Furtwängler - Live in Berlin. The Complete RIAS Recordings
see end of review for track listing
Yehudi Menuhin (violin: Beethoven) Gerhard Taschner (violin: Fortner)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. 1947-54, Berlin
AUDITE 21.403 [13 CDs: 957:14]

These live RIAS broadcasts have never sounded as good as they do here. That’s the claim Audite makes and in the opportunities I’ve had to compare and contrast it certainly seems true. The surface noise, or extraneous other impedimenta that have pursued these tapes, whilst hardly excessive given their 1947-54 provenance, has certainly been tamed here. Discreet and effective and in some cases powerfully improved, the gains in vivid and immediate sound are notable. One listen to the Beethoven Fifth and Sixth enshrined in the first disc confirms that past transfers by such as M & A, and Tahra have been superseded. Further auditions of the Fortner concerto on MDG adds more evidence to the conclusion, as do other spot checks: more immediate sound, greater clarity, less surface noise.

A few markers to this set may be in order. There are twelve CDs of music and a final CD which represents a colloquium which the conductor gave on the art of interpretation. There are no translations provided so your German will need to be good. Nevertheless the opportunity to eavesdrop Werner Egk and his students interviewing Furtwängler is not one to be spurned if you have an archival turn of mind - and in any case it will be a useful, occasional pendant to the set as a whole.

This is a remarkable corpus of performances and enshrines at a stroke a vital collection of the conductor’s post-War legacy. Of course readers who follow the his work will be familiar with some at least - and others will be familiar with a large number, if not necessarily all the performances, of the multiply recorded works.

The conductor sometimes programmed Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth together, as he does in the May 1947 and May 1954 performances - given incidentally almost exactly seven years apart to the day. The earlier performance of the Pastoral has amazing accelerandos and more localised sense of drama than the better played and in many ways more structurally cohesive 1954 broadcast. But the dynamism of the 1947 compensates in some ways for the broader span of the ‘last testament’ RIAS traversal. In 1947 his Fifth was granitic and heavy and technically somewhat compromised: once again the 1954 statement is even broader, and less biting.

There are two performances of the Eroica, both wonderful. I often think that this was Furtwangler’s most consistently inspired reading of a Beethoven symphony. Neither can really match the stupendous 1944 inscription, which is incandescent, but I’d take the more rectitudinous 1950 over the wilder 1952.

The Violin Concerto is the Menuhin performance from September 1947; it’s one to add, if not already done so, to the Lucerne (in the same year) and the later 1953 Philharmonia collaborations between the two men. Poised and Olympian the performance is one of spiritual depth and unhurried eloquence. The Bach Orchestral Suite, with which it shares disc space, is one of those historical curios that sound like Bach-Bruckner to our ears. The third disc couples Schubert’s Unfinished with Brahms’s Fourth from an October 1948 concert. There’s little to choose between this Unfinished and that housed in disc ten which comes from 1953. Both have an immense sense of brooding power and the conductor’s way with the transitions never loses its hypnotic fascination. Also housed in disc ten is the Great, an expansive performance that perhaps lacks impetus and sharp rhythmic pointing. The Brahms Fourth meanwhile lacks the passionate drama of the wartime December 1943 reading - but then that’s true for all such performances where comparison is allowed. This one has its technical lapses, is less sound architecturally, and sports predictably exciting accelerandi in the second movement and the finale.

The performance of Bruckner’s Eighth was given in March 1949 and is arguably one of Furtwängler’s most important traversals of the composer’s music. It has immense authority and power and at no times gets waylaid by extraneous detailing, so persuasively is the symphonic argument deployed. Brahms’s Third Symphony again exists in two RAIS recordings. The 1949 performance is not necessarily preferable to the April 1954. He takes the first movement repeat in the earlier one but not in the later, so that may alter allegiances, but there is a rather soggy approach to rhythm in both I find. This is the most difficult of all Brahms’s symphonies to project and it doesn’t bring out the best in the conductor. I’ve written extensively elsewhere regarding this Fortner Concerto recording in its MDG guise - so it’s best to pursue matters there.

