As part of their ‘Great Conductors’ series Naxos Historical
have issued a splendid coupling of recordings made by Wilhelm
It is good to have these renowned performances now available
on Naxos. Their international marketing coverage will enable
the disc to reach out to more than the specialist listener.
Without having the precise details to hand these performances
will in all probability have been reissued several times over
the years. The recordings are around sixty years old now and
the sound quality that has been achieved by audio restoration
engineer Mark Obert-Thorn is impressive. My ear soon adjusted
to the challenges and taking the age into account the remastering
process has left these recordings sounding reasonably clear
and decently balanced. I did not notice any substantial difference
in sound quality compared to a 1995 DG reissue of this Furtwängler
performance of No. 9. The yellow label remastered the tape using
original-image-bit-processing and the CD is available on Deutsche
Grammophon mono 447 439-2 (c/w Haydn Symphony No. 88 in G
major). I feel sure that the remastered sound quality for
Naxos Historical will be more than acceptable to the majority
of listeners except those who demand pristine digital sound.
Any minor inconvenience must surely be compensated for by the
historical significance and context of these recordings.
Understandably, at the start of the 1950s, millions of people
were still struggling with the aftermath of the horrors of the
Second World War. Emotions were still running extremely high.
Furtwängler had been exonerated at his 1946 trial as part of
the de-Nazification process yet his rehabilitation was nowhere
near complete. Controversy still dogged him and his past Nazi
associations continued to taint his reputation remaining a source
of infuriation for many in the music world.
Today history judges the character and artistry of the Berlin-born
Furtwängler far more benevolently. His conducting prowess is
widely accepted as being amongst the finest of the twentieth
century and he left a legacy of wonderful recordings. I was
struck by the title that music writer Peter Gutmann uses in
the web pages www.classicalnotes.net
“Wilhelm Furtwängler: Genius Forged in the Cauldron
of War”. That, for me, encapsulates the complex situation
so appositely. Much has been written about the sheer individuality
of Furtwängler’s interpretations instilling both interest and
devotion. For me his greatest strengths are the sheer splendour
of the beauty of sound he creates, his innate sense of overall
structure and his ability to build an impressive energy and
a remarkable intensity of emotion. Comparing the relative conducting
merits of Furtwängler and Karajan music writer Karl Holl in
the Frankfurter Zeitung (December 1941) said: “Furtwängler
is primarily a sculptor in sound, inspired by these strong influences
and spiritual powers … Furtwängler’s is a passionate
temperament … a very expressive musician … With Furtwängler
one is immediately aware of the formative individual at work…”
(Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music by Richard
Osborne. Pub: Pimlico, Random House, London (1999) ISBN: 0 7126
6465 3. Pg. 146)
Schubert’s early symphonies are thoroughly classical in form,
highly influenced by Haydn and Mozart. For me there is only
the barest suggestion of the greatness that was to come later
with his masterworks the ‘Unfinished’ and the
‘Great’ C major. Both scores contain unmistakable
musical fingerprints of Schubert’s glorious gift for lyricism,
engaging personal charm and that distinctive Viennese Gemütlichkeit.
The circumstances around Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ D.759
remain one of the mysteries of classical music. It is often
asserted that the score was intended as a gift to the Graz Music
Society to show his gratitude for the award of a Diploma of
Honour. No one knows for certain why Schubert failed to complete
it leaving only two sublime and almost perfect movements together
with sketches for an intended Scherzo. Eduard Hanslick
was impressed by the “sweet stream of melody” in the
symphony. I empathise with David Ewen’s view: “It does the
B minor symphony a disservice to call it ‘Unfinished.’
It is a completely realized masterwork.” (The Complete
Book of Classical Music. Edited by David Ewen. First published
1965 by Prentice-Hall. Pub: Robert Hale Limited, London. ISBN:
0 7091 0884 2. Pgs. 356, 369)
Some background noise has been left in at the start of the performance.
But the sound quality of this 1959 recording is excellent for
its age. It’s not long after you have started listening that
you realise this is a reading of significant vision. In the
opening Allegro moderato Furtwängler with consummate
skill brings out the climaxes with a doom-laden intensity that
borders on savagery. The brooding passages carry an incessant
ache of almost unimaginable pain. The conductor mesmerises the
listener in the Andante con moto, casting a rapturous
spell. The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
is convincing throughout and generating considerable excitement.
