> Furtwangler: Haydn - Beethoven - Schumann - Bruckner [PQ]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony no. 88 in G major
Recorded 22 October 1951, Waldheim Degerloch, Stuttgart
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

‘Coriolan’ Overture op.62
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Symphony no.1 in B major op.38, ‘Spring Symphony’
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)

Symphony no. 4 in E flat major
Recorded 29 October 1951, Deutsches Museum, Munich
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
ORFEO C559 022 I [2CDs: 132’34"]


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This Orfeo set contains a concert from a 22-day tour, during which Furtwängler and the orchestra gave 18 concerts in three countries. The Haydn 88 from Stuttgart prefaced another Bruckner 4 and, somewhat incongruously, Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole. This concert was also preserved in its entirety and would have made a fascinating companion set to the Munich concert. The Bruckner symphony barely alters from Stuttgart to Munich but the earlier performance has been issued less frequently and the audience is quieter. A previous issue of the Bruckner from Munich is at a higher pitch, causing a difference of over three minutes to the symphony’s timing; this one seems to be correct and is from a Bavarian Radio tape. Direct comparison appears to indicate that the previous issue was of an in-house tape, judging from the giveaway presence of seat creaking.

H.C. Robbins Landon has said that Furtwängler’s studio recording of Haydn 88 (made a little over a month later with the Berlin Philharmonic) is one of the finest of all Haydn symphony recordings. High praise, but Furtwängler’s heavily accented way with the symphony is not to my taste; certainly of the works on this set it is the one which most modern ears will find hardest to like. The first beat of the bar is relentlessly stressed in the first and third movements and grace is in short supply throughout. The live performance betrays these faults rather more strongly than the studio recording. Without recourse to the slimmer textures of period instruments, Rattle has conducted the Vienna Phil in this piece to much more positive effect; I hope they record it together.

The popularity of Furtwängler’s art and the increasing accessibility of good original tapes has led to just about every one of the conductor’s extant performances being available at any one time. Consequently even the most mendacious of labels have ceased to claim that such-and-such a Beethoven 7 is ‘never before released’. Record companies now claim the attention of Furtwängler-fanciers with one of two tactics: new remastering of familiar tapes (which Tahra and EMI do, largely with success) and the repackaging of more-or-less familiar performances in the context of their original concert (EMI’s recently issued set of the Third and Fifth Brandenburgs with an Eroica is a must-hear). Perhaps the concept sounds rather glib, but the more such packages I hear, the more I find that they not only enhance the enjoyment of performances which may already be familiar to the listener but that the provision of their context offers valuable information about aspects of the interpretation on that particular occasion - aspects which might otherwise have caused one to prefer another performance on another occasion.

Taking into consideration Furtwängler’s recorded performances of the Coriolan Overture as an example, few would rate the broader span of this Munich performance superior to the terrifyingly intense version from Berlin in 1943. The sforzandi which slash across the earlier version are softened in favour of a no less weighty (the glowering, massive opening chords should convince you of that) concentration on the work’s doom-laden dramatic subtext. In 1943 the release of fury through the work’s climactic series of descending chords had been scored so heavily into the music that the coda limps disjointedly to its muted end like a wounded beast. In 1951 the descent is more gradual and more noble, at a steadier tempo with slightly less exaggeratedly soft playing. If anything, the interpretation brings out a sense of the heroic in the score rather than that of desperation. Schumann’s Manfred comes much closer both in dramatic content and in structure. What, then, does Furtwängler programme next in the concert but the composer’s First Symphony!

The hugely rhetorical Andante introduction thus becomes less grandiose than it can sometimes seem. The softer approach to phrasing remarked on earlier is a frequent characteristic of Furtwängler’s post-war interpretations and one which perhaps suits the sound and phrasing of the Vienna Philharmonic better than the knotted and dark orchestral fist of the Berliners which helps to define the character of so many of Furtwangler’s wartime performances. One of his masterful transitions leads into an Allegro which springs (sorry) along with a lightness of articulation not always associated with the conductor as ultimate purveyor of an intense, Germanic style. Impetuosity and good humour are everywhere in evidence; I can’t imagine how the opening theme of the slow movement could be played any more lovingly than it is here, with slight hesitations that never impede the music’s flow.

The most difficult movement to bring off is the finale, as full of episodes as indeed that of Bruckner’s Fourth. Furtwängler’s approach to both is not to paper over the cracks but, with pauses sliced out of the music and a wide variety of tempos, to make them part of a landscape rich in incident. For all that, the transition seven minutes into Bruckner’s finale still sounds as though it’s about to settle into a Pomp and Circumstance march. Unscripted timpani rolls and a cymbal crash at 2’40" in the finale will tell you that the edition is hardly standard, but put them aside and you’ll hear a Bruckner performance of sure purpose and amazing energy. How the strings surge into a melody whenever they are given a chance, yet Furtwängler doesn’t need modern engineering to ensure that wind detail isn’t swamped. His tempi for the first two movements are, allowing for ebb and flow, fairly similar and thus consistent with the markings. The Andante quasi allegretto is especially well sustained, with a pathos all the more affecting for being quite self-contained and not the slightest bit sentimental. If you get a chance to hear this, don’t miss five minutes into I, where Furtwängler makes a massive pause before the strings enter with a huge (equally unmarked) accent. The effect is even more dramatic on what remains of a 1941 performance given in Berlin. Were it complete, the felt need of the music to make itself heard would place this at the top of recorded performances of the symphony.

Those who already know and love this Munich Bruckner Fourth may well wish to hear it at the correct pitch (!). Those who have been happy with the ‘standard library recommendation’ of Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic should hear a performance on a quite other level of inspiration. Knappertsbusch’s live Vienna Phil recording shares that passion but succumbs to technical and textural gaucheries.

Peter Quantrill


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