Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Furtwängler conducts Brahms
CD 1:
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [46:58]
Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op 56a (1873) [19:43]
Three Hungarian Dances (1869):
Hungarian Dance No.1 in G minor [3:05]
Hungarian Dance No. 3 in F major [2:32]
Hungarian Dance No.10 in F major [1:46]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. live 27 January 1952 (Symphony & Variations) and 29 March- 4 April 1949 (Hungarian Dances), Grosser Musikvereinssaal, Vienna.
CD 2:
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877) [41:37]
Double Concerto in A minor, Op.102 (1887) [34:20]
Willi Boskovsky (violin) and Emanuel Brabec (cello)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler (Double Concerto)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler (Symphony).
rec. live 7 May 1952, Deutsches Museum, Munich (Symphony) and live 27 January 1952, Grosser Musikvereinssaal, Vienna (Double Concerto).
CD 3:
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883) [36:49]
Violin Concerto in D Major Op.77 [39:48]
Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler (Concerto)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler (Symphony).
rec. live 27 April 1954, Titania-Palast, Berlin (Symphony) and 7 October 1949, Lucerne (Concerto).
CD 4:
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor Op. 98 (1884) [40:27]
Variations on a theme by Haydn Op.56a (1873) [20:03]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. live 12-15 December 1943, Alte Philharmonie, Berlin.
I had been hoping that Andrew Rose would be turning his attention to these classic performances and the results are very gratifying. The XR re-mastering process adds enormous depth, weight and clarity to the sound. The nearest competition to these four discs is the 3CD set on EMI Références which offers the same recordings of the first two symphonies but different versions of the Third and Fourth. The recordings of all four symphonies on both sets are live; however, Pristine opts for Furtwängler’s final Berlin concert in April 1954 for the Third but goes back to a wartime broadcast for the Fourth, whereas EMI have chosen recordings from 1949 and 1948 respectively.
From an artistic point of view, it doesn’t always so much matter which of Furtwängler’s live recording of Brahms symphonies is selected, in that he was a very consistent interpreter; thus the main criterion for choice of recording might instead be the quality of sonics on offer. While I heartily endorse these Pristine re-masterings as easily the best available, I would not necessarily urge anyone who already owns the EMI set to acquire these latest Pristine issues, as although the EMI re-mastering by Andrew Walter from 1995 is thinner with a little more hiss, it remains very listenable. Furthermore, although I recognise that Andrew Rose has done wonders in restoring and preserving this terrific performance of the Fourth Symphony from 1943, for the purposes of general listening the 1948 version on EMI is easier on the ear and freer of the bronchial eruptions which mar the December 1943 concert, when the Berlin audience sound especially afflicted by the winter chill.
The watershed in the history of recording between the jettisoning of 78s and the advent of magnetic tape and the LP is evident from the consequent leap in sound quality of the newer technology; it is thus all the more regrettable that the tape machinery used by EMI in 1949 to record the Violin Concerto in Lucerne produced such a gritty sound in the higher frequencies, especially of Menuhin’s violin. Those who already have these recordings on EMI or another label might consider giving priority to purchasing the third Pristine disc above, in that although a bargain coupling of the Violin and Double Concertos is available on EMI, Rose has done much to tame the scratchiness and give us the most satisfying re-mastering so far. Furthermore, the Pristine CD couples the Violin Concerto with a superlative performance of the Third Symphony. This is the most recent of the recordings here, made shortly before Furtwängler’s death in 1954 and hence not only in the best sound but also the fruit of the conductor’s conviction that he had finally understood the work.
The performances themselves have long been a by-word for emotional intensity and fluid mastery of the scores. Furtwängler is merciless and uncompromising in driving home the searing emotional honesty of Brahms' symphonies; nothing is prettified or extenuated, so you hear the gritty reality of Brahms' struggle with music that expresses his metaphysical battle with despair and discouragement. Chords are driven home like structural supports into the earth; there is astonishing energy and attack in the emphatic passages contrasting with the swooning, elastic Schwung of the lyrical episodes. Furtwängler was always able to apply the myriad fluctuations in his tempi without their sounding applied or self-conscious; here they sound spontaneous and organic, and the effect is often overwhelming. The opening of the First Symphony becomes a titanic effort first to depict and then to shake off the weight crushing the human spirit. Nobody, except perhaps Karajan in his live performance in the Festival Hall in October 1988, quite catches the desperation of that turmoil. Similarly, despite the papery sound and the occasional distortions at climaxes, the “Allegro energico e passionate” finale of No. 4 is devastating; the brass and timpani emerge with real impact. Yet Furtwängler is also wholly capable of capturing the delicate grace of the Allegretto of the Second and the bitter-sweet lilt of the Poco allegretto in the Third.

The Violin Concerto commemorates a happy collaboration between the conductor and Yehudi Menuhin. Never the possessor of the most succulent tone, Menuhin does not achieve Milstein’s sweet rapture or Oistrakh’s burnished glow but his serene, radiant account is mercifully free of the intonation problems which could afflict this great artist in later years.
Furtwängler’s impassioned accompaniment lends great intensity to Brahms’ sweeping melodies and the soloist responds in kind. The much improved sound allows the beauty to emerge not only of Menuhin’s violin but also of other solo instruments such as the gorgeous principal oboe in the Adagio. The Allegro finale stays close to its gypsy roots, played not too hectically but with great élan.
The First Symphony, Double Concerto and Haydn Variations are all from the same concert in the Grosser Musikvereinssaal on 27 January 1952 - what a programme! It might have been even better: it was originally envisaged that Oistrakh and Casals were to be engaged but as it turned out Furtwängler had to settle for his own concertmaster and principal cellist in the Vienna Philharmonic – not too much of a compromise given that they were Willi Boskovsky and Emanuel Brabec. Furtwängler’s conception is sombre, tragic and Romantic; the performance starts a shade tentatively but soon catches fire despite a certain deliberateness in the phrasing. The Andante is serene without dragging and the textures are rich, requiring the soloists to dig deep to ensure that they are heard against the orchestral tutti.

Of the two “Haydn Variations” here, the later 1952 performance is weightier – even a little ponderous – and in considerably better sound than the slightly swifter, lighter 1943 account, with less audience noise. The EMI Références set offers yet a third recording from 1949, the only studio recording. All three are very fine but not so different that I think you need them all; they are all affectionately and exuberantly played but the Andante in 1952 is particularly grand and my preference would be for that later version in best, if slightly tubby, sound.
The three Hungarian Dances on the first disc are similarly joyous and released; as always Pristine have done a wonderful job in cleaning up the hiss and providing a rich, warm ambience.
These four discs may be purchased bundled as a download. For those who have noticed that the CD serial numbers are not sequential, PASC 343 is a Cantelli issue. My review copy of PASC 340 has a misprint in the listings which will no doubt be corrected: it contains Hungarian Dance No.3, not No.2.
  Ralph Moore
I had been hoping that Andrew Rose would be turning his attention to these classic performances and the results are very gratifying.