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Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor) Complete Recordings onDeutsche Grammophon & Decca
75-page booklet DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 7288 [34 CDs + 1 DVD: ca 40 hrs]
Editor's Note This boxset was released in 2019, but is no longer available for purchase as a new product. Given the
recent release of the even larger Warner boxset The Complete Wilhelm
Furtwängler on Record (review),
it was decided to publish a review of the DG set to serve as a comparison.
Warner’s new 55-disc box of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s complete EMI recordings –
all of which have been remastered – gives a different perspective of the conductor than Deutsche Grammophon’s 34-disc box of his recordings which was issued in 2019, but which has escaped a review here. As discography they are largely very similar; chronologically they differ quite substantially. This is the first time DG have put all of Furtwängler’s recordings for them (and Decca) into one box – something which their counterparts in Japan had largely already done with a 23-CD set called Wilhelm Furtwängler auf Deutsche Grammophon and most notably, in 1994, the Das Vermächtnis von Wilhelm Furtwängler which was a 34-disc jewel case collection of rather vast proportions –priced at 50,000 Yen (roughly £300). EMI’s own last effort, just over ten-years ago on a 21-disc set, was incomplete – several operas were missing, as were several orchestral recordings – among them whole swathes of the conductor’s orchestral Wagner. His 1953 Rome Der Ring Des Nibelungen, which is on EMI, made neither that set – and nor does it make the new Warner one.
Although DG have released in various forms all of their Furtwängler recordings a few have remained out of print – the Cairo performances are notoriously hard to find – and many are difficult to get hold of individually. One way to get hold of some of the rarer wartime recordings – if you never wanted one of their limited box sets, for example – would have been through the 10-disc Dokumente edition, marketed in both Germany and Japan, and which is often sold split up into individual CDs. At best, his major label recordings have been erratically distributed.
Although this box has not been remastered the label claim that many of the recordings use Japanese remasterings – but they don’t tell us which ones. If DG were being transparent with us they would give us the identifying CD number – and one should be able to tell which ones were sourced from Japan, both from their earlier pressings, or the later ones. As it is, they don’t even give us the German ones. It’s true that there are often differences in the sound quality, and there are often differences in the timings as well, but without knowing one can’t easily judge. I suspect that very few use Japanese sources – why would they when DG already had many of these performances from smaller boxes – and of the many I know extremely well in both the Japanese or German pressings – the Bruckner 9, the Röhn and Schneiderhan Beethoven concertos or Cairo Tchaikovsky 6, particularly – rarely do you get the sense of DG using a specific recording.
The legacy of this conductor’s recordings – the official ones which we have from both DG and EMI – is quite large, amounting to almost ninety discs. Add in the number of live performances which exist and it becomes huge. But throw in the quantity of record labels who have issued Furtwängler recordings – even from DG – and it becomes industrial in scale. No conductor – not even Toscanini – comes close to Furtwängler in the sheer volume available. Even a relatively rare recording such as the Erich Röhn Beethoven Violin Concerto (on this set) can be heard on at least fifteen different labels; and most offer a different variable in the sound, with some differences in pitch. With the Furtwängler Beethoven Ninths – from the earliest in 1937 (on the Warner), to his last in 1954 (on neither label) – the number of different CDs is well over seventy. There are no Ninths on this set; nor, for that matter, any of the nine or so Eroicas which we have from Furtwängler. This possibly gives us a lopsided view of the conductor’s Beethoven, although what we do have on DG remains quite special. I would be here forever and a day if I gave you a recommendation for each of the performances here – so instead I shall just stick to briefly discussing them in the context of the value of the complete box of these recordings.
