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Furtwängler at his finest in two live performances of Brahms
"The sheer force and magnetism here is irresistible, and were I forced to choose only one it would be this" - Fanfare
When I remastered a set of Brahms recordings for Pristine release in 2012, a number of difficult choices had to be made, not least in selected a single recording of each of the fourth symphonies for the set (PASC 340, 341, 342, 344). In making these choices a number of factors came into play alongside the performances themselves: availability, sound quality, durations and so forth all played a part in the final choices made at the time. The series featured a single symphony on each disc, coupled with other recordings of music by Brahms. It is almost certain, therefore, that a primary reason the two recordings presented here did not feature in that series was the simple fact that they could be accommodated together on a single disc: to be returned to at a later date. Happily, that date has now arrived!
The XR remastering techniques used on these recordings have gradually evolved over the 8 years since they were first developed, helped along by technological advances in the fields of audio restoration and digital signal processing, and the results of these gradual advances can be heard to full effect here, especially in the marvellous 1949 recording of the third Brahms symphony presented here. It is interesting to note the remarks of an uncredited reviewer for Gramophone's website, who remarks on the sound being "fragile" and the audience "intrusive". Whilst the latter was certainly true of the original recording, I've taken out a large number of coughs and sneezes from that December Berlin audience, and where not possible to entirely eradicate them, the vast majority have been reduced in volume to a non-intrusive level. As for the sound? Here you will find no fragility: the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is full, clear, rich and vital in this XR remaster, fully conveying ‘the energy of becoming, inexorability and the force of onward motion’ Furtwängler identified with this work.
The earlier recording of the Fourth Symphony, from October 1948, proved slightly more troublesome from a sonic perspective, with slightly more hiss and less top end extension, but I've managed to make those differences almost imperceptible - certainly the fullness and richness are both there to be savoured, with all the "drama and thrust" of the performance fully present.Andrew Rose
BRAHMS Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
BRAHMS Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Brahms Symphony No. 3: Recorded 18 December, 1949
Brahms Symphony No. 4: Recorded 24 October, 1948
Live performances, Titania Palast, Berlin
Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor
Someone wandering into a room where this Brahms Third under Furtwängler was playing would scarcely believe his ears
When considering “historic” recordings, the quality of reproduction is a more important factor than is often noted. Here, for example, are two stunning restorations by Andrew Rose for his Pristine label that vault these two performances to the top of my own recommendation list for Furtwängler performances of these two symphonies—and in fact to a very high place on the list of overall recommendations. One very slight problem; perhaps because of the very generous duration of almost 80 minutes, I find some of the pauses between movements a bit too short (more breath is needed in particular between the first two movements of the Fourth). But this is something a listener can work with.
The importance of color in Furtwängler’s conducting is often undervalued by commentators. We often hear about his approach to phrasing, his tempo relationships, his great attention to dynamic shading. But in fact the foundation of Furtwängler’s conducting was orchestral sonority and color. He built his sound from the bottom up, starting with a firm foundation of basses and cellos (as well as low brass where appropriate), and the balance of weight of different instrumental groups was of crucial importance to his conducting. Similarly the blending of voices, the voicing of chords, the varying degrees of vibrato, all were areas on which he clearly spent a great deal of time in his rehearsals, either verbally or simply through gesture. Thus it is critical that we hear Furtwängler performances in the best and most vibrant possible transfers. Both of these performances have been available before (just about every recorded note of the conductor has been preserved and issued in some form). Both have been heard on relatively good transfers on the EMI and Audite labels. But somehow Pristine has found a whole new level of quality. Heard in the label’s XR stereo, the sound has opened up, the bass is much richer, the highs warmer and less hard-toned, and the blend and balance far more evenly accomplished. The result is that we now have, in my view, the best recorded versions of Furtwängler’s way with these pieces, seminal in his repertoire.
