Back from the Shadows — Friedrich Wührer plays Beethoven
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
CD 1
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major Op. 15 (1797) [36:20]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major Op. 19 (1793 rev. 1794-95) [30:05]
CD 2
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 (? 1800) [32:25]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58 (1805-06) [33:17]
CD 3
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major Op. 73 Emperor (1809) [37:51]
Triple Concerto in C major, Op. 56 (1803-04) [33:40]
CD 4
Piano Sonata in E major, Op. 109 (1820) [17:53]
Piano Sonata in A flat major, Op. 110 (1821) [18:15]
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111 (1821-22) [24:25]
Friedrich Wührer (piano); Bronislaw Gimpel (violin); Joseph Schuster (cello)
Orchestra of the Wurttemberg State Opera/Walter Davisson— Triple Concerto, rec. 1957
Vienna Pro Musica Orchestra/Hans Swarowsky (No.1) rec. 1953
Stuttgart Pro Musica Orchestra/Walter Davisson (Nos.2 and 3) rec. 1957
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Jonel Perlea (No.4)
Vienna Pro Musica Orchestra/Heinrich Hollreiser (No.5) rec. 1955
TAHRA TAH 704-707 [4 CDs: 67:00 + 66:09 + 71:59 + 60:57]

Friedrich Wührer (1900-75) is indeed ’Back from the Shadows’ in a number of respects, the main one being the re-establishment of a healthy number of his studio performances in the current catalogue. I’ve already written about him in the context of another disc, noting in brief that he was an associate of Franz Schmidt, whose music he programmed frequently, and he was also closely allied with the Second Viennese School in the 1920s. He performed Schoenberg at a time when most didn’t, and he was also sympathetic to Hindemith and Stravinsky, and later on, Pfitzner. Maybe his greatest legacy on disc is his vast series of Schubert recordings for Vox, but his Beethoven discs are also an important component of that legacy. And here Tahra has come to our aid in timely fashion.

He recorded the concerto cycle but not in a way we would necessarily recognise – one orchestra, one conductor, a concentrated period of recording. No, for Wührer it was three orchestras and four conductors. This haphazard-seeming conjunction may seem an impediment to a single collaborative view, but it’s not necessarily the case that this parcelling out of duties is in any real sense a limitation. In some ways it’s a strength, given that a particular conductor may show a greater sense of insight in a particular concerto.

The first two concertos were with Hans Swarowsky (No.1) and Walter Davisson (No.2). Both were experienced and practical musicians, used to studio recordings; Swarowsky is now the better remembered. My own preference is for him, too, for his approach better fits Wührer’s biting fluency, his highly accomplished articulation and choice of the most difficult and formidable of Beethoven’s three cadenzas for the first movement. Nevertheless Davisson provides adept in No.2, if not quite as insightful as his colleague in Vienna. But he scores well in the C minor, again with the Stuttgart Pro Musica. There’s a lot of detail here, and quite a good sound spectrum for Vox. The first movement cadenza is characteristically powerful, Wuhrer driving into it as he invariably did. He isn’t averse to coarsening his tone in the interests of differentiation and serving the musical argument. He was, in any case, not one to float or parade the beauty of his tone; he preferred a gaunter, terser attack, almost brittle. And yet he could relax, without over-emoting or over-pedalling, as he does in the slow movement of this concerto. He’s also not particularly emotive in the Fourth Concerto with Jonel Perlea in Bamberg. Dynamics are strong, the music-making selfless and never Olympian in character, rather directed toward a just balance between the two poles of the music’s character. The Emperor Concerto has tonal variety, grandeur, powerful chording, dignity and – one moment of rhythmic retardation aside – straightforward. This disc also contains the Tripe Concerto, with violinist Bronislaw Gimpel, cellist Joseph Schuster and conducted again by Davisson. This has always received a bit of a mixed critical reception and whilst acknowledging its inferiority to the stellar trios who have espoused it on disc, I rather enjoy its personable music-making, anchored with great security and intelligence by Wührer.

This leaves the last disc, number four, which contains the three last piano sonatas. I’ve played Op.109 many times since receiving the disc for review purposes, and find it consistently laudable. It’s reserved, sinewy, and possesses a degree of objective clarity. It is wholly different from, say, Schnabel’s more obviously warm and communicative approach. But I do find it cumulatively intensely satisfying, intellectually cogent, rigorous and eloquently and perceptively performed. The same goes for the two companion sonatas, though not to quite the same degree. Wührer’s relative tonal gauntness, and his refusal to caress and linger may be off-putting to some, but it is an excellent corrective to more self-conscious performances, and a fine contribution to the history of the sonatas (and concertos) on disc.

This is thus an outstanding historic set. None of the concerto performances can really be considered epochal as recordings, but to have the set of five, with the Triple, available in this way is a major achievement. Full marks to Tahra for this and for its French/English booklet and restoration work.

Jonathan Woolf

An outstanding historic set. A major achievement. Full marks.