left these recordings sounding reasonably clear and decently balanced. I did not notice any substantial difference in sound quality compared to a 1995 DG reissue of this Furtwängler performance of No. 9. The yellow label remastered the tape using original-image-bit-processing and the CD is available on Deutsche Grammophon mono 447 439-2 (c/w Haydn Symphony No. 88 in G major). I feel sure that the remastered sound quality for Naxos Historical will be more than acceptable to the majority of listeners except those who demand pristine digital sound. Any minor inconvenience must surely be compensated for by the historical significance and context of these recordings.
Understandably, at the start of the 1950s, millions of people were still struggling with the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War. Emotions were still running extremely high. Furtwängler had been exonerated at his 1946 trial as part of the de-Nazification process yet his rehabilitation was nowhere near complete. Controversy still dogged him and his past Nazi associations continued to taint his reputation remaining a source of infuriation for many in the music world.
Today history judges the character and artistry of the Berlin-born Furtwängler far more benevolently. His conducting prowess is widely accepted as being amongst the finest of the twentieth century and he left a legacy of wonderful recordings. I was struck by the title that music writer Peter Gutmann uses in the web pages www.classicalnotes.net “Wilhelm Furtwängler: Genius Forged in the Cauldron of War”. That, for me, encapsulates the complex situation so appositely. Much has been written about the sheer individuality of Furtwängler’s interpretations instilling both interest and devotion. For me his greatest strengths are the sheer splendour of the beauty of sound he creates, his innate sense of overall structure and his ability to build an impressive energy and a remarkable intensity of emotion. Comparing the relative conducting merits of Furtwängler and Karajan music writer Karl Holl in the Frankfurter Zeitung (December 1941) said: “Furtwängler is primarily a sculptor in sound, inspired by these strong influences and spiritual powers…Furtwängler’s is a passionate temperament…a very expressive musician…With Furtwängler one is immediately aware of the formative individual at work…” (Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music by Richard Osborne. Pub: Pimlico, Random House, London (1999) ISBN: 0 7126 6465 3. Pg. 146)
Schubert’s early symphonies are thoroughly classical in form, highly influenced by Haydn and Mozart. For me there is only the barest suggestion of the greatness that was to come later with his masterworks the ‘Unfinished’ and the ‘Great’ C major. Both scores contain unmistakable musical fingerprints of Schubert’s glorious gift for lyricism, engaging personal charm and that distinctive Viennese Gemütlichkeit.
The circumstances around Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ D.759 remain one of the mysteries of classical music. It is often asserted that the score was intended as a gift to the Graz Music Society to show his gratitude for the award of a Diploma of Honour. No one knows for certain why Schubert failed to complete it leaving only two sublime and almost perfect movements together with sketches for an intended Scherzo. Eduard Hanslick was impressed by the “sweet stream of melody” in the symphony. I empathise with David Ewen’s view: “It does the B minor symphony a disservice to call it ‘Unfinished.’ It is a completely realized masterwork.” (The Complete Book of Classical Music. Edited by David Ewen. First published 1965 by Prentice-Hall. Pub: Robert Hale Limited, London. ISBN: 0 7091 0884 2. Pgs. 356, 369)
Some background noise has been left in at the start of the performance. But the sound quality of this 1959 recording is excellent for its age. It’s not long after you have started listening that you realise this is a reading of significant vision. In the opening Allegro moderato Furtwängler with consummate skill brings out the climaxes with a doom-laden intensity that borders on savagery. The brooding passages carry an incessant ache of almost unimaginable pain. The conductor mesmerises the listener in the Andante con moto, casting a rapturous spell. The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is convincing throughout and generating considerable excitement.
