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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1953)
Symphony no. 1 in B flat major, op. 38 – "Spring", Symphony no. 4 in D minor, op. 120
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Recorded live, Berlin, October 29th 1951, March 17th 1951
AURA AUR 257 [64:44]



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On 14th May 1953 Furtwängler, exasperated by the producer’s demands for more and more takes during sessions for Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, announced that he and the orchestra would play the whole work through once, and the producer could take it or leave it. He took it, and the result has been an inspiration ever since, one of the most enthralling re-creations of a piece of music ever committed to disc. Indeed, its influence can be positively insidious, for once heard, it is difficult to imagine the work any other way; the recent recording by Christian Thielemann showed what a danger this can be for other conductors.

The question is, did Furtwängler himself always conduct it in this way? For those of us who love the studio recording, the chance to hear a live performance given a couple of years before is irresistible and the answer is, yes, he conducted it in exactly the same way, the same rubatos, the same spurts of impetuosity, even the orchestral imprecisions are exactly the same and in the same places. As you can see, I’m suspicious and, having compared the two first movements closely in short stretches, I’m prepared to wager that this is the 1953 studio recording in a transfer so dull as to reduce much of the impact of the performance. There is, by the way, no evidence of an audience present, and we know from real live recordings what state the Berliners’ lungs were likely to be in by mid-March.

I should add that no discography of Furtwängler that I’ve been able to consult reports the existence of this performance (while some Furtwängler performances known to exist – and listed in the discographies - are still unissued and in private hands, the chances of something new from 1951 surfacing now are remote). They do, however, reveal that a performance from later in 1953 with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra has had a limited circulation, so the question, "did he always conduct it this way?" may yet receive an official answer.

In 1953, when the Furtwängler cult was getting into its stride, Decca issued on two LPs a complete concert given by the Vienna Philharmonic under Furtwängler on 29th October 1951 in Munich. The programme consisted of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Schumann’s First Symphony and Bruckner’s 4th in a very strange edition (more recently, this concert has been issued by Orfeo). The Furtwängler/Schumann repertoire is not exactly large (these two symphonies, Manfred Overture, the piano and cello concertos and that’s it) so here, too, we can only welcome the opportunity to hear him perform the First Symphony with a different orchestra, in a different city, but on the same date. Well now, I’m suspicious again. Furtwängler was a remarkable chap, but I don’t believe that even he could have given two performances of the same work, with different orchestras and in different cities, on the same day. Of course, the performances are the same.

Actually, it is the fact that the same date is given which persuades me that Aura are not deliberately misleading the public (if you’re going to fake a performance you’d change the date too, wouldn’t you?) but have rather themselves been misled by a muddle-minded collector with a cellar full of badly labelled tapes. Still, they might have checked up a bit more carefully.

These are great performances and I hope to discuss them in detail one day. The present review is merely a warning – keep away! The Fourth, incidentally, is still in copyright till the end of this year.

Christopher Howell



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