Discs 1 to 3 are pre-war recordings made between 1929 and 1937, a mixed period for Furtwängler. Generally, these are the weakest of the recordings here mainly because they are all studio performances, a medium Furtwängler was never comfortable in, and they show Furtwängler in works which rarely demanded much from him (and we have very few live performances for comparison, in some cases none). There are exceptions; his Wagner is illuminating but would achieve a scale that became incandescent, especially during the war years. There are no particularly substantial items here – the longest being the 18-minutes of the 1930 Polydor “Prelude & Liebestod” to Tristan und Isolde. Furtwängler was particularly dramatic and powerful in this piece, though you really have to hear him in one of his live performances to appreciate this more. The only weak performance he gave wasn’t made with either his usual Berlin or Vienna orchestras (outside the complete 1952 opera). There is certainly none of the seismic heft and soaring emotion that makes his 1942 Berlin performance so unforgettable – the first movement climax is one of the greatest you’ll ever hear and it will try to drain the life out of you. But neither is there in 1930 the lack of fire you hear in Stockholm, also in 1942 (the least compelling he made). The 1933 Siegfried Funeral March (with the concert ending) shows tremendous weight and a burning fire but Furtwängler would give a performance in 1949 that overwhelms all others he did except in his two complete Italian Rings. Works that would have received just a little more drama in the concert hall come off in mixed form. The Brahms Hungarian Dances (Nos 1 & 10) are elegant rather than exciting; repeats are taken. Much the same applies to the A-flat Slavonic Dance by Dvořák. There are, however, no live versions.
Schubert was a core Furtwängler composer, along with Beethoven and Brahms. We get one recording of the Ballet Music No 2, Incidental Music to Rosamunde and another of the Entr’acte
No 3. Neither of these Berlin performances, in my view, are the equal of the Vienna ones which Furtwängler would record in 1950. As was usually the case, the BPO could be rather heavy and angular in some music whereas Furtwängler achieved much lighter results with the VPO. He experiences similar difficulty in the Mendelssohn Overture “The Hebrides” (Fingals Cave). Contours are again heavy-handed, although the sound does him no favours either. Interestingly, the two Rossini recordings – La gazza Ladra (1930) and Il barbiere di Siviglia (1935), if not electrifying, are elegantly done with the weight of the Berlin Philharmonic relatively restrained. It’s not echt Rossinian, but with almost no other Rossini by this conductor existing the performances are worth having.
The 1933 Egmont Overture is one of the stronger pre-war recordings – and one of the few in this boxset where we also have a direct comparison with another Egmont from 1947. Furtwängler did not really bring as much drama to this work as he did some of Beethoven’s other overtures – Coriolan, for example (which we will come to quite soon). The studio Egmont is marginally swifter, perhaps because it lacks the sense of event which the live one from 1947 does – that one happened to coincide with Furtwängler’s first post-war concerts in Berlin after de-Nazification. Nevertheless, it is noble if not touching on the greatness his Beethoven would reach during the war and in the immediate years after. Furtwängler certainly had the ability to bring enormity to these smaller-scale Beethovenian overtures, but Egmont despite the growling and grimness of the conducting wasn’t one he was inclined to do this with.
And so to the second part of this box, the wartime recordings from 1942 to 1945 – Disc 4 to Disc 16. Furtwängler’s wartime recordings are unquestionably the greatest he ever made and if you want to hear Furtwängler during this period you will need the DG box rather than the Warner one where there are only a handful of recordings from this era. They owe much to the conditions under which these performances were given: the Philharmonie, where the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Röhn and Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica were performed in a concert in January 1944 was a few weeks later destroyed; in the last days of January 1945, a Mozart and Brahms concert was interrupted by allied bombing. It is a miracle that anything exists from the concert, but the final movement of the Brahms First Symphony does. It is the most furious and wild performance of this movement in existence. It is not in any commercial box set; but that it is in the Furtwängler discography at all adds to understanding why this conductor’s recordings are as they are. Try and seek out this fragment because it really leaves the most indelible impression after one has heard it.
