Furtwängler's unrivalled wartime Beethoven - in sound quality to knock you out
"The intensity of this reading is searing" - Fanfare
These two wartime recordings, as John Ardoin poined out in his essential
guide to the recordings of Wilhelm Furtwängler, really do capture the
conductor - and his musicians - at a higher level than perhaps any other
time in his career. They sit along other classic concert recordings
Furtwängler made during the darkest days of the 20th century as perhaps
definitive readings of the music of Beethoven. Naturally therefore both
have surfaced on a number of previous issues, yet never with the
fidelity and level of realism to be heard in these new XR remasters.
Of the two, the Coriolan shows perhaps the rougher edges - the sound is full, clear and superbly dynamic, but things start to fall apart at the uppermost frequencies when the music is at its loudest.
The Eroica on the other hand is a revelation, and I had to double-check when returning to it for final tracking that I'd not accidentally substituted a much later recording when initially restoring it. But no, it's definitely the 1944 VPO performance, which Ardoin dates across 19th and 20th December, with the unmistakeably strident brass, but also with a fullness, richness and clarity that previous issues have barely hinted at.
A truly essential Eroica for all - even if it's already in your collection from a previous release elsewhere.
BEETHOVEN Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, "Erioca", Op. 55
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Coriolan Overture: Recorded 27-30 June 1943, Alte Philharmonie, Berlin
Symphony No. 3: Recorded 19-20 December 1944, Musikvereinsaal, Vienna
Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor
The Coriolan performances range in time over eight years, but the
post-war performances, despite their effectiveness, are no match for the
1943 performance, one of the most supercharged and dramatic of
Furtwängler’s performances. It is like a great fist delivering a series
of crippling blows, and along with the sense of struggle and agony in
the 1943 performance comes the sensation of life ebbing away, of breath
leaving a body.
Three places in particular are worth special mention. First, those opening blows, which sweep upward with enormous thrust from the depths to the heights of the orchestra, then the eerie moment Furtwängler makes of the final section (seventy bars from the end), and finally the coda, which along with the end of the Mahler Ninth Symphony, comes as close as music can to capturing the sensation of death and dying.
The magnificent 1944 performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, an authenticated performance that is not only Furtwangler’s noblest and most compelling Eroica, but one unrivalled on disc. In retrospect, it is ironic that Furtwängler had this recording suppressed legally when it first appeared in 1953 on the Urania label, for it has a thrust and majesty he was unable to recapture in either of his studio Eroicas. Like the 1951 Hamburg performance of the Brahms First Symphony or the wartime Coriolan Overture, this performance recreates the impact of Furtwängler at his most inspired. It sings with exaltation, particularly in the triumphant sounds of the brass, without losing the work’s architectonics. This Eroica is more focused and less mercurial than the headstrong “Schreiber” performance, and its nerve ends are less exposed. But the concentration and fierceness are markedly similar, though the 1944 performance seems somewhat broader in attitude because it is more consistent in its momentum, and its fire is more warming.
John Ardoin The Furtwängler Record (Amadeus Press, 1994)
This is a must-have for Furtwängler devotees in particular, and collectors of historical performances in general. Emphatically recommended
Both of these fabled performances have enjoyed many releases before, but what Andrew Rose has accomplished here is something of a sonic miracle. In all other hands these recordings were clotted, constricted, and compressed, and one had to employ some degree of imagination to go beyond the compromised audio signal for what were obviously superlative interpretations. Now, without any discovery of a superior source but simply application of his signature XR sound reprocessing technology, Rose has lifted the veil, and both of these performances have been brought up to a level of many radio broadcasts from a decade later. Fair warning: The sound of both performances is quite reverberant; those who prefer a relatively dry acoustic will be repelled and consider the results unnatural. For my part, having heard previous remasterings, I find that Rose adds great presence and depth without falsifying the original sonic profiles; no details are obscured, and many that previously were indiscernible or indistinct are now manifest and clear.
Furtwängler’s reading of the Coriolan Overture is shattering and cataclysmic, as over the top emotionally as his fabled but controversial 1942 performance of the Ninth Symphony. There is simply no other reading like it. For me, this account is definitive for capturing the truly apocalyptic dimension of the Roman general’s tragic fall (though my reference point is of course Shakespeare, not the virtually forgotten play of Heinrich Joseph von Collin for which Beethoven wrote his overture). Compared to the Music & Arts remastering that colleague Henry Fogel reviewed in 18:3, the sound here is far more natural—the frequency and dynamic ranges are opened up, and an annoying rippling sound in the background has been totally removed.
For the “Eroica,” the point of comparison will be the remastering of this symphony in the 18-CD set of Furtwängler’s Vienna Philharmonic performances. Fogel has reviewed multiple releases of this performance; see for example issues 13:2 (Rodolphe), 20:4 (Music & Arts), 23:2 (Music & Arts), and 37:3 (the Orfeo set) for his descriptions of both the performance itself and the comparative quality of the various remasterings. I agree with him that the Orfeo (I own both that and the M& A release) was the best to date. The Orfeo is very good, and I could happily continue to live with it; but, for my money, the new Pristine version gives the orchestra burnished warmth and glow of sound that the comparatively dry Orfeo remastering does not. I also agreed with Henry that, until now, the desert-island choice among Furtwängler’s 11 published performances of the “Eroica” was the Berlin Philharmonic broadcast on 12/8/1952, issued in superior sound in a 12-CD set by Audite; see his reviews of prior releases in 19:2 (Music & Arts) and 21:3 (Tahra). But with the improved sonics in this 1944 performance, it now bids fair to replace that 1952 outing as the Furtwängler interpretation of choice. Like the Coriolan, it is a performance of extremes: monumental in tempos and scale; white-hot in intensity; fierce, brooding, and desperate in struggle, with forced cheer in its sunnier passages. No other conductor so perfectly mirrored his environment, and the anguish of confronting totalitarian brutality and the horrors of war is palpably in evidence.
In short, this is a must-have for Furtwängler devotees in particular, and collectors of historical performances in general—and anyone who isn’t dead-set on having only high-fidelity digital or analog stereo recordings in a collection should acquire it as well. Emphatically recommended, and a major candidate for the 2017 Want List. James A. Altena