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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op.67*
Wilhelm FURTWÄNGLER (1886-1954) Adagio Solemne (from Symphonic Concerto)** [11í02"]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Parsifal: Prelude to Act 1*** [14í09"]; Good Friday Spell (Act 3)*** [10í41"]
**Edwin Fischer (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. Beethovensaal, Berlin on*8 October, 3 November 1937; ** 25 April 1939; ***15 March 1938 ADD
NAXOS 8.110879 [68í08"]

This latest release in the Naxos ĎGreat Conductorsí series neatly coincided with the 50th anniversary of Furtwänglerís death on 30 November 1954.

Understandably, Naxos give top billing to what I think was the first of his two studio recordings for HMV of Beethovenís Fifth. For some years Iíve had in my collection his later recording, made in March 1954 with the Vienna Philharmonic but I hadnít heard this earlier traversal before. In general the 1937 reading is to be preferred. Itís much more lithe and urgent where the later version is heavy, almost portentous by comparison.

On this occasion timings are instructive, I think. In 1954 Furtwängler took 35í35", almost a full four minutes longer than in 1937. Thatís a large difference in a relatively short work. In the first movement I make the speed of the basic tempo around 93 bars to the minute. In 1954 that had broadened to approx. 87 bars per minute. As a result the whole movement lasts for 8í33" in the later version, compared with 7í38" in 1937. Thatís not all. The sound produced by the VPO is much fuller and bass heavy and I donít think thatís simply due to the respective ages of the recordings. No, in 1937 Furtwängler drives the first movement along with a relentless, fiery energy that I donít find present in 1954.

At the start of the second movement I thought initially that Furtwänglerís pace was a bit too stately (though, once again, heís even more measured in 1954). The initial marking is Andante con moto and it seems that heís overlooked the fact that an andante should be around walking pace. At this point my inclination was to prefer, say, Erich Kleiber in his 1953 Concertgebouw reading (Kleiber takes 9í15" for this movement against Furtwänglerís 10í12" here.) But as the movement progressed Furtwänglerís powerful, serious conception of the music drew me in further. His is a profoundly shaped reading of the music which, in its own terms, is very convincing.

Heís extremely "subjective" at the start of the third movement, pulling the speed about significantly. In Furtwänglerís hands the movement is full of hushed drama and of tension worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. The transition to the finale is masterfully controlled, with the energy held in check like a coiled spring. The finale itself is full of controlled exuberance and I much prefer this to the substantially weightier 1954 reading, which by comparison has too much gravitas and, to my ears, little genuine joy.

So this 1937 reading is much to be preferred, I think, to the later version. Interestingly, I have another Furtwängler recording with the BPO. This is a live recording from June 1943, included in the first of DGís two boxes of wartime recordings (471 289-2.) The interest here lies in the fact that the 1943 traversal is in many respects "betwixt and between" the two recordings discussed above, and not just in terms of chronology. The whole performance lasts 33í08" and, for example, I find the first movement not to be quite as taut as was the case in 1937 but the finale is perhaps the most powerful and strongly projected of the three (because it was Ďliveí?) Iím aware there are other Furtwängler recordings of this symphony available (which I havenít heard) but these three seem to offer some indication of his evolving approach to the work.

This Naxos CD also includes an example of Furtwängler, the composer. He made this commercial recording of the middle movement (only) of his Symphonic Concerto with Edwin Fischer in 1939. (I believe this to be the same performance thatís included on a (more expensive) Testament CD, SBT 1170, where the coupling has the same artists in the Brahms Second Piano Concerto.) This is only the second piece of music by Furtwängler that Iíve heard. Like his Second Symphony I find that it is rather long-winded for the material. Thereís lots of rumination from the soloist but the music doesnít seem to me to get anywhere in particular, though thereís no denying the sincerity of the enterprise. I doubt I shall return to this recording, especially as the sound quality is not especially good. The orchestra is not very well reproduced and the piano sounds clangy at anything above mf.

As I said, Naxos give top billing to the Beethoven but I actually think the performances that have the greatest stature of all are the excerpts from Parsifal. The Good Friday music is noble and intense, the BPO playing the long lines demanded both by composer and conductor with incandescent intensity. However, it was the performance of the Prelude to Act One that really took my breath away. Just the first few notes convey the spirituality and spell-binding intensity that are to be the hallmarks of this performance. The whole reading is profound and searching. Furtwängler displays infinite patience as he lets the music unfold in a timeless fashion. He is rewarded by elevated, rapt playing from the BPO. This is a truly visionary performance which, in my opinion, is alone worth the price of the disc.

Here, then is a very fine example of Furtwängler in Beethoven and some supreme (and rare) Wagner performances. The transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn reproduced well on my equipment and Ian Julierís notes are, as usual, interesting, informative and convey enthusiasm for the performances about which he is writing. This disc offers a good example of why Wilhelm Furtwängler is regarded by so many good musical judges as a great conductor. These are performances that will grace any collection and I strongly recommend this disc.

John Quinn

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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