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Wilhelm Furtwängler - The Early Recordings Volume 1
Johann Sebastian BACH
Brandenburg concerto no.3 in G major, BWV 1048 (1721) [10:40]
Air from orchestral suite no.3 in D major, BWV 1068 [5:05]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro, K.492 (1786) [4:15]
Overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail, K.384 [4:49]
Serenade no.13 in G major, K.525, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” [15:15]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Rosamunde – incidental music, D.797 (1823) [20:22]: ((i) Overture (Die Zauberharfe) [9:43] (ii) Entr’acte no.3 in B flat major [5:15] (iii) Ballet music no.2 in G major [5:24])
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. Hochschule für Musik, Berlin: 13 June 1929 (Bach Air and Schubert Ballet music no.2); 1930 (Bach Brandenburg concerto and Schubert Overture and Entr’acte); November 1933 (Mozart overtures); 28 December 1936 and June 1937 (Eine Kleine Nachtmusik)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111136 [60:27]
Experience Classicsonline

A well known photograph, taken at a Berlin banquet in the summer of 1929, shows Arturo Toscanini on the eve of his departure for new career challenges in the USA. Flanking him are the luminaries of the German cultural capital’s music scene – Bruno Walter of the Berlin Municipal Opera, Erich Kleiber of the Staatsoper unter den Linden, Otto Klemperer of the Kroll Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s chief conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Even in that year of massive economic turmoil and political crisis, a truly fabulous array of music-making was obviously on tap for the city’s inhabitants. And Furtwängler, at the Philharmonic’s helm since 1922 and active in the recording studio since 1926, was – in spite of the rather distant and aloof posture he adopts in the photograph - at its very heart.
This first volume of a new Naxos Historical series that will focus on Furtwängler’s earliest recordings includes material that was clearly selected to have the widest appeal. As Colin Anderson’s booklet notes usefully remind us, the conductor regularly performed works by contemporaries such as Hindemith, Bartók, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Ravel – but Bach, Mozart and Schubert were more obvious commercial choices when trying to sell records in the middle of a worldwide economic depression.
The disc gets off to a tremendous start with the Brandenburg Concerto no.3, a real “old school” performance with a powerful, stately and distinctly heavy-footed first movement that clocks in at a whopping 7:14 (check out a more modern recording from your shelves and you’ll find that somewhere around 5½ minutes is considered the “authentic” norm these days). I was very much reminded of Sir Adrian Boult’s last recording of the Brandenburgs where he attempted, with the full London Philharmonic Orchestra, to recreate the typical Bach sound of conductors such as Sir Hamilton Harty (and, as this recording demonstrates, Furtwängler) that he had been used to as a younger man.
Unlike many conductors, Furtwängler chooses not to interpolate material to bridge the gap before the subsequent Allegro, a far livelier affair - though still, given the involvement of the massed ranks of the BPO, a wildly “inauthentic” one.
Neither is authenticity the keynote of the Air from Suite no.3. The conductor’s interpretation is terribly, terribly slow and very, very deliberate – and yet, its consistency, the degree of intense musical concentration and the sheer quality of the performance all demand, once our own anachronistic 21st century preconceptions are set aside, the greatest respect on their own terms.
The Mozart tracks are all superbly performed, with an exquisite wit and polish, sensibility and refinement. An exceptionally lively Die Entführung overture emerges with particular success and, while less individually characterised, the carefully moulded and controlled Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is also a delicious treat.
That 1936-1937 Mozart recording is immediately followed by one of Schubert’s Rosamunde incidental music that dates from six or seven years earlier and, moreover, derives from an entirely different recording format. Placed thus, the latter’s sound deficiencies are emphasised even further by the comparison. Once the ear adjusts, however, it is clear that these interpretations are, as required, powerful and thrusting yet lyrical (the overture), sensitively and finely nuanced (the entr’acte) and carefully related to their musical context. As in all the tracks on the disc, Furtwängler’s characteristic emphasis on the bass line and wide dynamic range are especially notable.
The Berlin Philharmonic is, to no great surprise, revealed in Mark Obert-Thorn’s excellent sonic remastering as one of the most sophisticated orchestras of its era, notably more “modern” in its sound than, say, the portamento-prone c.1930 London Symphony Orchestra - though you will still find some swooning violins on these tracks too. When you then go on to consider the superb quality of the late 1920s Berlin State Opera Orchestra, well demonstrated on the disc of Klemperer conducting Brahms and Wagner that I reviewed here in March, it is clear that the citizens of Weimar-era Berlin really were – in the field of music, at least - living through a truly golden era.
Rob Maynard


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