Disc 4 is the October 1942 recording of Bruckner’s Fifth (in the Haas edition). Very little of Furtwängler’s Bruckner is disappointing – although I tend to diverge from other writers in finding performances of the Seventh a bit on the cool side. There are no such issues with this Fifth, and it’s in very good sound as, surprisingly, quite a few of these wartime recordings are. It’s architecturally massive in scale, a more compelling reading than the later Vienna performance (1951) which is brighter, lighter and more inclined to more feathery touches. But what both display is that typical Furtwängler trait in this composer – the long line, the sense you know where he is going. In the Fifth it starts even earlier, almost from the first bar so the build-up to the closing coda, that thrilling brass chorale, is almost in sight before we get to it over an hour later. The Berlin brass are magnificent, the strings brooding.
It’s almost the same way which Furtwängler treats the symphonic part to Brahms’s B-flat major Piano Concerto, which is on Disc 5 (November 1942). This is the earliest of the two wartime performances, the soloist being Edwin Fischer. The slightly later Adrian Aeschbacher one, from December 1943, has a similar approach from Furtwängler but an entirely different one from the pianist. Fischer and Furtwängler had a fairly organic relationship (he had been the chosen soloist for the conductor’s own massive Piano Concerto) and would after the war record for EMI with the Philharmonia Orchestra one of the more imperious of Emperor concertos. Fischer is not without his technical challenges in the Brahms, but he is more inclined to stick with what Brahms wrote; Aeschbacher, on the other hand, starts with what Brahms wrote and then merrily goes on his own way.
Disc 6 has Walter Gieseking in the Schumann Concerto, from March 1942. This is almost a disaster, especially in the final movement. It has little to do with wartime conditions and more with Gieseking giving the impression he loathes the concerto. The cello concerto, with the BPO’s principal cellist, Tibor de Machula, on the other hand, is almost inspired. As was often the case, many concerto performances – with a lack of big-name players available – were played by the orchestra’s principals – and the performances were several notches finer. That is certainly the case here. de Machula, a vibrant and fiery East European cellist, clearly benefitted from a symbiosis with Furtwängler and they made something special out of a concerto that rarely ignites in concert.
Both Disc 5 (the Fischer/Brahms) and Disc 7 have performances of Mozart’s Symphony No 39. The earliest performance is somewhat vaguely dated (1942/43) and is the more serious of the two. In part this should be seen because the second performance from 1944 was given immediately after the bombing of the Philharmonie and so there is a sparkling, almost sense of life-affirming renewal about it. Furtwängler was never consistent when it came to repeats – so we get the repeat in the Finale in 1944, but he cuts it in the earlier one.
Disc 8 takes us to the first one devoted entirely to Beethoven and comes from June 1943. And here we have one of the greatest Beethoven performances ever recorded. It’s only 9-minutes long – but it’s simply phenomenal. There’s nothing quite like this Coriolan Overture, and thankfully the DG mastering of it has always been quite good with a very fine – even very emphatic – level of bass which the work needs; the sheer volley and power of the timpani is apocalyptic in pretty much all pressings of this fabulous performance. Quite where Furtwängler and the BPO summoned up the energy for this has always amazed me, but it’s held consistently; it never wanes for a second, each explosion as dramatic as the first. The Melodiya issue of this performance has even more drama, mainly because the Russian engineers didn’t bother to filter anything away from it. It’s just raw Furtwängler (although get the Opus Kura label to hear both the blue and black Melodiya pressings for good measure). But this DG recording is more than adequate. What this Coriolan also encapsulates is the differences we hear in the Berlin and Vienna sounds during the war.
The Fifth, from the same concert, fires at just a lesser level and is unusual among Beethoven Fifths we have from Furtwängler because of its powerful weight. In this of all the Beethoven symphonies, with this particular conductor, it’s surprising how restrained he could be in this work. There is some slowing of tempi – but it isn’t done without the music transitioning into something meaningful. Crescendos are huge; accents much more dramatic than we have heard before. He is pretty much rewriting his earlier performances of this symphony. The Fourth is not live but it still is unusually over-stated. It shares some characteristics with the live Fifth – the taut structure, a certain slowness, some torrential climaxes. But Furtwängler isn’t beyond a little re-composing here and there; the addition of timpani, for example. Neither Beethoven nor Furtwängler need this because the performance rather speaks for itself.
