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Beethoven Piano Concertos


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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1808) [34: 56]
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 Pastoral (1809) [43:35]
Conrad Hansen, (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. 31 October-3 November 1943 (concerto), 20-22 March, 1944 (symphony) Alte Philharmonie, Berlin
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC590 [78:31]

Pristine Audio continues its programme of releasing ‘live’ Furtwängler recordings. Here we have two performances that have certainly been out before (review). It is one of the fascinations of avid collectors to hear different versions of the same recordings; lay people will find this obsessive. Furtwängler was memorably described by Hans Keller as “the opposite of a gramophone record” which is why followers are so obsessed with his live recordings - which are legion. Certainly in the case of his studio Beethoven which I have on “Great EMI Recordings”, mostly with the Vienna Philharmonic, there is, sometimes a lack of spirit that is present in his best live recordings. During much of WW2, Berlin concerts were recorded onto tape. The tapes and machines were taken by the Russians in 1945 and only returned in 1989, after being released on various labels. The sound is fair for a live concert that took place over 75 years ago. I’m sure that Pristine’s Andrew Rose has done all he can to give us the best possible sound. It’s certainly listenable and the performances are generally, very memorable.

The liner-notes quote from “The Furtwängler Record” by John Ardoin. He is less than complimentary concerning Conrad Hansen’s performance of the Fourth Concerto and states “that his shaping of the phrases [is] unaccountably harsh and many details go by the wayside. He plays the first cadenzas for only a few dozen bars and then goes off on enlarging his solo moment with new material (presumably of his own making) built on the opening theme. He eventually returns to Beethoven but only for a few bars before he recasts the ending”; harsh words. What is a shame is that Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic are first class accompanists. It would have been preferable to have Edwin Fischer who made a famous recording of the Emperor Concerto with the Philharmonia and Furtwängler in 1951 which is also in the aforementioned EMI box. Fischer’s own recording of Piano Concerto No. 4 was with the Philharmonia, directed by himself and is available on an Icon Warners box. It is an interesting rendition of a marvellous concerto but shows that Hansen, on this showing, was not quite top rank. I believe he accompanied Dennis Brain in Beethoven’s Horn Sonata in 1950, which I’ve not heard but otherwise his discography seems sparse.

Furtwängler has left at least four recordings of the Pastoral and there are two, post-war in “Furtwängler: complete RIAS recordings” (review). Much as I admire him as a Beethoven interpreter, I’m not sure that he was temperamentally suited to the first two movements. The start is so lugubrious and there is little of the joy of first entering the countryside. In his review of the Music and Arts issue, John Quinn quotes John Ardoin’s memorable phrase: “In Furtwängler’s hands, the Pastoral became remarkably expressive clay, to which he brought a plasticity vouchsafed no other conductor. There is a clarity to his performances (including the few prosaic ones) in which every note speaks. Even while weathering the storm of the fourth movement, Furtwängler’s performance conveys a feeling of chamber rather than symphonic music and always implants a sense of serenity and well-being. Textures are transparent, bowings are light and subtle, and dynamics are carefully monitored. A fortissimo here is not the same as one in the other symphonies, the Third or Fifth, for example; it is more a matter of weight than decibels, with accents more a surge than a sharp delineation. It is only with the third-movement scherzo that the music grows in girth and momentum, as clouds start to gather at the end of the movement”. This certainly is apparent from my viewpoint. The first two movements seem unfocused and feel disappointing compared to such as Toscanini, Kleiber, Klemperer (Pristine) and, above all, Bruno Walter. Walter is best in 1936 with the VPO (Naxos) which I think very fine, as is his late Sony. Interestingly although Furtwängler’s “Scene by the Brook” seems languid; actually, at 13:26, it is nearly three minutes faster than Beecham (1951) and most of the Stokowski versions.

The performance goes into higher gears in the third movement “Peasants merrymaking” and is speedier than the notorious but successful “ländler” of Klemperer who saw it as “old man dancing”. There is a real spring here and the wind playing is beautifully captured, a real feeling of a Bruegel painting. All through the movement there are hints of rain before the fourth movement “Storm”. I’d agree with John Quinn in that the third movement is ‘nice and nimble’ but the ominous sounds of thunder are very apparent. The picture of scurrying animals, as depicted in “Fantasia” is ever-present. Furtwängler produces a well-presented storm which does feel part of what has preceded. Toscanini, on the other hand, sometimes gives the impression that he is just waiting for the Storm. The hymn of Thanksgiving is beautifully played and I cannot maintain objectivity for this piece that captivated me as a young child. It’s one of the most life-affirming statements of the human condition and the BPO play it for all they are worth. It was performed in March 1944 with the Nazi monolith about to crumble and Furtwängler stood as one of the beacons of civilisation. It is not the greatest “Pastoral” but in its own way is unique. I think of it as very special. The ending is intensely moving, and almost unbearable with its feeling of farewell; heaven knows what the audience felt, there is no applause after either work.

Once again Andrew Rose and Pristine Audio are to be congratulated on another fine achievement. The Concerto is a not unmixed affair with very fine accompaniment. The Pastoral develops into a great performance. Considering its age, the sound is perfectly acceptable and I look forward to returning to this disc.

David R Dunsmore



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