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Wiener Philharmoniker, Wilhelm Furtwängler
EMI Classics Festspieldokumente CMS5 67422 2 (2 discs, 44'15 & 52'07), Mid Price  (Recorded Live 31 August 1950)
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This 1950 performance (here released for the first time) of Beethoven's Eroica from the Salzburg Festival takes to ten the number of different recordings now available of Furtwängler conducting this work. He was a legendary interpreter of it, with each recording (even the often less dramatic studio recordings from 1947/9 and 1952) offering us a Promethean journey through this most astonishing of symphonies. Despite the poor sound, one can quite clearly hear the standard Furtwängler leitmotifs of angst, relentlessness, power and sense of proportion that he alone brought to this work. It is, by any counts, as grave and noble a performance as any of its predecessors.

All recordings of the Eroica stand in the shadows of Furtwängler's December 1944 performance, also with the Vienna Philharmonic. It is a recording of rare breadth, particularly in the Funeral March, and one that gives us an almost unparalleled use of dynamics. Allowing for the adjustments made to pitch, this 1950 recording is very close to it in terms of tempo and very close to the 1944 account in terms of mood.

The second movement offers some very telling comparisons. There is a similar broadening to the movement as it develops, with the double fugue gloriously transfigured and the tumultuous outburst that follows it breaching the walls of catastrophe. Indeed, Furtwängler is almost alone in how he breaks this movement down into its two separate parts - the triumphant opening trio with its bursts of light, and the darker second episode with its grief-stricken harmonies. Both in 1944 and 1950 you sense the tragedy of this symphony - and that the Funeral March is at the centre of it.

The Scherzo is more delicate, even deft, in the later recording with a delicacy to the textures that makes it almost seem lightweight by comparison with the wartime Eroica. The concluding Allegro Molto, however, is just magnificent. From the fiery opening (always common to Furtwängler's conception of this movement), to the fugue and the glorious double variations both playing and conducting are a miracle of creation. The horn chorale at 8'50, for example, emerges like a bursting dam with a power to match but how wonderfully Furtwängler controls it so the pianissimo that falls in at 9'38 does so almost imperceptibly. The coda, as profound as it was meant to be, blazes uncontrollably. In the end, this is Beethoven interpretation of the very highest order.

The booklet notes incorrectly date this Eroica (twice) as having been performed on 31 August 1951. On that very date Furtwängler was, in fact, conducting Beethoven's Ninth.

The coupling for this Eroica is a performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Nos 3 and 5. EMI's booklet notes are, however, misleading by claiming this is a first release. Both the Bach appeared on a Japanese Refrain CD, and before that twice on LP (once on Nippon and once on Discocorp). The performances, however, are extraordinary both for the quality of the playing, which offers ensemble playing of rare precision, and for Furtwängler's wonderfully sensitive piano playing (in No 5).

These are not, however, recordings for purists. Not only does Furtwängler use a full string section he also ignores Bach's stated tempi. The opening movement of the Concerto No 3, for example, is marked allegro, but Furtwängler actually takes it maestoso. The effect is extraordinary, the dynamics more heavily stressed than perhaps in any other recording of the work. By way of contrast, the opening of the third movement (taken in tempo) has string arpeggios of the utmost lightness.

For the Concerto No 5, Furtwängler uses a standard piano (even though harpsichords were used at the time). The opening, therefore, has the effect more of Schubert than of Bach. You will hear the bass line in the continuo played in octaves and there are some extremely Brahmsian left-hand chords that add further weight to this astonishingly heavy performance. The interplay between Furtwängler, and his two principals (Boskovsky on violin and Niedermayer on flute) is, however, an object lesson in great ensemble playing. The performance is more expansive than any other, but somehow captures the imagination. Its idiosyncrasies will not bear repeated listening, but as an example of supreme music making it is hard to think of anything quite as thought provoking and controversial as this.

The Beethoven performance is, I think, essential listening - and not just for Furtwängler devotees. The Bach will either compel you or repulse you ; there really is no middle ground with these performances. In summary, a quite remarkable pair of discs.

Marc Bridle

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Marc Bridle

Performances -



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