Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Piano Concerto No.5 in E, Emperor, op.73 (1809) [38:44]
Symphony No.4 in B, op.60 (1806) [36:54]
Edwin Fischer (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler (Concerto)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler (Symphony)
rec. 19-20 February 1951, EMI Abbey Road Studio No.1, London (Concerto); 25, 30 January 1950, Musikvereinsaal, Vienna (Symphony). ADD
NAXOS 8.112025 [75:38]

The marvel about a great performance, whether recorded or in public performance, is how it will always illuminate the music being performed. It will, in the case of a recorded performance, always allow great insights into the music.

Here are two great Beethovenians, at the height of their powers, at work, offering masterful interpretations of music heard perhaps too often in routine or less than inspiring performances. Let me take a couple of examples to show how little things in an interpretation can lift a performance from routine into great, even peerless, performances.

In the opening piano flourishes of the Concerto, Fischer displays a less than subtle rubato at each of the three cadence points, before the large orchestral chords and the start of the movement proper. In lesser hands these ritardandi would sound forced, mannered even, but here Fischer is already showing his credentials. His authority is impressed on every note he plays so, whilst we may not forgive him his slight indulgence, we accept it because we know and acknowledge that this is how he understands the music. Never, no matter how many times you hear this performance, does it actually annoy or bother. Likewise, the slightly heavy-handed start to the finale. This may not be what we are used to today, but that’s the stamp of a great interpretation, making something different work. Mind you, difference for the sake of difference is not wanted. A lifetime of experience had brought about this interpretation and it is exactly right because these moments are so obviously an intrinsic part of Fischer’s reading. The highlight, for me, is the slow movement, which starts with a restrained huskiness, a sound almost as sexual as the voice of the great Fenella Fielding, to be followed by Fischer’s gentle reverie. Did I say masterly? No. Genius is the word. This is one of the most compelling concerto performances ever put on disk. Period performance be damned. Music must live and Beethoven has never lived as vividly, nor as vitally, as he does here.

The Fourth Symphony is as fine. It’s a performance which is obviously the product of the late romantic period but it is never excessive. Furtwängler finds much drama and excitement in the work but is always willing to display a delightfully light touch when necessary.

The transfers are excellent, and, despite a certain dryness, they are remarkably clear and precise; the ear adjusts to the sound very quickly so vibrant is the recording. The notes, by my friend Colin Anderson, are good and it all goes to make a very important and exciting issue. If you don’t have this in your collection, I’ll come round and annoy you!

Bob Briggs

Genius is the word.

Wilhelm Furtwängler recordings on Naxos Historical