Furtwängler's mighty 1953 Ring Cycle - Part 1: Das Rheingold
An astonishing sonic transformation thanks to XR remastering
WAGNER - Das Rheingold WWV 86A [notes / score]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI
conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler
Recorded by Radio Audizioni Italiane (RAI) 26 October, 1953,
Auditorio del Foro Italico, Rome
Downloads include full scores of each scene
Wotan Ferdinand Frantz Donner Alfred Poell Froh Lorenz Fehenberger Loge Wolfgang Windgassen Fricka Ira Malaniuk Freia Elisabeth Grümmer Erda Ruth Siewert Alberich Gustav Neidlinger Mime Julius Patzak Fasolt Josef Greindl Fafner Gottlob Frick Woglinde Sena Jurinac Wellgunde Magda Gabory Flosshilde Hilde Rössl-Majdan
Review of original LP issue (excerpt!)
"I won't mince words, but say straightaway that the Ring is the supreme large-scale musical achievement of the human mind, that Furtwangler has been the greatest conductor of the work over the last sixty years, and that this HMV box of records is therefore the gramophone event of the century.
Before any gramophile seizes pen and paper to write a strongly-worded protest against this categorical statement, I'd better stress that the phrase I've used is "gramophone event". The gramophone achievement of the century, surely, is the Decca recording of Wagner's work, in which Georg Solti, John Culshaw and Gordon Parry collaborated—the first-ever and truly magnificent gramophonic presentation of the Ring. The DGG recording, master-minded by Herbert von Karajan, came second of course; this month it's issued as a complete entity (as the Decca has been), and in my opinion, despite its many virtues (referred to below), it does in fact come second to the Decca. [The cast details can be found on page 552—Ed.] Actually, the Furtwangler Ring isn't a gramophonic achievement at all, but a radio achievement—except that, since it happened, certain people in EMI have moved heaven and earth to make it permanently available on disc to music-lovers. The whole story is fascinating in itself, so I'd better begin with it.
In 1952, David Bicknell, then the Manager of EMI's International Artists Department, renewed Furtwangler's exclusive contract with the company, and agreed with him that their main task should be to collaborate in a complete recording of the Ring with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. So EMI hoped to be first in the field with a complete recording of the Ring, and would have been, but for fate. They began with Die Walkiire, which was completed in October 1954, was first issued in September 1955 on HMV mono ALP125761, later reissued as HQM1019-23 (4/66) and only recently deleted. Furtwdngler was so pleased with it that he said, "Now let us finish the other operas as soon as possible". But eight weeks later he died ; and it seemed that his incomparable interpretation of the whole Ring had gone with him to the grave —or rather, was evaporating into the cosmos, in soundwaves progressing to an infinite faintness.
However, the previous year, Furtwangler had recorded the Ring complete for Rome Radio; and after his death, it was realised that this radio tape was the only preserved recording of his interpretation of the whole work. Immediately, negotiations began between EMI and Radio Italiana, with a view to issuing the recording commercially; but nothing came of it, since two of the singers on the tape had exclusive contracts with a rival record company, which refused to waive them. It was only in the late nineteen-sixties, after continued pleas from Furtwangler's widow and the formation of the Wilhelm Furtwangler Society (founded in 1967, partly to recover every existing recording made by him), that negotiations began again and resulted in an agreement that EMI should issue the performance on disc—the last major project of David Bicknell before his retirement last year. The discs have been made from copy tapes prepared in Italy from the metal positives held in RAI Archives; and since the sound, after so many years, was of variable quality, the EMI engineers have had to work hard to produce a uniform and satisfactory sound. I can only congratulate them on the result, which is remarkably vivid for a recording made in 1953...
