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Robert R. Reilly
Catholic News Agency, July 2011

…of more than historical interest is the new release of a Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra performance from 1954 of Wilhelm Furtwangler’s Symphony No. 2, by conductor Eugen Jochum. This is a mega-symphony (more than 80 minutes long) very much in the tradition of Bruckner and Mahler. Though Furtwangler wrote it at the end of World War II, its language belongs solidly in the late Romantic period. However, unlike Richard Strauss’s autumnal Four Last Songs, written at the same time, the Second Symphony does not have anything valedictory about it. It is written as if the late Romantic tradition were still alive. This is a storm-tossed work, fraught with peril, possessed of fury, and written from within a maelstrom.

Jochum was a great Bruckner conductor, so one would expect him to do well with this Symphony. And he does. However, the music comes across as less molten and delirious than in Furtwangler’s own recordings, which are incomparable, even though they are in relatively poor sound. With Furtwangler, for example, a musical rest is not simply a rest. It is a heart-stopping, breath-holding moment, pregnant with peril. No other conductor, including Daniel Barenboim in his beautiful recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, catches nuances like these. Nevertheless, Jochum builds quite a thrilling interpretation on this BR-Klassik two-CD set. I highly recommend that you get one of the available recordings of this extraordinary work.

Henry Fogel
Fanfare, May 2011

Time for full disclosure: At the time of Barenboim’s recording (2001), I was managing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and I played a role in persuading him to conduct the piece and him and Teldec to record it. Because of that I could not review it for Fanfare, but two reviewers did…Marc Mandel liked it very much but felt that Furtwängler’s own Vienna Philharmonic performance issued on Orfeo trumped Barenboim’s in the concluding section of the finale, where Mandel felt Barenboim let down just a bit. Martin Anderson expressed no reservations at all, in an unreservedly enthusiastic review.

Barenboim’s still remains the only readily available and enjoyable modern stereo recording. A performance by Georg Alexander Albrecht on Arte Nova is better, but not at the level of Barenboim or Furtwängler. Takashi Asahina’s fine Japanese recording from 1984 is just about impossible to obtain in the West (and may be so in Japan, too, for all I know). There are actually five (!) Furtwängler performances on disc, one a studio recording for DG, the other four all live readings. By far the best is the VPO on Orfeo (C365 941 B). It has good monaural 1950s broadcast sound, inspired playing, and of course the advocacy of the composer, who just happened to be one of the great conductors of the 20th century.

Both Barenboim and Furtwängler persuade one that this is an important, enjoyable score. As different writers have pointed out, there are elements of Bruckner, Strauss, Schmidt, Rachmaninoff, and probably others in its blood. It is old-fashioned for its time, to be sure, and it has its longeurs. But it is deeply moving, a work filled with some considerable anguish (much of it was written in Switzerland where Furtwängler had fled because he learned that he was on a Nazi assassination list, and where he was unable to conduct until he was cleared of Nazi affiliation charges by the Allies). It is also a work that doesn’t really sound like anyone else, despite having elements of many. In the end, one’s interest is maintained by the skillful orchestration and a strong element of melodic inspiration. For those interested in Furtwängler or in late-Romantic music, both Furtwängler’s and Barenboim’s recordings are valuable.

So where does this first-time issue of a 1954 broadcast fall? Right at the top level with those other two recordings. I reviewed the Furtwängler Orfeo release (a 1953 performance recorded in Vienna’s Musikvereinssaal) in the Classical Hall of Fame in Fanfare 18:5, and commented that it had some of the best recorded sound of any Furtwängler recording. That is true—but the Bavarian Radio folks were doing it even better in the middle 1950s, and what we have here is truly fine monaural recorded sound equal to many studio recordings being made at that time. It still of course cannot equal the sound quality of the Barenboim recording.

What distinguishes Jochum’s reading from the other two is his different approach to orchestral sonority and his tauter reading in general. Barenboim and Furtwängler both built their orchestral sound from the bottom up. Everything rested on a foundation of the basses and cellos, and, where appropriate, the lower brass. Jochum’s sound is brighter—it wouldn’t be fair to call it “top down,” but it is definitely a lighter sonority, with more emphasis on the upper strings and brass than is the case in the other two. What it lacks in lushness it compensates for with brighter colors. Add to that his extra dash of rhythmic snap, and you have a performance different enough to warrant exploration by anyone who loves this work. I would still not be without the composer’s own and the Barenboim, but I am very happy to have added this to my library. Renate Ulm’s very interesting and informative notes are an added plus.

James Manheim, January 2011

German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler composed three symphonies. They are in a pure post-Romantic idiom, and from time to time they’re revived, especially the Symphony No. 2 in E minor offered here, and put forth as the great pure symphonies Richard Strauss never wrote. They’ve never quite taken hold as such, for Furtwängler wasn’t half the orchestrator Strauss was, and nor do his structures have Bruckner’s overarching, transcendent qualities. The Symphony No. 2 consists of two giant movements in mostly moderate tempo, framing a shorter (but still hefty at 13 minutes plus) slow movement and a substantial scherzo and trio. The outer movements build to great horn-fanfare climaxes that are stirringly rendered here by the Bavarian Radio Symphony under Eugen Jochum. This is a live recording from the year 1954, issued by the symphony’s own new label, BR-Klassik. Its chief attraction may be the sound, which is superior to many a studio recording of the period; there’s little background noise of any kind, and the brasses get good spatial definition. German engineering had plainly come roaring back by this time. Conductor Eugen Jochum was Furtwängler’s direct protege and has as much claim to the work as the notoriously idiosyncratic Furtwängler himself, but Furtwängler, for those interested, did record the work a couple of times. Jochum’s version comes in at about 83 minutes, just barely spilling over onto a second CD. With deep roots in interwar musical practice in Germany, this historical release should appeal to students of the period.

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