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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [47.04]
Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op 56a (1873) [19:43]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna November 1947 (Symphony) and March-April 1949  (Variations)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110998 [66:47] 

The Naxos-Furtwängler series dedicated to the conductor’s commercial recordings made between 1940 and 1950 has now reached volume five. It’s an all-Brahms disc and gives us the well-known Vienna traversals of 1947 and 1949. 

He left behind many recordings of the C minor Symphony, both commercial and broadcast, but even the greatest proponent of Furtwängler’s work would hardly dare to claim that this 1947 recording stands at the summit. The most dramatic and coruscating example is unfortunately only a torso – the wartime broadcast of the Adagio, an incandescent example of his art and as with so many wartime survivals an example of just how intense his conducting could become. The North German performance of 1951 is probably the most recommendable; it doesn’t quite capture the blazing power of the wartime Adagio but it is powerful – and in this respect superior to the 1947 Lucerne Festival, the 1950 V.P.O, the 1952 Turin or the 1953 Berlin. There’s a 1954 Venezuela performance that I’ve never managed to hear.

One of the most absorbing elements of this performance is to trace tempo modifications. These are of the usual, idiosyncratic Furtwängler kind though never as abrupt or as extreme as wartime symphonic broadcasts. Phrasing is plastic, the Vienna strings sing richly, the brass is clear but the percussion is recessed. One thing that one notices is the relative want of energy in transitional passages. This happens most obviously in the first movement but even in the finale – which is taken broadly up to tempo – there’s a sense of things held in check. However noble the peroration here may be, it has to be admitted that this studio performance fails to generate requisite voltage.

There are seven surviving Furtwängler Haydn Variations recordings. This one is rather becalmed. Having recently listened to a live Beecham performance given in the studio at around the same time and now issued for the first time on Somm, one notices the differences in matters of vitality. Warmly moulded though this Furtwängler performance is things can drag slightly. The seventh variation is a particular case in point, where the underlying pulse sounds rather turgid and receives insufficient rhythmic lift.

Ward Marston’s transfers sound well. He’s retained some surface hiss and those higher frequencies, thankfully, but whilst other restoration engineers might have reached for their graphs and “restored” that recessive percussion he’s given us a natural sounding pair of transfers. Neither performance shows the conductor quite at his best but they are important examples of his art nonetheless.

Jonathan Woolf




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