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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 [9:14]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55, Eroica [52:53]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Op. 62), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Op. 55)/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. Alte Philharmonie, Berlin, 27-30 June, 1943 (Op. 62); Musikvereinsaal, Vienna, 19-20 December, 1944 (Op. 55)

Pristine’s website describes these as ‘live concert recordings’, whereas the cover of its CD issue calls them ‘live and studio recordings’, which creates some uncertainty. The recording dates show that each took more than one day to record, which suggests that they were either studio recordings or, if live, an amalgamation of the best takes from two performances of each work. There is no applause after either performance, neither did this writer notice any audience noise. So perhaps these were audience-free, concert hall recordings intended for later broadcast.

There were times in history when momentous external events seemed to impinge on the nature of a contemporary musical performance. Arguably, one example is Bruno Walter’s 1945 New York studio performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which was recorded very close to the time the war in Europe ended. This performance seems to be infused with a special degree of joy, born perhaps of relief that the worst of Europe’s sufferings were over. These Furtwängler performances have an unsurpassed intensity inspired, as others have suggested, by the sheer terror conductor and musicians felt as they contemplated the war they were caught up in. The Eroica, recorded when the German speaking lands were on the brink of defeat and facing foreign occupation, seems especially driven (which, in this context, does not necessarily mean fast).

In the Coriolan Overture, Furtwängler uses wide dynamic contrasts and judicious but not disruptive tempo flexibility to create a powerful portrayal of the tragedy of a Roman general. Particularly in the quieter, gentler music, which represents his wife’s pleadings for peace, the impression of a conversation occurring, a to-ing and fro-ing, is palpable. And the slowing down at the end, the exaggeration of the pauses between the final, soft chords plucked by the strings, seem entirely natural as a representation of the death of the hero. All is not ideal sonically: the acoustic is very reverberant and the loud music places the recording under obvious strain, but many will find these drawbacks do not prevent them appreciating an unsurpassed Coriolan.

There are no such sonic problems with this Eroica. The thunderous delivery of the two opening chords announce that this is to be a memorable performance. There is immense power in climaxes and insight in the quieter passages. The conductor neither rushes nor tarries: this is concentration with spaciousness. He loses no momentum as he deploys his usual, continuous subtle variations in tempo to point up the emotional implications of the music. Amid the drama, what is remarkable is the trouble Furtwängler takes to make subsidiary themes audible: this is as detailed an Eroica as you are likely to hear. The brass play an usually prominent, almost independent role in this performance: as martial instruments, they remind us that this is a wartime performance of a symphony inspired by the French Revolution. At the end of the coda, however, where Beethoven repeats the opening theme four times, the conductor saw no need to follow Arturo Toscanini’s practice (review) of having the trumpets play the whole theme, rather than part of it.

The Marcia funebraAdagio Assai (wrongly labelled Allegro Assai in Pristine’s CD documentation) continues the high level of concentration established in the first movement. Running for nearly eighteen minutes, the performance balances forward momentum with emotional weight to form a cohesive, ominous-sounding whole. Toscanini and Otto Klemperer (review) gave monumental performances of this movement and for eloquence, drama and pathos without sentimentality, Furtwängler’s is at least their equal. To single it out as superior to those might be a step too far into the arena of subjective value judgements, yet it is one that some listeners might be prepared to take.

The Scherzo in this performance is a relatively easy-going, romantic one. The Trio brings a further modest slowing which facilitates some fine espressivo playing from the soft-edged Vienna horns. The reading is perhaps a minute slower than average, yet arguably it’s dramatically right to relax here in view of the terrors conjured by the conductor in the preceding movements.

The Finale gets off to an arresting start without the aggression which troubles me in one or two of Toscanini’s recordings. As in the first two movements, there is intensity without any sense of dragging or rush. Although Beethoven is more joyful in this movement than in the first two, menace never seems entirely absent in this reading. For example, trumpets underline the drama by playing a powerful role in certain climaxes. In the coda, Furtwängler does not engage in a breathless dash to the finish line (as he could do in the corresponding part of the Ninth Symphony) but is propulsive enough to generate excitement while allowing all sections of the orchestra to articulate cleanly and forcefully, including the satisfyingly caught tympani. A magnificent conclusion.

And that is not all. The skilled work of the original engineers and Pristine Audio (in their modern restoration) allows us to hear this performance in sound of astonishingly good quality. It is warm, full bodied, clear and almost perfectly balanced. This could easily pass for a high-fidelity LP recording made fifteen or more years later than the recording date. I’ve not had the opportunity to compare this issue with earlier ones on other labels (including Tahra) but it’s hard to imagine Pristine’s production being surpassed or perhaps even equalled. Theirs is an advanced example of the art and science of historical audio restoration entirely at the service of the music.

To return briefly to the music: it’s almost certainly true that the performance is unlike those given in Beethoven’s day. True but irrelevant, in my view. It has been said that great works of art do not give up their secrets easily. It would be astonishing if the musicians of 1804 understood all there was to understand about a score as vast and revolutionary (in all senses) as the Eroica. Part of Furtwängler’s authority in this music derives from his taking into account the romantic revolution in music which this symphony did so much to initiate.

A survey of 151 conductors carried out by BBC Music Magazine in 2016 resulted in the Eroica being named as the greatest symphony of all time. Is this its greatest recorded performance?

Rob W McKenzie



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