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CD: Crotchet

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [45:19]
Double Concerto in A minor Op.102 (1887) [34:13]
 Willi Boskovsky (violin) and Emanuel Brabec (cello)
Concertgebouw Orchestra (sym.), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (conc.)/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. live, Amsterdam, 13 July 1950 (sym.) and live, Vienna, 27 January 1952 (conc.)
 IDIS 6554 [79:38]
Experience Classicsonline

As most adherents of the conductor will aver if you want to hear Furtwängler at his greatest in this symphony you go to the 1951 NDR performance. And if you do then you will hear one of the most wrenching, powerful and convincing performances imaginable. That said you have no shortage of comparison points because many survivals exist, ranging from the 1947 Lucerne to the 1954 Venezuela, made in the year of his death. Incomplete wartime performances also exist. In between these twin poles come performances in Vienna in 1947 and '52, Berlin in '52 and the following year, Turin in '52 and this Amsterdam performance of 1950.
Whilst less idiomatic and less gripping than the NDR this Concertgebouw traversal is similarly effective in establishing its big boned, long breathed and granitic credentials. Seldom has a conductor established the mood of the opening movement better than Furtwängler. It's slow - it makes Knappertsbusch sound like Weingartner - expansive, heroic, noble, weighty and magnificently conceived. The trumpets cut through the brine with biting authority, and the strings play with - in my experience - an unusual amount of portamento for this orchestra. Given the choice of other performances there is no reason to prefer this to the NDR but it is a powerfully charged document nevertheless.
Its disc companion is the Vienna reading of the Double Concerto with section principals Willi Boskovsky and Emanuel Brabec. I recall that a possible commercial recording with Menuhin and Casals had been mooted but never took place. Another broadcast survivor is the Lucerne performance where Furtwangler teamed up with Schneiderhan and Mainardi. The Vienna soloists make for a better ensemble pairing than the slightly tonally mismatched Lucerne duo, eminent though they are, though a corollary is that they are less distinctive, Boskovsky plays with his usual silvery sweetness of tone and some of his and Brabec's phrasal punctuation sounds at odds with the more adamantine priorities of the conductor whose view of the work is rather dark and - if you're unsympathetic - ponderous. The finale is sluggish to my ears but there's a rather Dvorákian feel to the winds, which I find attractive.
Less attractive is the transfer. It's been out on EMI CDH 7634962 as well as on a variety of smaller labels - Toshiba, Curcio-Hunt, Archipel and others. My Italian EMI LP [3C 153 53661/69H], which was a big Furtwängler-Brahms collection, sounds warmer, and more natural. Electronics has imparted a rather synthetic, aggressive almost shrill patina to the sound, at the same time constricting dynamics.
A worthwhile pairing then but the transfers in both are bettered elsewhere.
Jonathan Woolf 

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