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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, ‘Pathétique’ (1893) [48’39]
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor Op. 36 (1877) [45.52] *
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.7 – Adagio (1883-84) [22.49]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op. 120 (1853) [31.25]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra*
Wilhelm Furtwängler
TAHRA FURT 1099/1100 [71.33 + 77.30]

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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. 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.

The recording still sounds 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 latter probably not, deservedly. The DG Furtwängler box of live performances contains not this one but the Cairo recording.

Coupled with it is a rather less magnetic Fourth, a work to which he responds with considerably less visceral engagement, though the rigours of architectural probity are well met. This is a performance that for me never quite gets going. Tahra have transferred from an HMV ALP LP, and the results are once more commendable. The performance is unhistrionic, down to earth (too down to earth) and relaxed to the point of perhaps seeming relatively indifferent. The recording is certainly a fine one and this serves only to heighten the disappointment of a recording that fitfully engages; too much is perfunctory. But it does valuably complement the Sixth in the brace of commercially recorded symphonies left by Furtwängler.

The Bruckner is, amazing though it now seems, Furtwängler’s only commercial recording of the composer; others were live survivals. The sound is slightly constricted but overall superior to the later broadcast material that’s survived. The string burnish isn’t quite caught, but the brass balance is good. There’s a powerful amalgam of sweetness and grave nobility here with melodrama eschewed in favour of long term and powerfully cogent architectural strengths.

Schumann’s Fourth was transferred from a DGG LP which has given good frequency response. It’s an unreservedly marvellous reading and a locus classicus of the conductor’s style, with a dynamism perhaps augmented by the studio disagreement he’d had with the engineers when he refused to listen to their pleas to edit yet again and proceeded to tell them he’s play it through once more, in full, and they’d better be ready. The result is a monument to his art and indeed to Schumann symphonic conducting. The brooding introduction and ensuing lebhaft section are supremely realised and there’s driving, cumulative tension and power throughout. He also takes the first movement repeat, by no means standard practice.  There’s gravity and a noble patina to the Romanze and a comprehensively engaging Scherzo, dramatic thrust and mellow reflection held in balance and some characteristic “peaty” sonorities that are much a feature of the conductor’s realisation of it. The finale – so full of carefully engaged power – ends a truly great Fourth.

A recommendable double from Tahra. The duplication of the Pathétique with Naxos’s recent transfer may limit enthusiasm somewhat given that company’s tempting price structure but the Schumann is mandatory listening – you need it if you’re at all a Furtwängler devotee.

Jonathan Woolf





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