Disc 9 is another all-Beethoven one. I have always loved the Conrad Hansen October 1943 performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto, although it wasn’t until I heard the Chibas edition of this that I probably appreciated it more. Eduardo Chibás opened up the performance to almost stereophonic effect and allowed so much of Furtwängler’s beautifully Romantic accompaniment to shine through. I’m a little in two minds about Hansen himself – he certainly isn’t a Fischer in Beethoven, let us say. Furtwängler had a tendency to use pianists who went their own way and Hansen is no exception, but I still find much that is beautiful in his playing, more than I do in Pietri Scarpini’s playing in Rome a year earlier (despite him being such a remarkable pianist). The 1943 Beethoven Seventh, despite its power and colour, is almost the reverse of the 1944 Eroica. Here we have the studio Vienna Seventh being preferable with its fuming, white hot intensity, while the wartime Vienna Eroica overwhelms by far all other performances of that symphony Furtwängler ever performed despite being more subtle.
Disc 10 is a standard coupling – whatever label it is issued on – of Furtwängler performances by Sibelius, Richard Strauss and Ravel. The En Saga from February 1943 quite possibly benefits from the extreme nature of the recording’s balance which gives the narrative of this performance such huge range. Its scope is more incendiary than in many live performances – there is an almost humid, dark-smelling mistiness at the lowest frequency but battalion-like explosions at the upper ones. Few recordings of this work can equal this one, however, and it’s Furtwängler’s finest performance of a piece by this composer (although he did very little Sibelius). Furtwängler conducted a lot of Richard Strauss, much more than what we have from him would suggest – even Elektra and Salome were in his repertoire. The conductor got better with Till Eulenspiegel with age, I think. The pre-war recording (1930) – Disc 1 – is a little shallow. This performance, from November 1943, is exciting, but perhaps owes a little more to Don Juan. A decade later, again in Berlin, he would almost get this work right. Ravel’s
Daphnis et Chloé Suite No 2 comes from March 1944 and is heavy. Furtwängler rarely excelled in French music, unless it sounded German; he missed the mark consistently with Ravel.
Disc 11. Here we have, in my view, another one of the greatest performances of this particular work on disc. It is Erich Röhn’s recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto from January 1944. (Disc 12 has the Sinfonia Domestica which was the work played in the first half of this concert.) This is the earliest of several recordings of this concerto – most of the rest of them are with Menuhin. I have long held the view that many of the greatest performances of this work have been given by orchestral leaders – Wolfgang Schneiderhan, who can be heard on Disc 29, was the concertmaster in Vienna, for example. What is so unconventional about this Röhn and Furtwängler performance – which makes it almost unique – is the incredibly apocalyptic, almost nihilistic nature of it. The first movement in particular is a stunning vision; a painting that is almost Gothic, and so completely Un-Beethovenian. Röhn is quite clearly a violinist of the first rank; his playing is flawless and often considerably more than this. The performance has been hard to get hold of separately on DG (except in Japan) – although if you really want to hear this in wonderful sound get the Chibas pressing. I will be returning to this performance in a later article.
The Sinfonia Domestica was a work Furtwängler rarely performed, and this is the only extant recording of it. This one, which coincided just a short time before the destruction of the Philharmonie, would be his last one. Furtwängler’s tendency to give great performances of difficult works is uncanny and this Sinfonia Domestica is more successful than many. For a conductor who could sometimes seem chilly and remote he paints a remarkably homely portrait of family life. This concert has always been in very good sound, quite an achievement for wartime January 1944. The February 1942 Don Juan is a swaggering piece of virtuosity, much as Cantelli would later conduct the work. It smoulders, the playing incinerates the pages of the score and he rarely matched this one in later performances of the work.