My first recording of the Unfinished was from conductor
John Pritchard with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1975
at Watford Town Hall, available on Classics for Pleasure 5748852
(c/w Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944 ‘Great’).
I still have my original vinyl version of this Pritchard account
on the Music for Pleasure label CFP 40370. Of the other versions
that I know I greatly admire the romantic potency of the performance
from Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
It was made in 1978 at the Vienna Musikvereinssaal and can be
had on Deutsche Grammophon The Originals 449 7452 2 (c/w
Symphony No.3 in D major, D200). The beautiful playing
and the conductor’s grasp of symphonic structure to be heard
in the live recording the Unfinished made in 1995 at
the Berlin Philharmonie by Günter Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic
has few peers. I have the recording on RCA Red Seal 09026 68314-2
(c/w Symphony No. 9). Perhaps a wildcard selection is
the 1950 recording from Hans Knappertsbusch made at the Titania
Palast, Steglitz, Berlin – impressive for its awesome power
and direct approach. Now sixty years old the recording is reasonably
clear but includes plenty of vivid audience noise; mainly coughing.
I have the two disc set on a 2009 issue on Archipel ARPCD 0428
(c/w Haydn: Symphonies 88, 94; Johann Strauss
II: Die Fledermaus Overture, Pizzicato Polka,
101 Nacht-Intermezzo; Wolf: Italian Serenade for Orchestra;
Liszt: Symphonic poem, Les Preludes and Mahler: Kindertotenlieder).
There is considerable merit in Furtwängler’s recording with
the Berlin Philharmonic made in December 1942 at the Alte Philharmonie,
Berlin just over year before the celebrated concert hall was
destroyed by Allied bombing. This is a performance high on energy
and resilience. I have it as part of an outstanding four disc
mono set titled ‘Wilhelm Furtwängler - Recordings - 1942-1944,
Vol. 1’ on Deutsche Grammophon 471 289-2.
The score of the ‘Great’ C major dated March 1828
was discovered by Robert Schumann in a collection of manuscripts
in the possession of Schubert’s brother Ferdinand. In a letter
to his wife, Clara Schumann, Robert enthused, “I have found
a symphony of heavenly length”. Mendelssohn who had premiered
the score over a decade later in 1839 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus
wrote, “We recently played a remarkable and interesting symphony
by Franz Schubert. It is, without doubt, one of the best works
which we have recently heard. Bright, fascinating and original
throughout, it stands at the head of his instrumental works.”
A writer always worth reading, David Ewen, has described the
score as possessing, “monumental power, profound emotional
content, great complexity and individuality.” (ibid)
In the opening movement marked Andante - Allegro ma non troppo
I was struck by the broad changes in tempi and dynamics
that vary from the delicate to those of harsh extremes. They
all contribute to a remarkable performance. The interpretation
of the Andante has never sounded fresher and for me evokes
the onset of the spring awakening after a long and severe winter.
The genial woodwind especially the oboe and clarinet sound splendidly
bucolic. I enjoyed the forceful martial statements for full
orchestra that were so powerful they made me jump in surprise.
Furtwängler allows the immense Scherzo to gallop along
incisively with an abundance of rhythmic vitality. His underlining
of the convincing waltz melody could have easily come from the
batons of Willi Boskovsky and André Rieu - masters of the Viennese
waltz. This exceptional performance of the closing Allegro
vivace exudes unbridled joy and real freshness with a sense
of a window being opened to reveal a wonderfully verdant and
mountainous Alpine vista. Throughout, the assured playing is
thrilling and overflows with vigour.
Of the versions that I am most familiar with I have a particular
fondness for the acclaimed account of the ‘Great’ C
major by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Eugen
Jochum, which I believe was recorded in 1958, available on Deutsche
Grammophon 477 5354 (c/w Symphony No.5 in B Major, D485).
Some readers will recall this Jochum recording being available
on vinyl back in 1981 on the Pickwick Contour Red Label CC 7512.
There is much to admire in the exciting 1983 Berlin Philharmonie
account from Klaus Tennstedt and the Berlin Philharmonic on
EMI Classics 5 099022 2 (c/w Mendelssohn Symphony No.4 ‘Italian’).
Another version that I admire is Günter Wand’s splendid 1995
recording with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Berlin Philharmonie.
As mentioned above I have the recording on RCA Red Seal 09026
68314-2 (c/w Symphony No. 8 D759).
As part of the Naxos Historical Great Conductor series
Furtwängler does not disappoint with marvellous performances
of Schubert’s two great symphonies.