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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op 56a (1873) [21:11]
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1862-76) [46:43]
Sinfonieorchester der Nordwestdeutschen Rundfunks/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. live radio broadcast 27 October 1951, Musikhalle, Hamburg
XR Remastering Ambient Stereo

I came straight to this recoding having just listened to Giulini’s fine Brahms Third Symphony with The Vienna Philharmonic, coupled with a rather less successful recording of the Haydn Variations; the difference between Furtwängler’s weighty, deeply felt account and Giulini’s leaden version was marked. The First Symphony here, too, has long been a benchmark Furtwängler recording and Andrew Rose has done a splendid job in both removing both shrillness and muddiness, and rebalancing the original recording to enhance the audibility of instruments otherwise smothered in the aural fuzz; I was very struck by the richness and depth of the bass frequencies he has secured, too. I would go so far as to say that the sound here in remastered Ambient Stereo is now not only bearable but much more than satisfactory: it is positively pleasurable to listen to, it is so full and revealing.

Furtwängler was in any case always a revelation in Brahms; Pristine previously released a much improved set of his symphonies, the Variations and other works with the VPO and BPO which I glowingly reviewed back in 2012, but this is an example of his work as a guest conductor with the main Hamburg orchestra rather than with the two orchestras with which he normally worked, The sound here is great, but so it is in Pristine’s remastering of the live recording of Furtwängler conducting the same works with the Vienna Philharmonic the following year on 27 January 1952, only three months after this live recording. You would not expect to encounter great interpretative differences between them and so it proves; there is virtually no disparity in timings in the symphony, although the Haydn Variations are rather more carefully traversed here than with the VPO the following year; however, Furtwängler’s massive, titanic grip on proceedings remains the same.

Not even Karajan, an acknowledged master of Brahms, achieves the same kind of intensity in his two late, great recordings from the Royal Festival Hall and Tokyo as Furtwängler generates here in the first movement of the Symphony no. 1. The Andante rolls along like an ocean wave, the solo violin sings sweetly and the conclusion is as serene as you could wish. The Allegretto begins with a charming, disarming diffidence, gradually building then subsiding again in a perfectly judged curve of controlled emotion. The Adagio introduction to the finale is grand, mysterious and even menacing; the horn theme entering after three minutes is pure Sibelius fifty years earlier, then the Big Tune is like the descent of the Heavenly Host; from then on, Furtwngler never lets the tension sag over the ten minutes to the overwhelming conclusion. The prominence of the timpanist throughout only adds to the high drama of proceedings.

The First is my favourite of Brahms symphonies; the excellence of this remastering by Pristine removes the only possible objection to this being most recommendable of all the recordings of it, although I am hard pushed to choose between this and the VPO recording from 1952. Both are superlative, although the VPO strings are, perhaps not exactly surprisingly, a tad warmer and fuller and Furtwängler’s manner a little freer and more indulgent. On balance, I marginally prefer the greater urgency and grandeur of the VPO version of the Haydn Variations, but there is little to choose between them. Whichever you prefer, if you love these works by Brahms, you must have Furtwängler in this or the other Pristine issue (PASC 340).

Ralph Moore

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