Disc 13 is again an utterly unique, perhaps unequalled recording – Bruckner’s Ninth from October 1944. Furtwängler’s history with this symphony is rather revealing. It was on the first concert programme he ever conducted – back in February 1906 in Munich – and he would never conduct the symphony again after the St Florian Bruckner Ninth in 1944, a few days after this concert. There were wartime Bruckner Ninths, mainly from April and May 1940, none of which exist, but which would almost certainly have sounded different to this last one if they did. There is some commonality in 1944 with the Röhn/Beethoven. Terror, apocalypse, dread is written – no carved – almost throughout this performance. Much of the playing is visceral. The problem has always been the recording itself. The sound of the orchestra is top-heavy, but in the wrong direction with too much distortion in the upper range. Over the years DG has corrected some of this, and its timings. Problems still remain. The Scherzo of this performance has to be heard, however. I don’t know another quite like it. Pretty much all labels (and there are many) have managed to represent it well, though I think one is so electrified with what Furtwängler does with the music one wouldn’t particularly care what it sounded like. I don’t think DG have ever quite mastered the opening bars of the Adagio especially well, though they get much else right in this movement. One big issue with this performance is that everyone has largely been working off the same tape so the margin for improvement is limited. However you filter this Bruckner 9 – even with Pristine’s stereo – you still have to contend with the original limitations. I will, however, shortly be reviewing a new Japanese transfer which uses an East German tape which is entirely new and which at last has a very good bottom line. In many ways it is a revelation – not least in the first movement coda which is revealed to be simply shocking in its power.
Disc 14 is the October 1944 Vienna Philharmonic Bruckner Eighth. There are no wartime Berlin performances of this symphony, and only one other (unearthed) earlier Vienna one. This Bruckner Eighth was made some two months before the Vienna Eroica, the greatest performance ever of that symphony. It has much in common with it. Despite the immense power of the performance, that typical ability of Furtwängler to conduct in the longest lines and hold the massive structures that Bruckner built, there is time for the Vienna players to give us playing that is emotionally deep, even a little raw. The Adagio is magnificent, really rather broadly done, but what nobility and phrasing. One feels he wouldn’t have got the wartime Berliners to have got this quality of sound. On the other hand, what is missing from the Vienna Eighth is the Berliner’s heft.
Disc 15 is a Brahms No 2 in D major. This January 1945 Vienna Brahms follows hot on the heels of the incredible Berlin Brahms First – of which we only have the final movement. From the relative safety of Vienna, even though this would be the final time he would conduct there during the war, the broadcast went without a hitch. We don’t quite manage a complete Brahms cycle in this boxed set (there’s no Fourth), which is a pity because Furtwängler was such a superlative Brahms conductor and almost all his recordings of this composer are worth hearing. This incandescent Second from the Musikverein is vice-like in its power. Furtwängler doesn’t always do sunlight and pastoral well, but here he gets the climate of the symphony well balanced.
Disc 16, with the same orchestra, but from a day later, on the 29th January, is of the Franck D minor. Neither of Furtwängler’s recordings of this symphony disappoint – and both are in this set, the second in the Decca portion on Disc 31. The later 1953 performance, also with the VPO, is not markedly slower, but slow enough to fizzle out in places. His wartime Franck is perhaps the more Germanic of the two, and certainly the more potent and more dramatically accented. I think this is the only case of Furtwängler getting inside French music where with Ravel and Debussy he so often comes up short.
Discs 17 to Disc 23 are labelled Radio I, and are fundamentally the first part of Furtwängler’s post-war recordings from 1947 to 1954.
Disc 17 is another all Beethoven CD. The Egmont, from May 1947, I mentioned when discussing the 1933 recording. It is the preferable of the two and has a certain freshness indicative of a conductor who is reunited with his orchestra in their first post-war concert. The Beethoven Fifth from the same concert is not as intense as the wartime ones, largely because it doesn’t need to be. Many of Furtwängler’s post-war recordings will follow this trend – less intensity, more depth. Tempi become more spacious, lines tend towards more concentrated forms of expression.