...The superlative quality of Furtwangler's interpretation resides in his awareness that the Ring is not in any sense a beautiful and sophisticated work, a la Karajan, or a frenetically violent work, a la Solti, but a stark, heavy, brooding work, a profound tragedy set in a primitive world of ancient Teutonic gods and heroes, to whom every action and event is of the utmost existential importance—a la Wagner. And it should not be thought that this awareness translates itself into an interpretation purely by means of adopting slower tempi: for instance, Furtwangler's prelude to Act 2 of Die Walkiire is taken at the same driving speed as that of Solti, but it is even more gripping because of the weight he brings to bear on the music at that tempo. But the most remarkable thing about Furtwangler's interpretation is the way he brings out the meaning of every detail of the score, a good example being the very first scene of Das Rheingold. Here the tempo is actually slower than those of Solti and Karajan, and it serves to give a lovely lazy lilt to the music of the Rhinemaidens (who after all are supposed to be basking happily in the pleasurable world of unspoilt nature) ; but one realises the full significance of this tempo when the gold lights up and the Rhinemaidens begin their ecstatic song in praise of it, since the flashing scales of semiquavers on the violins make their full impact as the kind of watery vibration Wagner meant them to be, whereas with Solti and Karajan they flash by so quickly that they become no more than a general wash of sound. In purely musical terms, violins cannot properly articulate staccato semiquavers above a certain speed. Again, when Alberich begins climbing up from the lower depths of the Rhine, and gets in a temper because the water sets him sneezing, Furtwángler gives full weight to the vicious little phrase of four descending demisemiquavers and two ascending semiquavers which gives us our first glimpse of Alberich's sadistic nature, and is to return when he starts bullying Mime in the third scene; but with both Solti and Karajan, the tempo is too quick to allow this phrase to register at all clearly.
One could go on giving examples throughout the whole score, but this would be to ignore a more positive and indefinable quality of Furtwangler's interpretation—his ability to make the music surge, or seethe, or melt, so that one has left the world of semiquavers altogether, and is swept up in a great spiritual experience. Furtwdngler himself said: "However vast the scope of a Wagner opera may be, it is still made up of countless individual strands, and only the correct tempo can tie these together. The real task of the conductor—especially in Wagner—is to produce a consistent tempo. There are never 'segments' or rough divisions; everything flows smoothly. Wagner once called himself 'the master of transition', and rightly so". This performance of the Ring is a superb practical demonstration of Furtwangler's theory, since the tempi adopted are so exactly right as to allow every strand of the music to express itself to the full. One has heard the Ring many times, and one feels that one knows just what to expect from the many great peaks of the score; but hearing them again under Furtwdngler—the Descent to Nibelheim, the love-duet in Act 1 of Die Walkiire, the Ride of the Valkyries, Siegfried's forging of the sword, Siegfried's Funeral March, and the closing scene of Giitterdammerung—one realises that there is far more in this music than one has got out of it since one last heard Furtwangler..."
There are two full recordings of Wagner's Ring cycle conducted by Furtwängler, but neither is the full studio recording planned by EMI to begin in 1954 and left incomplete by the conductor's death at the age of 68 on 30th November of that year. There is a 1950 recording of his La Scala cycle, and this, a series of recordings made for broadcast on Italian radio (RAI) across ten sessions in October and November 1953 in front of a very quiet invited audience. The final broadcasts were cut from both these recordings and taped rehearsal sessions, as chosen by Furtwängler and the RAI engineers the day after recording.
The recordings were broadcast a short time after but were not commercially issued until the early 1970s on LP by EMI. Generally the sound quality I've been able to achieve from these recordings - after some considerable difficulties - has been remarkably fine. However the first Scene is of a dimmer sound quality than the rest of the opera, for reasons which are probably now lost to time. Thereafter, despite some variable and occasionally noticeable (but not intrusive) hiss, the sound is generally excellent for a radio recording of this era.
Contrast and Compare:
Following some online discussion of the merits of the various reissues of this classic recording, as well as considerable e-mail correspondence, I've set up clips of the various releases prior to our own, complete with my own notes, so you can listen for yourself and see whether you agree with me. Each is a 30 second sample starting from the same place as our own longer sample. Technical notes are derived from spectral analysis, waveform analysis and careful listening in our studio. To aid direct comparisons between each sample I've matched volume levels to that of our own sample - this has no qualitative effect on the sound quality, but counteracts a subconscious human tendency to prefer the 'louder one'.
