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Beethoven - Leonore Overture No 3
- Symphonie in C major
Brahms - Symphony No 4

Wiener Philharmoniker, Wilhelm Furtwängler
Orfeo C 525 991 B, 71'47,
 Mid Price

Beethoven - Symphony No 9
Seefried - Wagner - Dermota - Greindl
Wiener Philharmoniker, Wilhelm Furtwängler
Orfeo C 533 001 B, 76'49,
Mid Price

Comparative Versions of Furtwangler Beethoven's Ninth
Berlin Philharmonic, Briem, Höngen, Anders & Watzke, Berlin 1942
(ARPCD0002 on Archipel) Crotchet Bargain price
A better transfer on (Music & Arts, CD 653) Amazon UK Full price
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele, Schwarzkopf, Höngen, Hopf & Edelmann, Bayreuth 1951 (EMI Great Recordings of the Century CDM5669012 )
Mid Price
Philharmonia Orchestra, Schwarzkopf, Cavelti, Haefliger & Edelmann, Lucerne 1954 (Tahra, FURT 1003) Amazon UK Full price

Of these two discs it is probably the performance of Beethoven's Ninth which will be of most interest to Furtwängler collectors since it is a previously unissued performance from the 1951 Salzburg Festival. Perhaps more interestingly, it comes less than a month after Furtwängler's most celebrated (though far from best) recording - the 1951 Bayreuth Ninth. The two performances are so vastly different as to make for astonishing listening with the new Vienna Ninth both better played and more profound. The sense that this was a sacred occasion for Furtwängler is evident from first note to last.

Let me start with the first disc, however. The opening Overture No 3, Leonore, is new to disc and comes from fragments of a July 1948 performance of Fidelio (one of four he conducted that year at Salzburg). It is, as is so often the case with Furtwängler's conducting of Beethoven's single opera, an enormously symphonic reading. It has power and tension in equal measure even if no conductor has ever equalled Furtwängler's mastery in unifying in this long interlude the sense of contrast that makes for Fidelio's genius. Coming after the tensions of the Prison Scene Furtwängler's volcanic, explosive conducting sets the seal on a performance that embraces symbolism more potently than any other recording of it: passion and tension become a microcosm for the pervading sense of darkness and light. I can think of no better analogy than the approach of an eclipse. The Vienna Philharmonic play magnificently.

The Pfitzner Symphony is of slight interest. The performance has already been released previously - and in a better transfer than here (hunt out the German Furtwängler Society discs if you really want this work). The work is not a great one and Furtwängler's performance seems to my ears unconvincing. I can only assume he programmed the work because of Pfitzner's previous acts of generosity towards the conductor in his Strasbourg years.

The performance of Brahms' Fourth Symphony, however, is an entirely different affair. It is one of the greatest recordings of it and is essential listening. Furtwängler does seem to have had an ambivalent attitude towards the symphonies, finding the Third almost incomprehensible, but there is no doubt that he understood the two outer works magnificently. Performances of the First are literally terrifying in their power, with the structures given Titanic breadth. For the Fourth, he embraced lyrical warmth (just listen to the opening of the work to hear how lyrical Furtwängler could be) with a dynamic, dramatic power which, in the case of the first movement, compels the performance to an exhilarating close. If there is a difference between his Berlin and Vienna readings of this work it is probably one of muscularity. The Berlin performances are, without exception, more one-dimensional with the melodic lyricism almost expunged; this Vienna performance just drips with colour (even with poor sound). Woodwind solos are more charismatic, the strings gloriously full-bodied. This Vienna Fourth glows where his Berlin recordings perhaps flicker like candles.

Unlike his performances of Beethoven's Ninth (and a number of other works, like Bruckner's Eighth) his conception of the Brahms' Fourth rarely altered. The great dynamic statement of the first movement's first subject, just before the magnificent coda, is reached at a breathtaking pulse. Both Toscanini, in his Philharmonia version, and Carlos Kleiber in his Vienna performance, make much of the dramatic thrill the coda brings but neither quite builds the tension up as skilfully as Furtwängler. In the allegro giacoso Furtwängler presents us with a series of dramatic explosions, and in the final movement he takes the passacaglia at a neck-breaking speed. Trombones are inflamed, drums crash like battle cries and the strings are just one single elemental fireball. This is one of the most thunderous recordings ever released on disc. The recording is not without its technical problems (there is as in all transfers of this recording a loud bang at the opening of the Fourth movement) but the remastered sound breathes new beauty into the gloriously layered playing of a Vienna Philharmonic on top form.

Recordings of Furtwängler conducting Beethoven's Ninth are legion - and legendary. This is at least the eleventh recording to have appeared and differs little in conception from his other recordings. Where all of his recordings become special is in the intensity they emit. Of the three comparative recordings listed above this new Vienna performance is the slowest - but as ever with Furtwängler breadth of tempo often tells half the story. The breadth of the first movement, notably slower than in his wartime Berlin recording, leads to playing of such depth of emotion and such grandeur one is almost crushed by it. The strings are glorious, and with a miraculous flute emerging (at 14'38) one hears inner details that can often be missed in live performances from this period. The intensity develops almost solely because of the slowness of tempo but rarely will you hear a first movement that is taken in such a singular, all spanning arch. Even the coda (at 17'18) emerges from the preceding chords preternaturally where in so many performances it is almost an after-thought.

Ironically, the slow movement is the fastest of my listed versions but, as ever, the tempo means little. This Vienna performance glows with the same saturation of tone, the same intensity of expression and the same warmth of phrasing as all the others. The glorious Vienna strings are, however, exactly that - playing with an expressive, hymnal quality which Furtwängler only really matched in his unbearably moving Philharmonia account - his very final Ninth.

Furtwängler's conducting of the final movement was always special and no Beethoven lover can ever claim to have heard the Ninth until they have heard at least one of Furtwängler's recordings of this movement. He is little short of seismic rolling out the dynamics of this vast structure with unrivalled insight. The 1951 performance has immense power, the 1942 performance a dissolved fury that almost breaks apart the very structure of the movement. It is often said that the Berlin performance has a freneticism which can terrify the listener. This is true, but its very elementalism is almost impossible to bear on repeated listening. The Vienna version is much closer to its near contemporary - the Bayreuth. Here, as a month earlier, the opening recitatives have an emphatic depth to the emotion, and are certainly less ferociously played than in the wartime recording. As in all his performances of the Ninth, the very closing pages are cataclysmic with chorus and soloists blazing like a furnace.

Where does this Vienna Ninth stand in comparison with the other recordings? I think it might just be the greatest we yet have of Furtwängler conducting this work. Part of the reason is the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic who bring more colour to their phrasing than either the Berlin Philharmonic or the Bayreuth Orchestra. The strings have great depth, and none of the harshness which sometimes jeopardises the fluency of the 1942 Berlin account. The Bayreuth suffers from lax playing generally. Moreover, the Vienna woodwind are beautifully placed and give their solos in the most gorgeously toned of phrasing. The Philharmonia are even finer here in a performance so unique one cannot ignore its claims of greatness. The Vienna recording is also very transparent with voices and orchestra well balanced, just as in the Tahra release of the 1954 account.

It is so difficult to choose between the Vienna and Philharmonia accounts that both become essential purchases. In neither recording would anyone be disappointed.

Marc Bridle

Performances - Beethoven Ninth -

Brahms Fourth -

Beethoven Leonore -

Pfitzner -

Reviews from previous months

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