There is a level of ferocity and intensity in the 1943 Furtwängler Brahms Fourth (also issued by Pristine) that is not equaled here—but that is so flame-filled that it is best savored for an occasional hearing, so it doesn’t lose its ability to shock. What we have here are two extraordinarily strong, individual performances, performances that clearly matter to the conductor and the musicians playing them, and performances that sweep the listener along on a sea of momentum. For the Third Symphony there is a 1954 Furtwängler performance, also on Pristine, that is quite lovely and somewhat more gentle. It is, in fact, beautiful. But the sheer force and magnetism here is irresistible, and were I forced to choose only one it would be this. Interestingly, the conductor takes the first movement repeat here, and did not in 1954.
Both of these performances demand to be heard by anyone who cares about 19th-century symphonic music and the performance tradition that underlies the art form. We should be deeply grateful to Andrew Rose and Pristine for the continuously high standards of their work.
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:5 (May/June 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.
Someone wandering into a room where this Brahms Third under Furtwängler was playing would scarcely believe his ears. If the moment happened to be during the development section of the first movement, he’d be overwhelmed by the seismic eruption of passion and the Berlin Philharmonic’s almost shocking power. For a long time the experience of such a performance was either denied or imperfect. Baby boomers are the core of experienced listeners and dedicated collectors. When we were young, music-making associated with the Third Reich was impermissible. Even the trickle of Furtwängler’s postwar LPs that reached North America sounded alien, considering that the 1950s were the era of a deified Toscanini—the two maestros enjoyed a mutual antipathy to each other.
But that’s old news, and with the emergence on CD of hundreds of Furtwängler performances, the most cherished being from live concerts, the other problem—imperfect audio quality—is being addressed. Boutique and specialty labels such as Tahra and Andante led the way by gaining access to orchestra and radio archives, but the acknowledged leader in historical restoration is Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio. He works from private collections, not original sources, and manages to maintain a remarkably high level of sound quality. In this case, the impact of Furtwängler’s 1949 Brahms Third is only revealed when it can be played at lifelike volume levels. This wasn’t possible in previous incarnations on EMI (along with pocket labels such as Archipel, Seven Seas, and Virtuoso), which were variously thin, tubby, shrill, or metallic-sounding.
Rose has overcome these flaws to the best of the technology available to him, with special emphasis on a step previously shunned by purists, inserting hall ambience. (For a more detailed discussion of the technical side, see Henry Fogel’s review in Fanfare 39:5.) The reading itself lives up to the billing from the Gramophone web site as “an experience unique in the annals of the [Brahms Third] on record.” Not that Furtwängler just propels the music forward for maximum thrills—his imagination brings in unexpected moments of peace before and after great surges of emotion. Pristine previously released the only other Brahms Third under him from Berlin, a more serene account dating to April 27, 1954, seven months before his death that November. The 1949 performance, held in the Titania Palace after the Allies bombed the old Philharmonie, occurred during flu and cold season, but Rose has gone some distance to removing coughs and sneezes—they still intrude during the quiet opening of the finale, but hardly at their worst.
Rose tells us that remastering the Brahms Fourth from the same hall in October 1948 was a little more problematic, due to a narrower frequency range at the top and bottom. The listener will immediately notice the contrast with the fuller Third Symphony; one has to “listen into” the reading, as it were, to get the whole effect of Furtwängler’s conception. There is also less presence from the woodwind solos and a fairly blurred bass. These drawbacks are easily accommodated once you become absorbed in the music-making. While slightly less passionate than his account of the Third, this Fourth is full of Furtwängler hallmarks: flexible tempos, magical transitions, and great excitement at the climax of each movement. The audience is more or less silent; no applause is included in either recording.
Technology will no doubt carry us further in the future, particularly if historical remastering can benefit from software that takes limited frequency response and replaces it with updated instrumental sound comparable to modern recordings. That day hasn’t arrived yet, so you won’t be sitting in the Titania Palace in full stereo. But it’s glorious to be sitting there in the first place.
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:6 (July/Aug 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.