I write this review in the week that saw the death of the great
British curmudgeon – and national treasure – Sir Clement Freud.
He was a man known throughout the world, courtesy of the BBC World
Service and the radio panel game Just a minute, for striving
to ensure that there should be “no repetition”.
in reviewing this latest instalment of Naxos Historical’s
fascinating series of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s early recordings,
repetition proves to something that’s hard to avoid.
again we have here a selection of popular classics designed
to appeal to the early 1930s mass market of conservative,
middle-class owners of domestic gramophones – a sort of Weimar
Republic selection that might just as well have come straight
from that other BBC radio stalwart Your hundred best tunes.
just as in the earlier volumes of this series (reviewed here
the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductors – Furtwängler
and Kleiber – demonstrate the superb standard of musicianship
prevalent in the German capital at that time. This is clearly
apparent even through the swirling mists of 80 years old sound.
overture to Der Freischütz was one of Furtwängler’s
favourite party pieces – indeed, he selected it for his very
first commercial recording session in 1926 (as included on
volume 2 in this series). Although the 1935 recording under
consideration here took up three 78rpm sides as opposed to
the earlier version’s two, any suggestion that it must therefore
be broader is actually belied by the overall timings which
are, in fact, only 2 seconds apart. This beautifully constructed
and highly atmospheric performance is full of theatrical tension
and drama from its very opening, so that one is made to feel
that it really will be the prelude to something of great significance
- which is what Furtwängler, by all accounts, believed Der
Freischütz to be. The Berlin orchestra is beautifully
balanced and the string tone is especially attractive, while
the engineers ensure that the wide dynamic range of Furtwängler’s
interpretation is very well captured. The following brief
entr’acte inevitably makes a less distinctive impression,
though the horns successfully create a suitably bucolic and
Weber/Berlioz Invitation to the dance is heard far
less often today than in the days of 78rpm recordings but,
when played with the care and delicacy it receives here, is
well worth hearing again. The waltz is treated with great
elegance and refinement – we are dancing at the Congress of
Vienna rather than in some provincial town hall – although
the somewhat bass-heavy and reverberant recording unfortunately
clouds some orchestral detail.
sound quality improves markedly for the first of the Mendelssohn
overtures, A midsummer night’s dream. In spite of noticeable
background hiss, it is generally sharp and clear, although
it does become rather boxier on what I presume to be the final
78rpm side. The Berlin Philharmonic strings are especially
light and delicate at the opening but Furtwängler’s keen ear
ensures that, when the winds come in, an exceptionally pleasing
orchestral balance is established and maintained. As to interpretation,
this is a slightly more restrained and deliberate account
that some, and the same might be said for an account of The
Hebrides that is quite carefully paced - except for the
“storm” passage towards the end where Furtwängler unleashes
an appropriate degree of excitement. Again, this track exhibits
a very well balanced sound that allows a great deal of felicitous
detail to come through, the woodwinds, in particular, standing
out for playing with exceptional skill and beauty. One soon,
as a result, ignores an initially annoying background swish.
Berlioz Hungarian march proves enjoyable but largely
unexceptionable, though that expertly maintained internal
balance ensures once more that details like the pizzicato
strings and the hearty thwacks on the bass drum come through
with full effect.
final three tracks offer something in the way of a bonus.
They all date from 1929 and, in pretty good sound, showcase
another of the late Weimar Republic’s rostrum luminaries,
Erich Kleiber, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
in three more pieces from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to
A midsummer night’s dream. The first is an enjoyable
account of the scherzo – appropriately delicate and
sprightly and with those impressive woodwinds well to the
fore. That is followed by a nocturne that is, at its
opening, rather less “dreamy” than most and that features
what Tully Potter’s excellent booklet notes generously describe
as Kleiber’s “quite personal rubato” – although one imagines
that one or two of the overtaxed players might well have described
it in rather fruitier terms! The subsequent Wedding march
is rather grand and stately, but then Theseus and Hippolyta
were, after all, a duke and duchess - and not, one imagines,
necessarily in the first flush of youth.
third volume of Furtwängler’s early recordings brings some enjoyable
accounts of familiar repertoire back into wide circulation. It
confirms, moreover, many of the attractive characteristics noted
in its two predecessors in this series and enables us to deepen
our appreciation of the conductor’s art with minimal outlay. As
the late lamented Sir Clement Freud might have put it on that
popular radio show, I would suggest that anyone considering buying
this new Naxos Historical issue need have absolutely “no hesitation”.