Disc 18 has Furtwängler’s only performance of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen. Given in October 1947, it is astonishing on many levels. It could only have come from a conductor who was a complete master of Wagner so powerfully intense and operatic is the phrasing. But more than that is Furtwängler’s particular symbiosis with this composer which we will hear time and time again – in Don Juan, and most notably in the Vier letze Lieder. He brought similar insight to Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosen on a Theme by Carl Maria von Weber. From the same October concert as the Strauss, the power is infectious.
Disc 19 is given over to Bach (Orchestral Suite No 3), Handel (three of his Concerti Grossi) and Gluck (Overture to “Alceste”). These are not modest performances, but they are on balance hugely individual ones. Furtwängler’s gift for making music sound so completely fresh is completely evident in all three of the Op 6 set. Although the violins don’t sound light, they do have character. And Furtwängler is very free with this music adding huge amounts of colour to it. By June 1950, when he performed this Bach, he had become much broader in his approach to it – much as he would in the EMI recording of the St Matthew Passion. This
Orchestral Suite No 3 is so very different from the 1930 one which we encountered on Disc 2 where both accents and dynamics were less pronounced. The Gluck “Alceste” from September 1951 exists in two performances – from the 4th and the 5th. The DG booklet gives no indication of which of the two dates the performance comes from – but it is the 5th September. Furtwängler uses an edited version of the Felix Weingartner ending – by necessity – but it also adds a certain clumsiness. The performance doesn’t really add much to this conductor’s discography.
Disc 20 is devoted entirely to excerpts from Wagner. I’ll begin with tracks 3 and 4, his 27th April 1954 Prelude and Liebestod to Tristan und Isolde. Ironically, the sound here is not superior to the 8th – 10th November 1942 wartime one – and neither is the performance. I really do advise searching out this epic version. It has an incandescence that is unique; a blazing fire to it that burns no matter how hard one tries to extinguish it. It also comes closer than any recording you will hear from this set that captures what is the echt Berlin sound. But Furtwängler was so astonishing in this music the DG recording is hardly less impressive as pure Wagner. He is broad, but that space is so well used. Those long lines that are taken in such surging waves of sound have no rivals on disc. The immense – and it is immense – power of the Berliners playing is an extension of its conductor’s vision. You get this in Berlin. You get this in London. It goes awry in Stockholm with an orchestra so clearly unable to connect with Furtwängler. Track 8, the “Trauermarsch” from Götterdämmerung is probably the finest of all his performances of this piece. It is in turn epic, enormously weighty and winds up the tension like a huge explosive coil. His Tannhäuser Overture is massive, but noble. A problem with Furtwängler’s Wagner – if it is one – and which we will come across in the Warner box is that it is so symphonic that it unintentionally overwhelms his singers. But this is one of the great discs in this box.
Disc 21 is the 23rd April 1951 Bruckner Seventh from Cairo (the incorrectly spelt Alessandria in the DG booklet). All of Furtwängler’s extant Bruckner benefits from his ability to hold together this composer’s long movements into very smoothly defined arches. Some work better than others in my view – the incomplete Sixth, the Fifth and Eighth, for example. It’s a well-balanced performance, but like all his other Sevenths is not in good sound. The 1951 Bruckner Fourth is on Disc 22, this time with the Wiener Philharmoniker. As with most of his recordings with this orchestra the perspective we get is entirely different. The orchestra is warmer, the strings less inclined to power through the music, the brass more golden toned rather than like a torrential wave overwhelming you. The performance tends towards a broader statement but Furtwängler never loses tension. His grip is vice-like. It is so very different from the singular Berlin Philharmonic one made during the war in 1942 which revels in its power. Strings are fabulously rich, and reach a depth that is extraordinarily imposing. But the performance is one frustration after another because of its incompletion.
Disc 23 is another Cairo performance – the 19th – 22nd April 1951 Tchaikovsky Sixth. I discussed this is in considerable detail in a review in December 2018 and have not altered my view that it’s the conductor’s best version of this symphony – indeed, one of the finest of all of this symphony (review).
