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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, ‘Pathétique’ (1893) [48’39].
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tristan und Isolde (1865) - Prelude, Act I [11’23]; Verklärung [7’04].
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
From HMV DB4609-14 (Tchaikovsky) and DB3419/20 (Wagner). Rec. in Berlin on October-November (Tchaikovsky) and February 11th (Wagner), 1938. ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110865 [67’05]


Recorded during a particularly perilous time for the conductor, these performances reflect the growing angst that Furtwängler felt at being in the grip of the Nazis. This was exacerbated by the political-goings on regarding Karajan as a serious rival both at the Berlin Philharmonic and the Staatsoper. Known in history as perhaps the greatest and most satisfying conductor of the music of Wagner, Furtwängler had only one of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies in his repertoire. It is therefore an interesting assessment indeed as to the way in which the conductor would present music so laden with emotion and pathos.

Coming in at well over three-quarters of an hour, one senses right away that this reading is going to be more broadly paced than what is customary in more recent recordings. The opening movement, a full twenty minutes, is devoid of histrionics and emotional outbursts, especially at the entrance of the second theme. The opening song, with its haunting, sweeping melody borders on being held in restraint, giving it more of a melancholy effect as opposed to the customary outpouring of feeling.

The elegant second movement "waltz" (in spite of its five to the bar meter) is, I believe, somewhat hampered by the slowness of tempo. This passage should really stand in bold relief to the churning first movement, and alas, at this rather lugubrious pace, it loses its elegant dance qualities and takes on a more funereal character.

The third movement scherzo rips along at a swashbuckling pace, a bit more in line with contemporary performances and fully equipped with all of the stormy elements that one would expect of this music. But it is the closing movement that is best served, as Furtwängler creates a palpable sense of the resignation to fate, an almost desperate feeling of the inevitable.

And then there is the Wagner. Perhaps no other conductor has been able to capture the intensity of this composer’s music, complete with requisite gravitas and yet totally devoid of needless sentimentality. Perfectly paced with the exact amount of rubato to convey the essence of the music, this is a performance for the ages. Sadly enough the masters from which Mr. Obert-Thorn had to work were not as flawless as those for the Tchaikovsky, but this is a problem soon dissolved with the sheer magnificence of the music-making. Customarily, I consign historical recordings to the special interest bin, the nostalgic look on history and how things used to be done. Not so this performance. This is a, if not the, must-have performance of this music, and at a bargain price, no collection is complete without it.

Overall, recorded sound quality is amazingly full given the period and the available technology, and as is his custom, Mark Obert-Thorn has done superb work in the transfers, capturing all of the available sound in its full bloom without making the original masters sound altered or artificial. Program notes by Ian Julier are brief, but concise, giving sufficient information to enhance the listener’s pleasure and interest.

Kevin Sutton

See reviews by Colin Clarke Christopher Howell and Jonathan Woolf

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