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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op. 74, ‘Pathétique’ [48’39"]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Tristan und Isolde* Prelude to Act 1 [11’23"]; Liebestod [7’04"]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler
Recorded in Berlin October – November, 1938 and *11 February, 1938 ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110865 [67’05"]

Both of these recordings, originally made by HMV, are justly famous. They have been in and out of the catalogue (more often "in" than "out") since their first releases. Now, in new transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn, they reach possibly their widest potential audience thanks to Naxos.

I’m not aware that the two recordings have previously appeared coupled together and in his useful notes Ian Julier discusses the links between the two composers represented on this CD and the extent to which Wagner influenced Tchaikovsky. He concludes that "rarely has there been such a blatant passing of potentially mutually sympathetic composers by each other as ships in the night." This is a provocative judgment, but an interesting one, which is given added spice since Furtwängler was such a noted exponent of Wagner. The present recording is, so far as I know, his only studio traversal of a Tchaikovsky symphony.

It is a very impressive and deeply considered reading. The long adagio introduction to the first movement is stoic and resigned in his hands. When the main allegro arrives (10’21") the basic tempo is fairly steady, the music well articulated. Of course, as was ever the case with this conductor, there are numerous small modifications of pace within the basic tempo, some marked in the score, others not. However, he was a master of such changes and of transitions so the whole is completely convincing. The entire movement is an exhibition of great conducting to which the BPO respond ardently.

I’m less happy with the second movement. To my ears the basic tempo is sluggish and heavy. There’s little evidence of charm (the tempo marking is Allegro con grazia but here the music has too little grace, I find). The trio is downright lugubrious. This movement should remind the listener that Tchaikovsky was a great ballet composer but that effect is not achieved here.

The March is free of such idiosyncrasy. However, it is in the finale that Furtwängler is heard at his greatest. This is a reading of gaunt sadness. Throughout the movement the conductor ensures that his players sustain a tremendous intensity. As the searing conclusion arrives there is a sense of loss and ineffable grief but all is done nobly, without hysteria. This is, in short, one of the most searching accounts of this finale that I know. Ian Julier points out that at the time the recording took place both the general situation in Germany and Furtwängler’s personal position were fast deteriorating. We can never know the extent to which external events influence art but it would not be surprising if Furtwängler’s approach to this symphony at this time was influenced by what was going on around him.

Earlier that same year he had set down equally penetrating accounts of the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod. These are incandescent readings and hearing them makes one feel that this is music that Furtwängler was born to conduct. In the Prelude he unfolds Wagner’s music of erotic longing seamlessly and inevitably. The Liebestod is no less successful. The music is built passionately yet patiently; while one is listening to Furtwängler’s interpretation one simply cannot imagine the music sounding any other way.

The transfers on this Naxos CD seem to me to be very successful. There’s a bit more surface hiss on the Wagner items but nothing to detract from enjoyment. As for the Tchaikovsky, the recording sounds quite remarkable for one cut 65 years ago. There’s a great deal of detail reported (more so than in the Wagner) and very little distortion at climaxes. All told, Mark Obert-Thorn has done a remarkable job.

But it’s the performances that matter most. The Wagner is truly splendid. The Tchaikovsky may not convince all listeners (as I’ve indicated, I don’t much care for the treatment of the second movement.) However, the music making is never less than inspired and inspiring. The contents of this CD should be mandatory listening for all who relish the art of conducting.

John Quinn

see also reviews of Christopher Howell and Jonathan Woolf


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