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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’* [52:51]
rec. 19-20 December 1944
Overture – ‘Coriolan’, Op. 6 [8:58]
rec. 27-30 June 1943
Overture – Leonora No. 3, Op. 72* [14:04]
rec. 2 June 1944
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 [33:24]
rec. 27-30 June 1943
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op, 68, ‘Pastoral’ [43:19]
rec. 20-22 March 1944
Symphony No. 4 in B flat, Op. 60 [35:45]
rec. 27-30 June 1943
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 [37:36]
rec. 31 October–3 November 1943
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 [73:12]
Tilla Briem (soprano); Elisabeth Höngen (contralto); Peter Anders (tenor); Rudolf Watzke (bass); Bruno Kittel Choir
rec. 22-24 March 1942
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler *
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
MUSIC & ARTS CD-4049 [4 CDs: 76:04 + 76:49 + 73:26 +73:12]

This set from Music & Arts offers what are described as “the best of the World War II live recordings” of most of the Beethoven symphonies conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler – the first two symphonies and the Eighth are not included in this collection. The Ninth appears in a 2012 transfer by Aaron Z. Snyder while the remainder are in 1999 restorations by Maggi Payne; the latter may have been issued previously by this label. These performances are famous ones which are no strangers to CD and at the foot of this review I have included links to other reviews by MusicWeb International colleagues of different transfers; I haven’t heard any of the transfers which they appraised. No information is given by Music & Arts about recording venues but it seems from the reviews by colleagues that most of the Berlin performances were given in the Alte Philharmonie, which was destroyed in a bombing raid on the night of 29-30 January 1944.

The comprehensive notes are extracted – with permission – from the book The Furtwängler Record (1994) by the late John Ardoin and in these notes Mr Ardoin discusses the present performances in the context of other recordings by the conductor of the same symphonies. In the course of his discussion of the Fourth Symphony Ardoin includes a post-war quote from Furtwängler: ‘I am becoming convinced that in classical pieces, alterations of tempo – of which I was once very fond – should be made with very great caution, if at all. What counts is form.’ The present collection of performances all presumably pre-date that epiphany and here we find Furtwängler far from averse to modifications of tempo in his quest for Beethovenian truth.

Before considering the performances a word about the sound quality is in order. I don’t know what sources were used by Maggi Payne – presumably radio tapes; Aaron Z Snyder used Russian archival copies of RRG tapes. I think both Payne and Snyder have done a pretty good job with material that is, in most cases, just over seventy years old. Inevitably, the sound has its limitations and specific issues relating to the Third, Fourth, Sixth and Ninth symphonies are clearly mentioned in the booklet. In the Ninth the timpanist is over-prominent, sometimes significantly so, whenever he plays loudly; and here and there – in the ‘Eroica’, for instance - the trumpets have a tendency to blare in loud passages, which I’m sure is down to the recording and not to the players’ excessive zeal. However, I can honestly say that the stature of these performances is in no way compromised or diminished by any sonic limitations.

Make no mistake; these are performances of genuine stature. I admire some of the modern-day historically informed performances of Beethoven but these Furtwängler accounts offer a forceful reminder that one can get to the heart of Beethoven through other ways than adherence to metronome markings. Indeed, as John Ardoin is careful to point out, Furtwängler was a restless Beethoven interpreter who would never be so complacent as to think that he had arrived at the core of a Beethoven score: there was always more thought, more exploration to do and one should never be satisfied.

The ‘Eroica’ opens with two momentous chords: you know this is going to be a big performance and so it proves. Starting at a fairly steady pace, Furtwängler then modifies his pace, slower or faster, according to the needs of the music. He omits the exposition repeat, which is a shame. It’s an epic reading, though in the context of what has gone before I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with the very fast pace adopted for the closing pages. The speed adopted for the slow movement is indeed Adagio assai. This is a profound and searching performance. There’s a real sense of tragedy, nowhere more so than in the last few pages. The finale opens very swiftly but then slows for the unveiling of the theme after which the differences between each variation are tellingly brought out. Furtwängler invests the coda with genuine exaltation.

The Fourth starts with a tense, pregnant introduction out of which the Allegro vivace fairly explodes. Once again there’s no exposition repeat but we find the conductor getting his players to use crescendi and accents to great effect. The inner movements are well done but in the driving finale I wonder if Beethoven’s good humour isn’t rather hurled at the listener.

