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"The performance is incomparable" - and now, so too is the sound quality
Furtwängler's finest Brahms 1 has never sounded as superb as this!
If I could nominate whole of this album as a showcase not only for superlative historic performances but also for the astounding sound quality occasionally to be found lurking in the gloomy grooves of older recordings then I would. The tone of the Vienna Philharmonic both in the live 1952 concert recordings and the earlier studio recordings, after Pristine's 32-bit XR remastering, is finer than I could have believed possible when I started the project.
The live recordings do have the edge over the older Hungarian Dances, which retained a degree of 78rpm crackle that was tricky to remove. It's also interesting that most discographies and reissues have followed the error in the original release and titled one of them as Hungarian Dance No. 3 in F - it's not, it's No. 10 in F.
Analysis of the pitches and residual electrical hum in each of the recordings, from three separate sources, consistently pointed to a tuning used by the VPO at the time of around A4=446.4Hz. I have accurately pitched each recording to this to give the most accurate picture possible of both the sound and pace of these performances.
- BRAHMS Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
BRAHMS Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a
Recorded live, 27 January 1952, in the Großer Musikvereinssaal, Vienna
Transfers from EMI LP 27 0124 1 and EMI LP SG 153-53669 M
BRAHMS Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 2, 10
Recorded 29/30 March & 4 April, 1949, in the Großer Musikvereinssaal, Vienna
Issued as HMV DB.6976, Matrix No. 2VH.7168 and HMV DB.6934 Matrix No. 2VH.7167
Transfers from EMI LP SG 153-53665 M
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Wilhelm Furtwängler conductor
XR remastering by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio, May 2012
Cover artwork based on photographs of Brahms and Furtwängler
Total duration: 75:06
Review Symphony No. 1
Previously unpublished, this recording qualifies under house rules for consideration alongside some selected comparisons. If I append none it is because, so far as the current catalogue is concerned, the performance is incomparable. Such comparisons as can be made concern other Furtwangler recordings of the symphony: the 1947 VPO performance, a rather cool affair by Furtwangler's standards, recorded with no great immediacy, and transferred noisily to LP (EMI Electrola/Conifer mono IC 149 53420/6, 12/80), and a fine Berlin performance (DG mono 2535 162, 5/76—nla) recorded live in the Titania-Palast on February 10th, 1952. Interestingly, the present recording was made in Vienna just a fortnight before. As a reading it is very similar, contradicting those who would have us believe that most Furtwngler performances were spur-of-themoment, random affairs. What is different is the response of the two orchestras, with the VPO, their strings in particular, playing with a singing intensity which rather puts the Berliners in the shade. To some extent, they are helped by the EMI recording which, though rather rusty-sound ing in places, does provide a real sense of presence and (an over-prominent flute apart) perspective. But it is the performance as a whole which is the thing, a marvellous example of Furtwangler's combined skills: as a conductor capable of drawing glorious playing from the VPO, as an interpreter capable of understanding the indissoluble links between musical structure and communicable feeling, and as a performer capable of turning a concert into an event.
Take, for instance, the moment of recapitulation in the slow movement. We are already in alien territory. After the exhausted close of the tragic first movement we are shipped into the distant key of E major. The oboe's song, if it is anything at all, is a song of exile and, not surprisingly, it becomes increasingly troubled and yet more tonally bewildered, something stressed by Furtwangler who tends to underwrite the music's daemonic elements in a way which Brahmsians of a settled taste may find disturbing. The recapitulation, Furtwdngler already movingly implies, is bound to be a thing of great moment; and, indeed, we know as much since Brahms's preparation for it-the quiet drum roll (the drum's first appearance in the movement), the anticipatory silence and the addition of trumpets to the eventual quiet E major chord-all indicate as much. In Berlin the realization was to be perfunctory, the chording sloppy but in the Vienna performance Furtwangler's recognition and realization of the moment is utterly spell-binding, a superb piece of concert-hall theatre, as well as a moving realization of Brahms's mood.
The reading is full of such insights. Nothing is wasted, not even the Allegretto e grazioso third movement which Furtwangler treats as a microcosm of the symphony, a movement of great equanimity which becomes grand, tense, and troubled before dropping us down into the dark well of the finale's opening phrases. Above all, the difficult first movement is superbly shaped. The opening is magnificent and yet finely proportioned. True, the orchestra is not together at the start but before we begin our niggling we should note that Furtwangler belonged to a school which often liked to build chords strategically. There's nothing very strategic about the opening chord, but there are some strikingly successful examples later on in the movement. What is remarkable about the opening, apart from the glorious sostenuto sound of the high-lying violin line, the perfect, ominous flow of the rhythm and the judicious regulation of the drum, is that it is all, in retrospect, germane to what is to follow. You need no sleeve or text-book analysis to follow the organic nature of Brahms's arguments as Furtwangler unfolds them for us, whether we are thinking in terms of tonal structures, the canonic treatment of key motifs or, simply, the huge mass and disjunctive force of the development's end. No conductor today, except perhaps Giulini, seems able to exert so much downward pressure on chords, fully, amply sounded and yet sustain a singing line and a forward-moving rhythm. Certainly, it is tempting, faced with a performance like this, to write a jeremiad on the state of conducting in the postFurtwângler age. To do so would, however, be unproductive. Furtwàngler's is not the only way with Brahms's music, as Sir Adrian Boult, among others, has admirably demonstrated. For the moment, though, I confess I know no performance of this symphony which more strikingly illuminates those points where this symphony is palpably at its greatest.
