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