Furtwängler’s famous Berlin Pathétique
was an outstanding set, both interpretatively and in terms of
its recording quality. Its virtues have been endlessly discussed
over the years and there’s little that I can add to the encomia
of over half a century regarding the conductor’s command of
structure and visceral emotive power. It’s true that he does
engage in unmarked ritardandi in the opening movement and that
he can be cavalier over tempo markings generally. Against that
is the undeniable truth that he goes for the long line, doubtless
surprising those who felt him an unlikely conductor of Tchaikovsky.
Certainly like his antipode Toscanini he was a relatively infrequent
conductor of the symphonies but he evinced considerably more
interest in the Russian composer’s music than his Italian counterpart
ever did and to far more telling effect.
In the second movement it is remarkable
how unsectional it is; phrased negatively this sounds unexceptional
but Furtwängler’s ability to think in terms of paragraphs pays
the richest rewards here and is by no means a commonplace gift.
He also took the last repeat in the third movement in the live
1951 Cairo performance whereas he jettisons it in Berlin. The
last two movements are equally fine though the conductor’s admirers
will know that the Cairo recording evinced, if anything, even
greater reserves of power and specifically in these last movements.
So some may baulk at the relatively constricted scherzo, wanting
a more consistently forward moving tempo – but he is saving
it all up for the overwhelming coda, another example of architectural
acuity. The finale is deeply moving but never dawdles and ends
a performance of tragic consequence but profound nobility. There
is no trace whatsoever of mania or over projection; instead
there is grandeur and power and phrasing of a consistently remarkable
The recording still sounds dramatic
all these years later and most transfers do them justice. The
Tchaikovsky is available on Archipel, coupled with Schubert’s
Unfinished and is also on Claremont and an EMI box (a recommendable
set). The Biddulph transfer should be reintroduced to the catalogue
in time. I’m not sure if the Toshiba and Novello transfers are
still in print, the latter probably not, deservedly. The DG
Furtwängler box of live performances contains not this one but
the Cairo recording.
Coupled with it is a rather less
magnetic Fourth, a work to which he responds with considerably
less visceral engagement, though the rigours of architectural
probity are well met. This is a performance that for me never
quite gets going. Tahra have transferred from an HMV ALP LP,
and the results are once more commendable. The performance is
unhistrionic, down to earth (too down to earth) and relaxed
to the point of perhaps seeming relatively indifferent. The
recording is certainly a fine one and this serves only to heighten
the disappointment of a recording that fitfully engages; too
much is perfunctory. But it does valuably complement the Sixth
in the brace of commercially recorded symphonies left by Furtwängler.
The Bruckner is, amazing though
it now seems, Furtwängler’s only commercial recording of the
composer; others were live survivals. The sound is slightly
constricted but overall superior to the later broadcast material
that’s survived. The string burnish isn’t quite caught, but
the brass balance is good. There’s a powerful amalgam of sweetness
and grave nobility here with melodrama eschewed in favour of
long term and powerfully cogent architectural strengths.
Schumann’s Fourth was transferred
from a DGG LP which has given good frequency response. It’s
an unreservedly marvellous reading and a locus classicus of
the conductor’s style, with a dynamism perhaps augmented by
the studio disagreement he’d had with the engineers when he
refused to listen to their pleas to edit yet again and proceeded
to tell them he’s play it through once more, in full, and they’d
better be ready. The result is a monument to his art and indeed
to Schumann symphonic conducting. The brooding introduction
and ensuing lebhaft section are supremely realised and
there’s driving, cumulative tension and power throughout. He
also takes the first movement repeat, by no means standard practice.
There’s gravity and a noble patina to the Romanze and a comprehensively
engaging Scherzo, dramatic thrust and mellow reflection held
in balance and some characteristic “peaty” sonorities that are
much a feature of the conductor’s realisation of it. The finale
– so full of carefully engaged power – ends a truly great Fourth.
A recommendable double from Tahra.
The duplication of the Pathétique with Naxos’s recent
transfer may limit enthusiasm somewhat given that company’s
tempting price structure but the Schumann is mandatory listening
– you need it if you’re at all a Furtwängler devotee.