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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]


It is difficult to imagine a Tchaikovsky six getting off to a better start than here. Thanks to the excellent transfer, all the detail of the dark-hued Adagio comes through magnificently; the Allegro steals in under the tightest of control. As the reading proceeds, details, miraculous in themselves (try the gossamer string ascent at around 6’30) become part of a whole that remains completely within Furtwängler’s long-range conception. Yet despite a feeling of tight reins in operation and not letting the music go, the sudden orchestral ‘scream’ remains shocking. But Furtwängler’s approach remains fundamentally Germanic, imparting a massive feeling to the ongoing argument. Sometimes the music flows along like unstoppable molten lava. A pity there is some swish towards the end of the movement.

This Germanic view does in fact impede the Allegro con grazia, which remains decidedly unballetic. Some listeners may find the period portamenti distracting, but to my mind it works perfectly; probably because the players so obviously believe in Furtwängler.

Furtwängler’s third movement continues his view that there is less light in this work than frequently accorded it. This is grittily determined playing. The finale’s opening is bitingly impactful, yet it does not have the searing interruptive intensity of Bernstein (DG). Yet Furtwängler is a master of the shadows - there is no movement into clear, bright light here. As the movement progresses, Furtwängler goes deeper and deeper, even including frenzy among the black emotions on display.

Not for everyday listening.

Furtwängler’s affinity with Tristan is the stuff of legend. To say the Prelude in this 1938 reading steals in is an understatement. The anacrusis is all but inaudible but it is there! The inclusion of this as ‘filler’ is instructive, however - and possibly not as Naxos intended. The first few bars are incredibly natural, as if Furtwängler is breathing this music as his air-supply. This is far more natural, in fact, than anything in the whole of the Tchaikovsky, whatever that interpretation’s merits. This is great conducting. True, the violins at around 7’11 have some shrillness, but there is no doubting the unstoppable momentum Furtwängler has generated.

Perhaps the miracle of this Wagner is that for once the Transfiguration’s emergence from the death of the Prelude sounds entirely natural. Of course it is impossible not to miss the voice here, but the feeling of redemptive peace at the end is worth every second.

Transfers are, as always with Obert-Thorn, expertly managed. Hiss is emphatically not intrusive, and the orchestral sound is possessed of much body. Recorded at a time of great upheaval and tension in Germany, the emotional impact of these performances, especially the Wagner, demands hearing.

Colin Clarke

see also reviews by Christopher Howell and Jonathan Woolf

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