Disc six is a mixed pleasure. It sports some superbly sonorous Wagner - an especially powerful Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger - and a desperately stodgy Handel Concerto grosso, which is best avoided. So too by the way is the other Concerto grosso on disc seven. The Brahms Haydn variations is powerful but lacks sweep. To compensate there’s Hindemith’s Concerto for Orchestra which received a wholesome, rather well nourished reading lacking any desiccating moments. It’s unusual repertoire, though we hear more of Hindemith in disc 8 where we can hear Die Harmonie der Welt (from 8 December 1952). The meeting of minds between composer and conductor is mightily impressive here and the result is a meaty reading fully deserving of close listening.

Other things are here too, including Blacher’s Concertante Musik für Orchester which is unusual territory, its syncopation and jazz influenced writing adding an open air, Stravinskian brew to the proceedings. The Strauss Don Juan lacks energy though the Prelude and Isolde’s Liebestod from the same concert are much more convincing.

So, here we have the product of twelve concerts given, mainly, in the Titania Palast in Berlin between 1947 and 1954. The programming is largely traditional fare for the conductor but sprinkled as we’ve seen with a few twentieth century novelties. The booklet lays out detailing and programming matters with great care and precision. Given the much improved sound this will make formidable claims on the specialist collector, with the caveat that many Furtwänglerians will have accumulated a fair amount already, and may be reluctant to upgrade. 

Jonathan Woolf

Track listing
CD 1 [75:02]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.6 in F Op.68 Pastoral (1807) [42:24]
Symphony No.5 in C minor Op.67 (1807) [32:38]
CD 2 [78:19]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night's Dream: Overture (1826) [12:58]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major Op 61 (1806) [44:06] ¹
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major BWV 1068 for 3 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, strings and continuo (c1729-31) [21:11]
CD 3 [65:04]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony no. 8 in B minor, D.759 "Unfinished" (1822) [23:39]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98 (1887) [41:24]
CD 4 [76:04]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 8 in C minor (1890 ed. Robert Haas) [76:04]
CD 5 [74:28]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Manfred Op 115 - overture (1852) [13:21]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.3 in F major Op.90 (1883) [38:44]
Wolfgang FORTNER (1907-1987)
Concerto for violin and large chamber orchestra (1947) [22:21] ²
CD 6 [68:48]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung - Trauermarsch (1876) [9:35]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Pelude to Act I (1868) [9:23]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Concerti Grossi Op. 6 No.10 (1739) [16:42]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a theme by Haydn (St. Anthony Variations) Op. 56a (1873) [20:22]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Concerto for Orchestra Op.38 (1925) [12:42]
CD 7 [79:56]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no.3 in Eb, op.55 Eroica (1805) [52:26]
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Alceste - Opera in three acts - overture (1767) [9:34]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Concerti Grossi Op. 6 No 5 (1739) [17:53]
CD 8 [50:14]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz - overture (1817) [13:39]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Symphony Die Harmonie der Welt (1951) [36:32]
CD 9 [77:13]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no.3 in Eb, op.55 Eroica (1805) [55:06]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Rosamunde D.797- Overture (1823) [12;12]
Boris BLACHER (1903-1975)
Concertante Musiche, for orchestra (1937) [9:54]
CD 10 [75:49]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony no. 8 in B minor, D.759 "Unfinished" (1822) [23:17]
Symphony no. 9 in C, D.944 "The Great" (1825-28) [52:30]
CD 11 [73:04]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.3 in F major Op.90 (1883) [37:04]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan Op.20 (1888) [18:14]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde - Prelude and Isolde’s Liebestod (1865) [17:44]
CD 12 [79:14]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.6 in F Op.68 Pastoral (1807) [44:37]
Symphony No.5 in C minor Op.67 (1807) [34:35]
Bonus CD
Colloquium; Furtwängler on the art of interpretation