1. EMI LP, issued 1972
Frequency range extension: up to approx. 11.5kHz
No digital noise reduction or excessive filtering
Runs about a semitone flat in pitch DOWNLOAD THIS CLIP
2. EMI CD, first issued 1990, reissued unchanged 2011
Frequency range extension: up to approx. 8.5kHz
Digital noise reduction and intrusive filtering
Boost around 3kHz gives a tiring, telephonic quality to voices
DOWNLOAD THIS CLIP
Frequency range extension: up to approx. 12kHz, occasionally 14kHz
32-bit XR remastering with new equalisation and some digital noise reduction
This is a full-length (9 minunte) Ambient Stereo MP3 excerpt at 224kbps DOWNLOAD THIS CLIP
Wilhelm Furtwängler (January 25, 1886 – November 30, 1954) was a German conductor and composer. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest symphonic and operatic conductors of the 20th century.
Furtwängler was born in Berlin into a prominent family. His father Adolf was an archaeologist, his mother a painter. Most of his childhood was spent in Munich, where his father taught at the university in that city. He was given a musical education from an early age, and developed an early love of Ludwig van Beethoven, a composer with whom he remained closely associated throughout his life. Though his chief posthumous fame rests on his work as a conductor, he was also a composer and regarded himself first and foremost as such, having in fact first taken up the baton in order to perform his own works.
Furtwängler also made a number of appearances as a conductor abroad. He made his London debut in 1924, and continued to appear there as late as 1938 to conduct a cycle of Richard Wagner's Ring. In 1925 he appeared as guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and made return visits in the following two years.
Towards the end of the war, under extreme pressure from the Nazi Party, Furtwängler fled to Switzerland. It was during this troubled period that he composed what is largely considered his most significant work, the Symphony No. 2 in E minor. Work on the symphony was begun in 1944, and carried on into 1945. It was given its premiere in 1948 by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Furtwängler's direction. Furtwängler and the Philharmonic recorded the symphony for Deutsche Grammophon; the music was much in the tradition of Bruckner and Gustav Mahler, composed on a grand scale for very large orchestra with romantic, dramatic themes. Another important work is the Symphonic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, completed and premiered in 1937 and revised in 1954. Many themes from this work were also incorporated into Furtwängler's unfinished Symphony No. 3 in C sharp minor.
He resumed performing and recording following the war, and remained a popular conductor in Europe, although always under something of a shadow. He died in 1954 in Ebersteinburg, close to Baden-Baden. He is buried in the Heidelberg Bergfriedhof. The tenth anniversary of his death was marked by a concert in the Royal Albert Hall, London, conducted by his biographer Hans-Hubert Schönzeler.
Furtwängler's relationship with — and attitude towards — Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party was a matter of much controversy. Because of his international renown, he was appointed as the first vice-president of the Reichsmusikkammer. In 1934 he was banned from conducting the premiere of Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler, and subsequently resigned from the RMK and the Berlin Opera. Some sources maintain that Furtwängler resigned from his posts at the Berlin Opera and Reichsmusikkammer in protest; Frederic Spotts states that he was forced to either resign all his positions or be dismissed. In 1936 it seemed possible that he might follow Erich Kleiber's footsteps into exile when he was offered the principal conductor's post at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, where he would have succeeded Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini's biographer Harvey Sachs wrote that Toscanini recommended Furtwängler for the position, one of the few times Toscanini expressed admiration for a fellow conductor. There is every possibility that Furtwängler would have accepted the post, but a report from the Berlin branch of the Associated Press, possibly ordered by Hermann Göring, said that he was willing to take up his post at the Berlin Opera once more. This caused the mood in New York to turn against him; from their point of view, it seemed that Furtwängler was now a full supporter of the Nazi Party.
However, Furtwängler never joined the Nazi Party nor did he really approve of them, much like the composer Richard Strauss, who made no secret of his dislike of the Nazis. Furtwängler always refused to give the Nazi salute, and there is even film footage of him turning away and wiping his hand with a handkerchief after shaking the hand of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.