R. O., Gramophone March 1985
These new remasterings heighten our appreciation of this conductor’s feeling for Brahms’s beauty and sensibility, and as such are warmly recommended
We are so accustomed to analyzing the interpretive depth Wilhelm Furtwängler achieved that we often forget what a technically gifted conductor he was. As these remasterings by Andrew Rose reveal, Furtwängler could get the most gorgeous sounds out of an orchestra. His baton technique certainly was idiosyncratic, but he had no trouble attaining what he wanted. He also was an indefatigable rehearser. Georg Solti relates in his Memoirs Furtwängler’s pleasure at Salzburg when Solti told him how much better the Vienna Philharmonic played for Furtwängler than for Karajan. Much of Furtwängler’s sway over an orchestra derived from sheer force of personality. A member of the Berlin Philharmonic tells of how when rehearsing under another conductor, the orchestra’s sound changed entirely after Furtwängler just walked into the hall. Thanks to Andrew Rose, we now can hear how central the concept of sound was to Furtwängler’s interpretations of Brahms. There is much beauty of thought here certainly, but the sonic sybarite will derive much pleasure as well. Brahms was a great craftsman, and the importance to him of creating lovely sounds should not be underestimated.
As a composer, Furtwängler could take the occasionally disparate elements of Brahms’s First Symphony and find inherent structure and drama. The introduction to the first movement is almost conversational, summarizing and prefiguring the subsequent drama like a Shakespeare prolog. The Allegro possesses weight and gravitas. It alternates between reverie-like fantasy and the onslaught of fate. The movement maintains a noble character, even when tragedy lurks around the corner. Nevertheless the movement never seems episodic—its transitions are finely judged. Furtwängler treats the slow movement as an intermezzo, with phrasing that is highly vocal and operatic. It acts both as a pause in the drama and an intensification of the feelings so far evoked. The third movement is a quasi scherzo. Its B section (like a trio) brings back life’s rough and tumble, before fate in the brass and in pizzicato strings mark the return of the A section: an allusion to the brass in the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. That symphony is even more eloquently drawn upon in the final movement. Its introduction portrays whole worlds passing before our eyes, then disappearing. Suddenly, the great string tune brings us to a place of peace and satisfaction. This is followed by excitement, even at times jubilation. An ominous shadow eventually falls over the music, which the coda pushes aside—leading to the triumph of the great brass chorale. Furtwängler resists the temptation to speed up from here, and the symphony ends on a majestic note.
Furtwängler’s Haydn Variations are unusually somber, slower than his December 1943 Berlin recording. The statement of the theme offers lovely wind and horn choirs; the uniqueness of the instruments used by the VPO contributes a special glow. Furtwängler’s tempos allow for the articulation of all the instrumental parts, including some often glossed over. The third variation contains a slight horn bobble. The fourth and seventh variations could stand alone as genre pieces, small elegies. The finale is alternately stately and tender, evincing an emotional vulnerability rare for any conductor. The three Hungarian Dances are hardly mere fillers. No. 1 features gorgeous, elegant string playing. In No. 2, Furtwängler creates a real gypsy feeling. He revels in the kaleidoscopic orchestration of No. 10.
Furtwängler’s Brahms Second is less strikingly individual than his First, but it is no less persuasive. In large part it is a showcase for how well the Berlin Philharmonic can play. Four years earlier, in 1948, Furtwängler made a studio recording of the Second with Eduard van Beinum’s London Philharmonic. Although the timings of both performances are similar, the LPO version sounds more reflective, perhaps marking Furtwängler’s reaction to traditional English string sound. The Berliners offer more fire power than the LPO, and their reading under Furtwängler not surprisingly sounds more extroverted. The naturalness of the interpretation reminds me of William Steinberg’s LP, although his Pittsburgh Symphony does not ascend to the heights of the BPO. Furtwängler’s first movement is a brilliant study in light and shadow, like the clouds in a painting by John Constable. The brass have a field day. The next movement features phenomenal string playing. The coloring of the orchestra here makes me think of Vaughan Williams’s “Pastoral” Symphony, a reminder that Brahms’s Second has been called his “pastorale.” The third movement is truly grazioso, with elegant winds and subtle strings. In the last movement, Furtwängler unleashes the orchestra to brilliant effect, with meditative sections alternating with something like mania.
The Double Concerto receives a distinctive performance. It is a relaxed partnership between soloists and conductor, with plenty of give and take. Admirers of the more propulsive versions by Toscanini and Szell may be disappointed. The soloists, first chairs of the VPO, can stand comparison with more renowned players. Willi Boskovsky is well known as both soloist and conductor, while cellist Emanuel Brabec made a superb recording of Strauss’s Don Quixote with Lorin Maazel. In the opening dialog between the soloists, Brabec’s tone is especially rich and woody. Furtwängler’s basic tempo in the first movement’s tuttis strikes a golden mean, although he leaves the soloists a lot of latitude. The second movement is lovely, played with great affection by Boskovsky and Brabec. The tempo for the last movement is measured, yet everyone displays genuine passion.
The Vienna recordings all were made in the Great Hall of the Musikverein, and are excellent monaural. The Second Symphony, from the German Museum in Munich, is slightly muddy in places but otherwise quite fine. When Furtwängler recorded the Second Symphony with the LPO he insisted on a single microphone. It would be worth knowing whether he made the same requirement here of EMI. If you are interested in stereo CDs of these works, I would recommend Bruno Walter in the First and the variations, Antal Doráti in the Second, and Gidon Kremer, Mischa Maisky, and Leonard Bernstein in the concerto. Andrew Rose should consider remastering Eugene Ormandy’s late 1950s LP of the First Symphony, a reading of poise and elegance. Furtwängler, as usual, is indispensable to a fuller understanding of this music. These new remasterings heighten our appreciation of this conductor’s feeling for Brahms’s beauty and sensibility, and as such are warmly recommended.
This article originally appeared in Issue 36:2 (Nov/Dec 2012) of Fanfare Magazine.