With CD24 to CD26 we move to DGG, which are Furtwängler’s studio recordings. The most important of these – certainly from the conductor’s perspective – was the recording of his own Second Symphony made in December 1951 on Disc 26. Furtwängler was not a modest composer. His works were of massive length, and often extremely complex ones. He was demanding not just on his players but on himself. In terms of a timeline, his symphonies fell somewhere between Ravel and Sibelius and Berg, Bartók, Mahler and Strauss. They really resembled none of the works by these composers, however.
It is widely accepted today that Furtwängler’s DG recording of his own Second Symphony is a weak performance. I have never disagreed with this view – there are stronger recordings from the likes of Takashi Asahina and Daniel Barenboim, Jochum and Keilberth and even Furtwängler himself with the Vienna Philharmonic (on Orfeo). I think Furtwängler’s elongated view of his symphony displays a nervousness in his conducting, a lack of certainty in the value of the work. So sure of the vision he had in Bruckner or Wagner, and the assuredness of where music begins and ends, with his own symphony Furtwängler gets lost in details at the expense of symphonic form. Other conductors knock several minutes off the composer’s timing and give the work a bit more ebb and flow but whether it rescues the symphony is a matter of opinion. It can feel a very long work in this DG performance and has been better advocated elsewhere.
Disc 25 is the conductor’s December 1951 Schubert Ninth. Furtwängler left behind at least six versions of this symphony and there are very notable differences between the performances. Each is a bit of a wild card, perhaps more inconsistent than any other symphony he conducted. If there is a work which could show how wayward, how individualistic and how creative Furtwängler could be it is probably Schubert’s Ninth. This DG recording is probably the most conservative and balanced of any of the performances we have from Furtwängler. There are few, if any, distortions in tempo, and it’s much less grainy than others. Earlier performances of the “Great” can be muscular; this one beams with colour. But conservative never implies dull with this conductor.
Disc 24 couples Haydn’s Symphony No 88 with Schumann’s No 4. The Haydn is very fine, lithe and tight, and deceptive, given that this is the Berlin Philharmonic. The Schumann Fourth is a controversial performance – a studio one which ended up having all the characteristics of a live performance. It’s effervescent and buoyant – despite the conductor being unhappy with how the sessions went.
With CD27 we reach the final section of the DG recordings – The Radio Recordings II. Disc 27 is fabulous. Furtwängler really didn’t give any bad performances of the Brahms C minor symphony. There is little doubt that Furtwängler’s approach to Brahms is controversial, and certainly not to everyone’s taste. It is, for one thing, a question of struggle. Furtwängler is in constant battle with Brahms – often in complete opposition to the music. But the results are electrifying. I have previously mentioned the last movement fragment of his January 1945 Brahms First. It is in some ways quite typical of how he conducts Brahms generally – the fire is intense, with sonorities that are so powerful they seem like explosions underneath and between the bar lines. You’ll find when you listen to this February 1952 performance – especially as played by the Berlin Philharmonic – that it’s very dense and yet there is also something very clear about it as well. His Brahms is not unlike his Bruckner – it’s built from the ground up; you rarely ever see Furtwängler’s Brahms through the kaleidoscope of a stain glassed window. The Beethoven Grosse Fugue which is on the same disc shares many of the same virtues – but then they are from the same concert.
Disc 28 is all Beethoven from April 1953 – the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. This is not a particularly desirable concert. Both symphonies sound a little underwhelming. The Seventh is a shade below the vividness we would expect for a Furtwängler performance. The Eighth is better but could be a little more lightly phrased.
Disc 29 is Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. This is no match for the Erich Röhn wartime one, and nor does it equal the Philharmonia/Menuhin recording (on the Warner box set). There’s no question that Schneiderhan is superb; in fact, he is one of the great interpreters of the Beethoven concerto. I think what undermines the performance is that conductor and soloist diverge in a way where Röhn converged in the work with Furtwängler. Schneiderhan is so imperious, so pure of tone and prosaic it seems completely anathema to Furtwängler to play the work that way; with Röhn, what they both see is rawness and tragedy, a visceral edge to the work, with poetry on every line. Schneiderhan would later make a great recording with Karl Böhm, a conductor more suited to this violinist’s technical efficiency.