Furtwängler was treated relatively well by the Nazis; he had a high profile, and was an important cultural figure, as evidenced by his inclusion in the Gottbegnadeten list ("God-gifted List") of September 1944. Furtwängler in turn conducted several concerts for the direct benefit of the Nazis: in February 1938 he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic at a concert held for the Hitler Youth, and that same year conducted a performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in celebration of Hitler's birthday. Further, contrary to the claims of some writers that he refused to conduct in occupied countries during the war, he conducted in Prague in May and November 1940, and again in March 1944 in a concert marking the fifth anniversary of the German occupation. His concerts were often broadcast to German troops to raise morale, though he was limited in what he was allowed to perform by the authorities. He later said he tried to protect German culture from the Nazis; it is now known that he used his influence to help Jewish musicians and non musicians escape the Third Reich. He managed, for example, to have Max Zweig, a nephew of conductor Fritz Zweig, released from Dachau concentration camp. Others, from an extensive list of Jews he helped, included Carl Flesch, Joseph Krips and the composer Arnold Schönberg. In spite of this, some sources claim his motives were not as pure as those of e.g. Oskar Schindler.
Albert Speer claimed that in December 1944 Furtwängler asked whether Germany had any chance of winning the war. Speer replied in the negative, and advised the conductor to flee to Switzerland from possible Nazi retribution. Furtwängler did in fact escape to Switzerland shortly after a concert in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic on January 28, 1945. At that concert he conducted an account of Brahms's Second Symphony that was caught on tape and is considered one of his greatest recordings.
At his denazification trial, Furtwängler was charged with supporting Nazism by remaining in Germany, performing at Nazi party functions and with making an anti-semitic remark against the part-Jewish conductor Victor de Sabata. However, he was eventually cleared on all these counts.
As part of his closing remarks at his denazification trial, Furtwängler said,
"I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like.
"Does Thomas Mann [who was critical of Furtwängler's actions] really believe that in 'the Germany of Himmler' one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realize that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror? I do not regret having stayed with them."
The violinist Yehudi Menuhin was among the few musicians in the Jewish community and the United States who had a positive view of Furtwängler. In 1933 he had refused to play with him, but in the late 1940s after a personal investigation of Furtwängler, he became supportive of him, and performed and recorded alongside him.
In 1949 Furtwängler accepted the position of principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. However the orchestra was forced to rescind the offer under the threat of a boycott from several prominent musicians including Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Alexander Brailowsky. According to a New York Times report, Horowitz said that he "was prepared to forgive the small fry who had no alternative but to remain and work in Germany." But Furtwängler "was out of the country on several occasions and could have elected to keep out". Rubinstein likewise wrote in a telegram, "Had Furtwängler been firm in his democratic convictions he would have left Germany".
Furtwängler had a unique conducting technique. He saw symphonic music as creations of nature that could only be realised subjectively into sound. This is why composers such as Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner were so central to Furtwängler's repertoire, because he identified them as great forces of nature. He disliked Toscanini's approach to the German repertoire. He walked out of a Toscanini concert once, calling him "a mere time-beater!".
Neville Cardus wrote in the Manchester Guardian in 1954 of Furtwängler's conducting style:
"He did not regard the printed notes of the score as a final statement, but rather as so many symbols of an imaginative conception, ever changing and always to be felt and realised subjectively...Not since Nikisch, of whom he was a disciple, has a greater personal interpreter of orchestral and opera music than Furtwängler been heard."
Many commentators and critics regard him as the greatest conductor in history. However, on the website Classics Today, critic David Hurwitz sharply criticizes what he terms "the Furtwangler wackos" who "will forgive him virtually any lapse, no matter how severe", and characterizes the conductor himself as "occasionally incandescent but criminally sloppy".
Conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach has said of Furtwängler that he was a "formidable magician, a man capable of setting an entire ensemble of musicians on fire, sending them into a state of ecstasy".
Furtwängler was famous for his exceptional inarticulacy. His pupil Sergiu Celibidache remembered that the best he could say was, "Well, just listen" (to the music). Carl Brinitzer from the German BBC service tried to interview him, and thought he had an imbecile before him. A live recording of a rehearsal with a Stockholm orchestra documents hardly anything intelligible, only hums and mumbling. On the other hand, a collection of his essays, On Music, reveals deep thought. Still, Furtwängler remained highly respected amongst musicians. Even Arturo Toscanini, usually regarded as Furtwängler's complete antithesis (and sharply critical of Furtwängler on political grounds), once said – when asked to name the world's greatest conductor apart from himself – "Furtwängler!"
Furtwängler's performances of Beethoven, Bruckner, Brahms and Wagner remain important reference-points today. His performances are grounded in the spontaneous flexibility which Wagner referred to as the 'elastic phrase.'