The Fifth Symphony was recorded at the same time as an extraordinarily intense, highly charged performance of the Coriolan Overture. That’s a performance that demands to be heard; the ending is as desolate as I’ve ever heard it. The symphony itself is very fine. The first movement – where the exposition repeat is taken – is on a big and heroic scale yet there’s no suggestion of empty rhetoric. For my taste the pace at which the second movement is taken is on the broad side given that the marking is Andante con moto. However, the way that the music is played is of a piece with the conductor’s lofty conception of the whole work – and I do not use the word ‘lofty’ in a derogatory way. The start of the third movement is remarkable: the first few bars are truly mysterious and through this atmosphere the sound of the horns cuts like a knife. I do wonder if, when that material is reprised after the fugal episode, it’s not taken at too slow a speed. Furtwängler rather exaggerates the crescendo into the finale but, my goodness, it’s exciting. The start of the finale has leonine strength, the music sounding grand and elevated. Later Furtwängler presses forward urgently in a way that I find thrilling. Not everyone will agree but, as so often with this conductor, while you may not concur with every interpretative detail his thought-provoking approach will keep you fully engaged.

John Ardoin has a memorable phrase to describe Furtwängler’s way with the ‘Pastoral’, saying that in his hands the symphony ‘became remarkably expressive clay, to which he brought a plasticity vouchsafed no other conductor’. He points out that in performance the conductor used to make only a short pause between the first two movements – an effect that’s not so easy to reproduce faithfully on CD – so that, since Beethoven had already linked the last three movements the symphony effectively acquired a two-part structure. The reading of the first movement is beautifully judged though slightly marred by a particularly bronchial audience. I don’t quite get the ‘meshing’ of the tempi between the first two movements that Ardoin mentions but Furtwängler places us on the banks of a serene and slowly meandering brook, though later on the current flows a little more quickly. This is beautifully characterised reading. The rustic merrymaking is nice and nimble while the storm that sends everyone scurrying for shelter is indeed turbulent. The essence of the Shepherd’s thanksgiving is nobility but at times the music surges forward in an exciting fashion.

The introduction to the Seventh Symphony is very potent. Actually, it comes across as somewhat aggressive but I’m sure that’s a feature of the sound and not the performance. The main Vivace is splendidly athletic, though once again there’s an impression – wholly erroneous, I’m sure – of aggression. At the start of the second movement I thought the pace was rather a trudge but I found that I adjusted to Furtwängler’s pace and, in fact, his conception is expansive and dignified. After a highly mobile scherzo the finale is exultant.

So to the Ninth, which is the earliest performance in this set. Perhaps that’s why the timpani are so excessively prominent every time the volume is loud. In the first movement especially the ensemble isn’t always immaculate: it matters not. Furtwängler’s reading of the first movement is powerful, measured and very intense. Having said that the pace is measured I should qualify that by saying that the pulse picks up as the intensity of Beethoven’s argument increases. This is a dramatic, searching interpretation that grabs the listener by the throat and never relaxes its grip. To be honest, you may, like me, find it a bit fierce at times but this is music-making touched more than a little by greatness.

If the first movement is touched by greatness the slow movement simply exudes greatness from start to finish. John Ardoin says that this is the conductor’s most expansive reading on record. It would be an impertinence to judge it by the stopwatch but, simply for reference, in the 1951 Bayreuth performance (review) the movement plays for 19:36 and the magnificent August 1954 reading with the Philharmonia from the Lucerne Festival (Tahra FURT1003) takes 19:32: this 1942 reading lasts for 20:11. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the opening sound so spacious and that sets the tone for everything that’s to follow. Beethoven’s music is a profound utterance and Furtwängler’s reading is positively Olympian. With the Berliner Philharmoniker responding with truly eloquent playing this is the highlight of the set.

The finale is epic. The bass, Rudolf Watzke is commanding and the ringing tenor of Peter Anders is also very impressive. The two ladies make much less of an impression but they’re satisfactory. I’d not previously heard of Bruno Kittel (1870-1948) but on the evidence of this performance he certainly knew how to train a chorus. His eponymous choir makes a splendid showing here, producing a full, firm sound at all dynamic levels and facing up fairly and squarely to Beethoven’s frankly unreasonable demands - and surmounting them. Furtwängler leads an electrifying performance of the finale that sweeps all before it.

Many people reading this review will already have in their collection recordings of the Beethoven symphonies conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler – and perhaps more than one version. However, if you haven’t heard these remarkable wartime performances then these excellent Music & Arts transfers are well worth your attention. Furtwängler was a giant among Beethoven conductors and seventy years later these intense, deeply considered performances still have much to teach us about these symphonies and how to play them.

John Quinn

Reviews of other transfers of these performances on MusicWeb International
Symphony No. 3 (Tahra) – Jonathan Woolf
Symphony No. 4 (Pristine Audio) – Michael Cookson
Symphony No. 5 (Pristine Audio) – Michael Cookson
Symphony No. 7 (Pristine Audio) – Michael Cookson
Symphony No. 9 (Guild/Pristine) – Michael Cookson / Jonathan Woolf

Masterwork Index    
Symphony 3 Symphony 4 Symphony 5
Symphony 6 Symphony 7 Symphony 9