Disc 30 takes us back to Brahms, and the composer’s Symphony No 3. The most difficult of the Brahms symphonies to bring off and Furtwängler is not alone in getting into trouble (in that sense he can join Toscanini). One misfire is that he is too heavy-handed during a lot of this music – the Poco allegro, notably. Another is that he sometimes seems to be in the wrong season. For a conductor so sensitive to colour this Brahms Third is on the frosty side. The Schubert “Unfinished” from February 1952 is airy and light – a distinctly better performance than the one we will come across in the Warner box.
With Disc 31 we come to Furtwängler’s Decca recordings, which are very uneven. The Franck D minor is with the Wiener Philharmoniker from December 1953. I find the performance drags, although the orchestra plays beautifully. This is music that Furtwängler does have a tendency to play in a Germanic style, hence why it’s the most successful of the French music he ever conducted. The coupling, Schumann’s Symphony No 1, is something of a jewel. It shows Furtwängler at his most mercurial, deliciously graceful one moment, grand and monumental the next. He’s erratic with repeats, as he usually is. Only the Scherzo has them. Disc 32 couples yet another Corolian Overture (October, 1951) with the Wiener Philharmoniker, with the London Philharmonic Brahms Second from 1948. Although the Beethoven is live, it is no match for his Berlin performances. The LPO Brahms has never been well received. The playing is insecure, the strings notably wiry and thin. It’s tuneless and plain when it comes to brass and woodwind. The performance itself finds Furtwängler really unsure of the kind of interpretation he wants. It is not dissimilar to the studio Schumann Fourth, although with the LPO Brahms the impression given is that Furtwängler simply found the performance beyond redemption. One that is best forgotten.
The final music disc of this set, CD33, is the Vienna Bruckner Fourth. I think with this symphony one is much better served by the Berlin performance – whatever problems we have with it. This Decca Fourth, made live in Munich in October 1951, is in poor sound with an audience that hacks its way like a chainsaw through much of the performance. It doesn’t lack Furtwängler’s deep insights into this composer but it misses the mark compared with 1941.
There are two bonus discs in the set. One is a CD. This has Furtwängler’s October 1926 Beethoven Fifth and a discussion and radio interview. Of more interest will be the DVD of Mozart’s Don Giovanni from Salzburg (26th July 1954). The film is splendid, but of the four Don Giovanni’s that Furtwängler did at Salzburg the 1953 recording remains the best, though was, of course, not filmed.
As I have mentioned the transfers for this set are not new so there is not an incentive to invest in this box if you are looking for a radical difference in the sound. Nothing new has been unearthed either. However, all of Furtwängler’s recordings on DG are collected in a single box and some of these recordings have been unobtainable – even though a number of smaller box sets have been issued by DG in recent years. DG’s recording information is very vague – exact dates are rarely given for recordings or concert performances, even when they are known to exist. No catalogue numbers are given so it is impossible to know which sources have been used for which recordings.
Two essays are provided in the booklet – one useful, the other much less so. Rob Cowan gives some critical insight into Furtwängler; Norman Lebrecht, on the other hand, offers nothing but innuendo and second-hand history.
At the time this set was released it stood on its own as a complete collection of Furtwängler’s DG legacy in one compact box – with the added bonus of the Don Giovanni film. Availability of this set has now become patchy and one might mostly have to rely on the second hand market to acquire copies of it. Now, however, that Warner have released their 55
disc edition of Furtwängler’s EMI/Polydor studio and live recordings there may well be an added incentive for DG to reissue the box. In the interim there are ways to acquire the recordings, although the cost benefit is not in one’s favour. At the time of its publication this edition retailed for around £69. On that basis it