My first recording of the Unfinished was from conductor John Pritchard with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1975 at Watford Town Hall, available on Classics for Pleasure 5748852 (c/w Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944 ‘Great’). I still have my original vinyl version of this Pritchard account on the Music for Pleasure label CFP 40370. Of the other versions that I know I greatly admire the romantic potency of the performance from Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It was made in 1978 at the Vienna Musikvereinssaal and can be had on Deutsche Grammophon The Originals 449 7452 2 (c/w Symphony No.3 in D major, D200). The beautiful playing and the conductor’s grasp of symphonic structure to be heard in the live recording the Unfinished made in 1995 at the Berlin Philharmonie by Günter Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic has few peers. I have the recording on RCA Red Seal 09026 68314-2 (c/w Symphony No. 9). Perhaps a wildcard selection is the 1950 recording from Hans Knappertsbusch made at the Titania Palast, Steglitz, Berlin – impressive for its awesome power and direct approach. Now sixty years old the recording is reasonably clear but includes plenty of vivid audience noise; mainly coughing. I have the two disc set on a 2009 issue on Archipel ARPCD 0428 (c/w Haydn: Symphonies 88, 94; Johann Strauss II: Die Fledermaus Overture, Pizzicato Polka, 101 Nacht-Intermezzo; Wolf: Italian Serenade for Orchestra; Liszt: Symphonic poem, Les Preludes and Mahler: Kindertotenlieder). There is considerable merit in Furtwängler’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic made in December 1942 at the Alte Philharmonie, Berlin just over year before the celebrated concert hall was destroyed by Allied bombing. This is a performance high on energy and resilience. I have it as part of an outstanding four disc mono set titled ‘Wilhelm Furtwängler—Recordings—1942–1944, Vol. 1’ on Deutsche Grammophon 471 289-2.
The score of the ‘Great’ C major dated March 1828 was discovered by Robert Schumann in a collection of manuscripts in the possession of Schubert’s brother Ferdinand. In a letter to his wife, Clara Schumann, Robert enthused, “I have found a symphony of heavenly length”. Mendelssohn who had premiered the score over a decade later in 1839 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus wrote, “We recently played a remarkable and interesting symphony by Franz Schubert. It is, without doubt, one of the best works which we have recently heard. Bright, fascinating and original throughout, it stands at the head of his instrumental works.” A writer always worth reading, David Ewen, has described the score as possessing, “monumental power, profound emotional content, great complexity and individuality.” (ibid)
In the opening movement marked Andante—Allegro ma non troppo I was struck by the broad changes in tempi and dynamics that vary from the delicate to those of harsh extremes. They all contribute to a remarkable performance. The interpretation of the Andante has never sounded fresher and for me evokes the onset of the spring awakening after a long and severe winter. The genial woodwind especially the oboe and clarinet sound splendidly bucolic. I enjoyed the forceful martial statements for full orchestra that were so powerful they made me jump in surprise. Furtwängler allows the immense Scherzo to gallop along incisively with an abundance of rhythmic vitality. His underlining of the convincing waltz melody could have easily come from the batons of Willi Boskovsky and André Rieu—masters of the Viennese waltz. This exceptional performance of the closing Allegro vivace exudes unbridled joy and real freshness with a sense of a window being opened to reveal a wonderfully verdant and mountainous Alpine vista. Throughout, the assured playing is thrilling and overflows with vigour.
Of the versions that I am most familiar with I have a particular fondness for the acclaimed account of the ‘Great’ C major by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Eugen Jochum, which I believe was recorded in 1958, available on Deutsche Grammophon 477 5354 (c/w Symphony No.5 in B Major, D485). Some readers will recall this Jochum recording being available on vinyl back in 1981 on the Pickwick Contour Red Label CC 7512. There is much to admire in the exciting 1983 Berlin Philharmonie account from Klaus Tennstedt and the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI Classics 5 099022 2 (c/w Mendelssohn Symphony No.4 ‘Italian’). Another version that I admire is Günter Wand’s splendid 1995 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Berlin Philharmonie. As mentioned above I have the recording on RCA Red Seal 09026 68314-2 (c/w Symphony No. 8 D759).
As part of the Naxos Historical Great Conductor series Furtwängler does not disappoint with marvellous performances of Schubert’s two great symphonies.