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Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony no. 6 in B minor, op. 74 – "Pathétique"
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Recorded October-November 1938 (Tchaikovsky), 11th February 1938 (Wagner), Berlin
CD transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110865 [67:05]

Tchaikovsky had a relatively marginal place in Furtwängler’s repertoire, but he did make commercial recordings of the 4th and 6th Symphonies and we can hear his interpretation of the 5th through a live performance with the Turin Radio Orchestra which, in spite of sonic and orchestral limitations, is pretty enthralling. We also have a later performance of the "Pathétique", recorded live by the Berlin Philharmonic in Cairo in 1951. This was first issued by Deutsche Grammophon on LP and has been in and out of the catalogue over the years.

The fascination of Furtwängler’s art is that, at his best, he re-created the music he was conducting. The many live performances that have been issued show that, with an audience present, his muse rarely failed to visit him and spur him on to astonishing heights. This was more difficult in the recording studio, where he often seemed to make his points with a heavy hand, though there certainly were occasions when things took wing – Schubert 9, Schumann 4 and Tristan are famous, white hot, examples.

Since we can hear him both in the studio and live in the "Pathétique", is there any notable difference? As the timings show, the basic interpretation actually changed very little in the course of thirteen years:

1938: 20:05, 8:52, 9:19, 10:23

1951: 19:47, 9:18, 9:47, 9:42

The studio performance begins promisingly, with a strong sense of foreboding, and the transfer engineer has extracted a remarkable amount of burnished tone from the lower strings. After this the Allegro slides in very delicately, like a reminiscence of a long-distant visit to the ballet. The violas’ counterpoint as the music builds up is marvellous – this is great orchestral playing and conducting. But then doubts begin to creep in. Is the tempo not just a little too slow? Is the conductor not holding back too much, and for too long, until he permits himself a sudden surge forward for the first forte? And then, tenderly and yearningly expressed though the second subject is, are the points not underlined a bit too heavily? Is the music not made to wheeze rather than breathe? And so it goes on, with many passionate and fiery moments, but with a tendency to hang fire in moments of transition, with the result that my attention was held only intermittently.

Turning to the live performance, the sense of foreboding expressed at the beginning is maybe even more potent – the strings dig very deeply into their expansion of the bassoon’s opening phrases – and the Allegro slides in as gently as before. Yet it has something else to it, not just elegance and innocence, but melancholy and passion too. Where the earlier performance continued gently, the live one is building up inexorably, and the extra tension gives a sense to the time the conductor takes over transitions. The agogic underlinings in the second subject convince now thanks to the conductor’s extra involvement. In short, the studio performance seems a blueprint for the live – truly live – one.

The next two movements tell a similar story. The 5/4 "waltz" has much elegance – at a very slow speed – in 1938, but the middle section is dolefully static, while in 1951 the same elegance was combined with a free-flowing expressiveness which also gives a sense to the similarly slow treatment of the middle section. In 1938 Furtwängler adopted the old trick of slowing down for the last appearance of the march theme of the third movement – readers unaccustomed to historical recordings may not even know that virtually all conductors did this in those days. He still did it in 1951, but slightly less so, and following a steadier build-up, with the result that tension is not dissipated and pomposity is avoided.

The last movement perhaps finds Furtwängler at his most involved in the studio performance, and here the differences between the two versions are minimal.

The 1938 recording is commendably clear, if shallow, and the elements do not gel in the forte passages, resulting in a certain stridency. The 1951 version shows its more recent date with a smoother and deeper sound-picture, but it also betrays its off-the-air origin with a certain mushiness and above all it distorts very badly at the climaxes (I am speaking of the original LP issue, I don’t know if any improvements have been made subsequently). Neither is entirely satisfactory, then, but I found the limitations of the 1951 recording no bar to my involvement and I feel this is the performance by which the conductor should be remembered. However, there is much to be said for having both and reflecting on the lessons to be gleaned from them. I haven’t gone into comparisons with other performances since I feel that this very broad, tragic and deliberately unhysterical view of the work is unique. Basically, Furtwängler responds to the compassion and humanity of the music, underplaying the neurosis, and it is arguable that the white-hot "Russian" approach of a Mravinsky or a Markevich gives a completer picture of Tchaikovsky’s own personality.

In the Wagner Furtwängler takes a little time to warm up, the long rests at the beginning of the prelude creaking rather than breathing, but his muse quickly takes over to produce a reading as passionate as you could wish, with a terrific climax. The first LP transfer of this recording, a collaboration between Unicorn and the Wilhelm Furtwängler Society, found a frequency range (both upper and lower) which could almost kid you it was a modern recording. Mark Obert-Thorn rather surprisingly contents himself with a more limited response, creating a boxier sound; the difference was great enough to limit my response to the performance itself and I would never hear it again in preference to the LP. (To be fair, the LP has moments of mild distortion which are absent here).

I’m not quite sure what sort of a recommendation this amounts to, or to whom. Those who lack the back-up knowledge required to read the performances and recordings in the right context should proceed with caution.

Christopher Howell

Jonathan Woolf has also listened to this recording

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. But 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 kind. Earlier in the year conductor and orchestra had recorded the Tristan Act 1 Prelude and Liebestod, exalted examples of his Wagnerian work with the Berlin Orchestra and benefiting equally from superior sonics.

The recordings still sound 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 DG Furtwängler box of live performances contains not this one but the Cairo recording.

Jonathan Woolf

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