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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Wilhelm Furtwängler - the Early Recordings Vol. 2
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Egmont overture, op.84 (1810) [8:23]
Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67 (1808) [31:45]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz overture (1821) [9:49]
Gioachino Antonio ROSSINI (1792-1868)
La Gazza Ladra overture (1817) [9:16]
Il Barbiere di Siviglia overture (1816) [7:15]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. unspecified venue, Berlin: 16 October 1926 (Weber overture and part of Beethoven symphony); 30 October 1926 (remainder of Beethoven symphony). Hochschule für Musik, Berlin: unspecified date, 1930 (La Gazza Ladra); November 1933 (Egmont); May 1935 (Il Barbiere di Siviglia)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111003
[66:38] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


The second volume of the new Naxos Historical series focusing on Wilhelm Furtwängler’s earliest recordings largely confirms the impression given by the first.

Once again, we see how the nascent German recording industry tended to pander to the country’s conservative middle class – able to afford a phonograph and discs but increasingly alienated from the cultural excesses of the Berlin artistic avant-garde - with a generally unchallenging diet of favourite works¹. 

The relative brevity and often episodic construction of overtures made them particularly well suited to the 78rpm recording format and, given Furtwängler’s love for Beethoven’s music, the fact that he recorded that to Egmont is unsurprising. 

Even before its new Naxos incarnation, the powerful and immediate 1933 recording was regarded, from a technical point of view, as one of the best of its time and, once again, it shines here. Furtwängler drives the music forward and makes careful use of dynamics to emphasise its inherent drama. This is an interpretation – and a performance – that would certainly have got any live concert off to an unforgettable start! 

The 1926 recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that we have here is the conductor’s earliest interpretation on disc. It did not, in fact, survive quite intact, thus accounting for its limited appearances hitherto. Neither the Polydor producer nor the conductor noted down accurately the precise point at which one particular recording session ended, so that the subsequent one in fact recommenced a few bars too late. Naxos producer Mark Obert-Thorn has, for this new reissue, taken a small sample of typical surface noise from the 1926 recording, combined it with the missing bars as extracted from Furtwängler’s 1937 Berlin Philharmonic recording and patched the resulting 13 seconds of music pretty much invisibly into the symphony’s third movement. 

Because the symphony follows on after the bright Egmont recording, its rather recessed sound quality is very noticeable, especially as it affects the brass. This is, moreover, a deliberately wrought, even slightly cautious account that is certainly less individual than Furtwängler’s 1937 re-recording for EMI. Other than providing musicologists with a starting point to chart the conductor’s development in this work, as the late John Ardoin has done², this is probably not an interpretation to detain one for long, although it does, even with that restricted sound picture, offer yet more proof of the high standard of orchestral playing in 1920s Berlin. 

Hard to believe though it might be, Weber’s overture to Der Freischütz, an opera especially dear to Furtwängler’s heart, ­also comes from those October 1926 sessions. Although the dull and dusty sound is predictable, a real surprise comes in a freely flowing and spontaneous interpretation that leaps out of the inhibiting emotional straitjacket previously donned in the Beethoven symphony. Were the substantial technical constraints on recording longer works the problem? Was the conductor perhaps intimidated by his unfamiliarity at that time with the whole process of recording, as suggested by the episode of the missing bars? Whatever the reason, it seems, on the basis of the material here, that Furtwängler’s musical individuality was most apparent on record at that time in shorter pieces. 

That impression is confirmed to a large extent by the overtures that complete the disc under review, representing the conductor’s only encounters with Rossini in the recording studio. As Colin Anderson notes in the accompanying booklet, that to La Gazza Ladra is the less vivacious of the two in Furtwängler’s hands. But the performances, if rather lacking in idiomatic flair and, frankly, rather unmemorable, are never less than well performed, as one would expect, by the Berliners in Mark Obert-Thorn’s very well re-mastered sound. 

All in all, then, this is a worthwhile addition to a very useful series. Moreover, at its bargain price it makes more widely available the means to explore and gain a deeper understanding of the development of one of the most fascinating conductors – whether from a personal, intellectual or musical point of view – of the first half of the twentieth century.

Rob Maynard

¹ For more on this fascinating subject, see Erik Levi, Music in the Third Reich (London, 1994), especially chapter 1: Conservative musical reaction in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933. 

² In his authoritative study The Furtwängler Record (Portland, Oregon, 1994) Ardoin wrote that “it is hardly an exaggeration to see his performances [of the symphony no.5] as a lifelong grappling with its myriad challenges and problems.”


 


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