FURTWÄNGLER Brahms: Symphony No. 1, Haydn Variations (1951) - PASC563

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FURTWÄNGLER Brahms: Symphony No. 1, Haydn Variations (1951) - PASC563

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BRAHMS Haydn Variations
BRAHMS Symphony No. 1

Live broadcast recording, 1951
Total duration: 68:44

Sinfonieorchester des Nordwestdeutschen Rundfunks
conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler

This set contains the following albums:

"...Finally, we come to the Brahms disc. The Haydn Variations is a fine performance once again strengthened by the improvement in sonic clarity. But the First Symphony is even more than that. If you already know this performance and recording, you probably need not read further. But if you are unfamiliar with it, a few words are in order. This is the performance (in Tahra's prior transfer) I use most often to introduce Furtwängler to someone unfamiliar with his art. It has long been recognized as one of his greatest recorded documents, surprising since it is with neither of the two orchestras he worked with most regularly, but instead with the Hamburg Radio forces. The orchestra had been recently formed (under Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt), and Furtwängler was invited to lead an all-Brahms concert on October 27, 1951, culminating with this grand and mesmerizing performance of the First Symphony. From the intensity of the strings and timpani at the opening to the final chords, this is Brahms that grabs you by the throat and won't let go. It is at once dramatic and lyrical, genial and stern, heaven-storming, and intimate. It has always been one of Furtwängler's best-sounding recordings, and was Tahra's first release over 10 years ago (FURT 1001). It was mightily impressive then, but now, shorn of the excessive "ambience" that had been added, it sounds even more natural and powerful. No one who loves this symphony should be without this recording..."

Henry Fogel, Fanfare magazine, 2001
Review of 2001 release as part of Tahra CD set

The Fanfare review of a previous remastering of these recordings offers great praise not only for the superlative performance, but also the advances in sound quality that were achieved between 1991 and 2001. A decade is a long time in sound restoration technology in the digital age. And so, nearly two decades on from the reviewed release, we can hear in the present Ambient Stereo XR-remaster just how much further progress has been made since the beginning of the present century. Sound once described as "natural and powerful" sounds today somewhat brittle and shrill, if certainly clean. There's an unnatural tubbiness and boxiness to the recording and a distinct lack of warmth and lower end heft. These are among the undesireable qualities the present release aims to deal with.

The early 1950s might well be regarded as the dawn of the hi-fi era. With the advent of vinyl long-playing records the home listener was finally starting to hear what recording engineers had known possible since the late 1930s, and things were improving apace across the world of recorded sound quality. Nevertheless there was still quite some way to go, and while the microphones used here in 1951 certainly were capable of capturing fine sound they were far from perfect. Rebalancing this sound using today's cutting-edge digital technology reveals the full depth and breadth of Furtwängler's orchestra, something only previously hinted at, as well as revealing hidden colours and detail previously obscured. It really is a total transformation; anyone who's ever loved this recording in the past really must hear it again in this fabulous new incarnation.

Andrew Rose

FURTWÄNGLER conducts Brahms

BRAHMS Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op.56
1. Theme. Andante  (2:24)
2. Variation 1. Poco più animato  (1:20)
3. Variation 2. Più vivace  (1:08)
4. Variation 3. Con moto  (2:10)
5. Variation 4. Andante con moto  (2:56)
6. Variation 5. Vivace  (1:00)
7. Variation 6. Vivace  (1:34)
8. Variation 7. Grazioso  (3:23)
9. Variation 8. Presto non troppo  (1:09)
10. Finale. Andante  (4:07)

BRAHMS Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
11. 1st mvt. - Un poco sostenuto - Allegro  (14:59)
12. 2nd mvt. - Andante sostenuto  (10:09)
13. 3rd mvt. - Un poco allegretto e grazioso  (5:13)
14. 4th mvt. - Adagio - Allegro non troppo, ma con brio  (17:12)

Sinfonieorchester des Nordwestdeutschen Rundfunks    
conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler

XR remastering by Andrew Rose
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Furtwängler

Live broadcast recording, 27 October 1951
Musikhalle, Hamburg

Total duration:  68:44    

Fanfare magazine review

If I dreamed of the ideal Brahms First Symphony and Variations on a Theme of Haydn, it would sound just like this

When I first encountered this performance of the Brahms First Symphony in the 1990s, I reviewed it in Fanfare 18:5, 20:3, and 35:6, the latter two in a fine transfer by Tahra. I commented: “If I had to choose a single recorded performance to convince a listener that Wilhelm Furtwängler was one of the greatest conductors to make records, I would most likely choose this one, in part because of the strength of the performance and in part because of its superior sound quality when compared to other Furtwängler recordings. Both works come from the same concert, and together they should completely overwhelm anyone who cares about music.” (Also on the same program was the Double Concerto with soloists Erich Röhn and Arthur Troester, which does not seem to have survived in recorded form).

Nothing that I have heard in the ensuing years has changed my mind. This is a classic concert recording adored by virtually all who admire the conducting of Furtwängler and even some who do not. Those who already own it in one of Tahra’s editions will want to know if Pristine’s is better enough to warrant replacement. After extensive A-B comparing of specific spots, and then listening through from beginning to end, my answer is yes. This has always been one of the sonically best of Furtwängler’s recordings, with a more natural orchestral sonority and less dynamic compression than most. But as Andrew Rose points out in his “producer’s note,” restoration technology continues to improve. What this edition does is to clarify the texture of the bass (evident in the low brass, timpani, and the double basses), which was a bit wooly and unfocused in the Tahra, and Rose provides a more natural warmth to the string sound. Even the woodwinds, always one of the best features of this recording, have a bit more color and vibrancy now.

All of these improvements work to demonstrate that one of Furtwängler’s strengths was an orchestral colorist. He cared about the variety of intensity possible in applying vibrato, and about the exact balance between instruments, which affects orchestral timbre. Particularly in the Haydn Variations we hear the conductor shading dynamic adjustments with incredible subtlety and bridging tempo changes with impeccable logic.

Pristine’s XR Ambient Stereo process gives the recording a natural sense of space and warmth without ever sounding like artificial reverberation has been added. There are any number of recordings carefully made under studio conditions in 1951 that do not sound as good as this does. Although in 1980 I entered a 1952 Berlin Philharmonic/Furtwängler Brahms First in Fanfare’s Hall of Fame, this release supersedes that one. Not only would I use this recording to introduce any music lover to Furtwängler, but I would probably also use it to introduce a newcomer to Brahms. If I dreamed of the ideal Brahms First Symphony and Variations on a Theme of Haydn, it would sound just like this.

Henry Fogel

This article originally appeared in Issue 43:1 (Sept/Oct 2019) of Fanfare Magazine.