Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin (1850) Prelude to Act I [9:37]
Tristan und Isolde (1865) Prelude to Act I [10:53]
Tristan und Isolde (1865) Liebestod (Act III) [6:23]
Götterdämmerung (1876) Siegfried’s funeral music (Act III) [8:24]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Hungarian Dance no.1 in G minor (1869) [3:00]
Hungarian Dance no.10 in F major (1869) [1:57]
Johann Strauss (1825-1899)
Die Fledermaus (1874) Overture [8:21]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks (1895) [15:05]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. 1930 (Lohengrin, Tristan, Brahms, Richard Strauss), November 1933 (Götterdämmerung), 28 December 1936 (Johann Strauss); Hochschule für Musik, Berlin
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111005 [63:19] 

This disc is actually just as interesting for what it does not show us as for what it does. Just as in the earlier issues of this fascinating Naxos Historical series, you will find hardly any hard evidence of Furtwängler’s artistic development. It is almost as if he had sprung fully formed like Minerva from the head of Jove.

But we must remember that the conductor only began his recording career at a point in time when he had already been Chief Conductor of the Berlin State Opera for six years and of both the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestras for four. His was certainly not a case, therefore, of a conductor learning on the job in the recording studio.

We must also keep in mind that in general in this early period, with the exception of a rather unexceptional Beethoven fifth symphony from 1926, Furtwängler was given no opportunity to make recordings of the longer, more complex works for which he is still revered today - even though one suspects that, with his well known reservations about the impossibility of ever setting down definitive musical interpretations, he would not necessarily have been unhappy with that particular limitation. As a result, much of the relatively unchallenging music that he recorded in the 1920s and 1930s - well known overtures, dances, Wagnerian “bleeding chunks” and other orchestral showpieces, all offering little scope for any subsequent refinement - cannot be subjected to the same intensive musicological analysis in the search for development as, to take just a single example, do his dozen extant later recordings, both studio and live, of Brahms’s First Symphony.

So what of the contents here? It is apparent from the very opening of the Lohengrin prelude that the Berlin Philharmonic was in very fine form in 1930, with especially beautiful playing from the strings. They respond admirably to Furtwängler’s flexible approach and the undulating main melody makes an exceptionally striking impression. The conductor’s humanity is as apparent as his innate feel for the Wagnerian idiom and, just for once, the music feels like it is properly and organically related to the subsequent drama rather than being performed as a stand-alone demonstration piece. The particularly well balanced orchestra shines too in the Tristan und Isolde extracts - seamlessly conjoined by expert restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn. Furtwängler creates a real sense of inexorability and tragedy in the music, and the strings stand out for their combination of delicacy coupled with great strength at the music’s climax. Powerful drama is again at the heart of this 1933 performance of Siegfried’s funeral music, so movingly played, with the tension ratcheted up until it becomes almost unbearable: a recording that forces one to listen to the score afresh.

The two Brahms Hungarian dances go with a real swing. Furtwängler plays up the zigeuner rhythms in a brisk performance of no.1 that has an exciting acceleration towards the end. No.10 may not be the most obvious of choices, but is once again performed with flair and aplomb.

The Die Fledermaus overture was last of these tracks to have been recorded and it shows in the much brighter and livelier sound. Pace Colin Anderson whose booklet notes dismiss it as the least spontaneous and rewarding performance on the disc, I responded to it far more positively and found it jaunty, witty and sophisticated. Conductor and orchestra treat this music seriously and perform it with loving care - is that, perhaps, an antithetical quality to spontaneity?

I do agree with Mr Anderson, however, on the remarkably fine performance of Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks, a piece far more familiar to concert audiences then than now. This is a flexible, witty, frequently quite spiky and acerbic and, I noted in particular, spontaneous-sounding performance - though I am happy to confirm that, at least in this instance and for this reviewer, spontaneity does not exclude lavishing that extra degree of loving care on the music. This track is the highlight of the disc.

Once again, this very useful series - at, let it not be forgotten, a most attractive price - serves to draw our attention to an era of German history in which the highest standards of musicianship and music-making co-existed with some truly appalling events in the wider society - economic and political meltdown, followed by the coming to power of the Nazi Party and its concomitant brutalization of civil life. The fact that, in the eyes of many to this day, Wilhelm Furtwängler himself personifies that paradoxical situation continues to make him one of the most controversial - and fascinating - artists of his time.

Rob Maynard