Whilst recording Schumann’s Fourth in the studio Furtwängler became so annoyed with interruptions by the recording team that he announced the Berlin Philharmonic would play the symphony from start to finish and DG could take the results as they stood … like it or lump it (John Ardoin The Furtwängler Record, 1994). And before recording Brahms’ Second Symphony for Decca Furtwängler disagreed with the multi-microphone set-up and insisted on a single microphone, which producer John Culshaw, in his biography, recalled as undermining the fine Decca standards of the day.
Both Furtwängler’s concerns are evidenced in these magnificent Wagner excerpts, recorded for HMV/Electrola in 1952 and 1954. Take the Götterdämmerung Funeral March with the Vienna Philharmonic which develops ominous timpani strokes towards a powerfully realised crescendo, with all Furtwängler’s characteristic control of drama and structure in evidence. But turn to a 1949 live performance with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG or Music & Arts) and the music-making is immeasurably extended. The simpler microphone placement and comparative lack of intervention by the balance engineers means the opening timpani is truly hushed with strings and woodwinds slowly developing themes of grief and loss. We are left in no doubt of the sadness Furtwängler is communicating to his post-war Berlin audience. Then timpani truly roar, with that BPO ‘bowels of the Earth’ sonority Sir Simon Rattle remarked on over fifty years later, as the dynamic range threatens the radio microphones in a manner which is thrillingly true. Listening again I am also struck by Furtwängler’s rhythmic control, too little mentioned by commentators, besides his sheer dramatic power which is universally admired.
Standing alone the other EMI Wagner excerpts are also stunning but are again reference pointers to incandescent live Furtwängler performances which, incredibly, take the drama and even the sound to a higher level. Try, for comparison, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey in London 1950 or the Berlin Philharmonic Tannhäuser Overture in 1951 Rome.
There are several Immolation scenes all magnificently conducted by Furtwängler. The live 1937 Covent Garden is admired but I find Kirsten Flagstad expressively shallow. She was better in 1950 in the live Act III Götterdämmerung in Rome but the RAI sound is weak. The 1950 Milan complete Ring again stars Flagstad but surely the bass-light recording is anti Furtwängler’s unique sound and Walter Legge’s placing Flagstad so far forward of the Philharmonia in the 1948 studio recording is ridiculously unnecessary. This imbalance was corrected for this 1953 Philharmonia recording, made in spare time following the successful complete Tristan und Isolde sessions. As you do! Like the Tristan, the orchestral sound is somewhat muddy and Flagstad is helped here and there by the engineers. A BBC Radio 3 critic said that here Flagstad’s voice took on a Lear-like command but, to be frank, I also hear matronliness creeping in. Age is catching up with this Brünnhilde.
Almost all boxes are ticked in the live Philharmonia Immolation scene now released on Testament. As I said in my original review, here we have an Immolation scene which is the fusion of sound and artistry that admirers of this partnership have long prayed for. Almost everything comes together. Roaring timps, held back in the EMI studio recording, and exciting rubato combine as Flagstad in amazingly fresh voice soars to summon Loge to destroy Walhalla (track 8, 11:12). This is truly the stuff of legend. Furtwängler builds an impressive dramatic arch from doom-laden opening bars building with accelerating rhythmic attack towards an almost frenzied orchestral cataclysm as Valhalla is consumed by flames. True, orchestral details can be hazy but the brass and, in particular the timpani, have a thrilling presence. Furtwängler's bedrock basses and cellos are palpable.
Reissue engineer Mark Obert-Thorn’s name is a byword for quality so these Naxos transfers are not only clear but boast noticeably rich bass colours. So buy with confidence, but please explore further.