Sometimes I feel like a rank and filer from the 24th Regiment,
holed up in Rorke’s Drift. Just when you think you’ve beaten back
Cetewayo’s finest, more of them appear on the horizon ready to sweep down
and try to cut you to ribbons. Well, if I feel like that then it must be Furtwängler
Time. And this latest release contains an all-Schubert programme, commercial
recordings from 1950-51 with his two orchestras of choice; in Berlin, and in
Vienna. As might have been anticipated multiple performances exist, given over
My most recent encounter with the Unfinished and the Great came
recently via Audite’s big live RIAS box
set - two performances of the former and one of the latter. Before that there
was the wartime Great on Tahra.
And before that there was a Melodiya transfer of that same 1942 live Berlin traversal
but its transfer was palpably inferior to the Tahra. As one can detect none of
these performances is quite germane to the present release, but represent the
reservoir of performances that indicate a swelling or lessening of expressive
weight in relation to the chosen repertoire.
The Unfinished of January 1950 was recorded in Vienna. His other recordings
numbered Berlin in 1948, 1952, 1953 and 1954, and Turin in 1952. We therefore
lack a wartime performance against which to measure and contrast the post-war
sequence. I am sure it would have been instructive, and also that the degree
of trenchancy evinced by all his other wartime inscriptions would have been reflected
in this one too. The result however is that the Unfinished is, in his
hands, a matter of relativity, or degree. There are no really explosive differences
between the long run of surviving documents. But what is certain is the intensely
structure-conscious approach that Furtwängler takes, his use of sometimes
fairly extreme dynamics and the powerful contrastive moments he sculpts, and
their use as often oppositional blocks, to drive on the symphonic argument.
It means that the work is more contained than one might perhaps expect, not
or quasi-operatic in the second movement as it can often become.
As for the Great we have the 1942, the Vienna 1943 and 1953, and Berlin
1950 and 1953. The 1942 performance is an example of incendiary interpretative
freedom, a lacerating and intense performance. The 1951 Berlin reading is still
strong, with sinewy brass, and a warmer sound from the strings than the engineers
could impart to their Viennese counterparts in the Eighth. There are no obviously
discursive or disruptive metrical displacements. Instead the fiery outbursts
of the slow movement find their own natural vehemence. The powerful rhetoric
is cast in melancholic blocks, and it’s in this context that one should
judge the Scherzo which is more relaxed than one might otherwise expect. He ratchets
the tension in the finale, though it’s not as driven as either the wartime
or the 1953 Berlin performances.
The transfers are up to the expected standard, and the notes are helpful. As
for how many performances of this repertoire you need, that’s up to you,
though I should end by saying that the conductor’s surviving Schubert
repertoire is amazingly slim; these two symphonies and music from Rosamunde.
of Furtwängler recordings on Naxos Historical