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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op.56 [20:27]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 [41:35]
Hungarian Dances, WoO 1, Nos. 1, 10. [4:49]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Dances, variations), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. 1930 Hochschule für Musik, Berlin (Dances); 20-25 March 1948, Kingsway Hall London (symphony); 20 June 1950, RIAS live broadcast recording (Variations)

Pristine Audio continue their sterling efforts to present Furtwängler’s performances in as good a sound as is possible. These three recordings are with two different orchestras and quite separate forms of recording. They have been released many times before but most recently in the ‘handy” Furtwängler ‘big box’: “Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca”, which I have recently acquired but hope to do an overview at some stage.

Furtwängler’s Brahms is still very highly regarded by critics and only a few months ago his recording of the First Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic, also in the DG box, was chosen as the overall top choice in BBC Radio 3’s “Building a Library”.

Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Haydn” is a very old favourite and I have owned it in several incarnations. It was greatly admired by my late father when I played it to him about twenty years ago. Recorded at a Berlin Philharmonic RIAS broadcast in 20 June 1950, it is, I suggest, the preferred version under Furtwängler. The theme is now thought not to be by Haydn, whose quartets, Brahms venerated, but it is still a sublime tune. There are so many qualities and aspects in this recording that I recommend that you listen to it as soon as possible, if you don’t already know it. Variation VI is as bold as ever and VII makes for a calming aftermath. The finale, which like several Brahms pieces, is based on a “Chaconne” brings the chorale to a triumphant conclusion. It staggers belief that this is seventy years old and Andrew Rose deserves congratulations on the magnificent sound produced. You can hear some of this as a sample on the Pristine website.

Brahms’s Symphony Number 2 was recorded by Decca in Kingsway Hall, London in March 1948 by a celebrated recording team of engineers under Victor Olof. As the notes state, by this time they had had considerable experience in Kingsway Hall and had, by trial and error, produced spectacular results. Renowned producer John Culshaw added “that Kingsway was by no means a “difficult” hall for recording purposes, but the correct placement of appropriate microphones still makes the difference between a mediocre and a fine recording. Furtwängler thought differently. He insisted that one particular microphone, out of those in the set-up, should be suspended over the centre of the orchestra, and that all the others — there were perhaps five — should be disconnected and removed from his sight”. Culshaw goes on to add that “It was not surprising that when the records were released all the critics were bewildered by the change in the famous Decca sound: instead of the usual combination of warmth and clarity the Brahms recording was diffuse and muddy. The pity of it all was that the performance, as I recall, was remarkable. It may have been full of Furtwängler’s quirks, but it was intense and exciting. Not much, however, of what I heard in the hall itself found its way on to the record, and it was the conductor’s fault.".

Whilst, I have heard other recordings of Brahms 2 from Furtwängler - and indeed Pristine have released some already - this is the first time that I’ve heard this Decca recording. As Culshaw states, it is very fine indeed. The first movement develops organically and the second is at times disturbing. Hans Keller, famously said that “Furtwängler was the opposite of a Gramophone Record” and with his studio VPO Beethoven, I fear this is true There is however real depth of feeling here, with a wistful mournfulness that pervades Furtwängler’s post-war recordings. It certainly compares very well with contemporaries, Toscanini and Walter. Mr Rose has achieved a real Brahmsian sonority and I find it very moving. The third movement “Allegretto grazioso’ is a real tour de force and one of the finest that I’ve ever heard. As with the “Haydn Variations” one can spot the influence on Elgar and not just on his “Enigma Variations”. There is a real pastoral quality and this belies Brahms’s later gruff persona. How well does the LPO play and how disappointed they must have been with the recorded result. I recently had to visit the dentist and whilst being treated, the radio played the fourth movement, which I recognised. “Allegro con Spirito” is its title and spirited it certainly is with all kinds of textures and undercurrents. I’ve always felts that Beecham, who generally I love, waited for the last few minutes to go “hammer and tongs” whereas with Furtwängler it’s a steady build-up. How marvellous that this great rendition can now be heard in such excellent sound. I’m reviewing this about 72 years after it was recorded and find that fact totally remarkable. I was out of my seat at the crescendo ending.

As ‘bonbons’, two Hungarian Dances conclude this CD. I have heard them previously and enjoyed them but again the restoration is very impressive and the sound of the 1930s BPO quite belies its age. This a fabulous disc of two top-class Furtwängler performances; it’s a real privilege to hear them in such first-class sound and to regale you with their qualities.

David R Dunsmore

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