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Strauss Furtwangler GS2266

Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan [18:31]
Metamorphosen [23:03]
Till Eulenspiegel [14:57]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. 16 September 1947, Gemendehaus, Berlin (Don Juan); 27 September 1947, Titania-Palast, Berlin (Metamorphosen); 13/16 November 1943, Old Philharmonie, Berlin (Till Eulenspiegel)
Deutsche Grammophon 139 957/8 (Unpublished test pressings)
Furtwängler Stereo-Transcription 3

By most standards for a conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler did not die at an exceptionally old age. Had he lived as long as Toscanini, and remained as enduringly healthy, he would have been recording well into the stereo era. As it was, he would make his last record in 1954 – Die Walküre with the Wiener Philharmoniker – before EMI began recording in stereo. Age, however, may not have been Furtwängler’s only obstacle. He simply missed opportunities. Herbert von Karajan had made an early, test stereo recording in 1944 of three movements from Bruckner’s Eighth. Walter Legge’s EMI themselves vacillated in the early to mid 1950s over the viability of stereo against mono when Decca, a label Furtwängler did make a few records for after the war, had already firmly fallen into the stereo camp.

The closest we will ever get to Furtwängler in stereo is hearing him in the pseudo-stereo format. This has become more common today, mostly through Pristine, although stereo records of Furtwängler go back decades. As I mentioned in a recent review of Furtwängler’s performance of Bruckner’s Ninth symphony the first Japanese pressing on LP was released in stereo; the German pressing was in mono. Deutsche Grammophon, however, made a whole raft of test pressings – all of them to date unpublished officially – with variable results. Numbered from 139 957 to 139 971 these formed eleven separate pressings. They would be privately released in Japan in 1968 on a 13-LP set (SMG-9020). Most of these recordings were from Furtwängler’s post-war period, although they were not numbered in chronological sequence, and a couple of numbers seem to be missing.

To date the Japanese label Grand Slam have released three CDs – including the remarkable 1947 Egmont Overture which now sounds even more astonishing in the way that Furtwängler seems to literally chisel the shape of the performance as if he were sculpting it – and are likely to issue all of the unreleased test pressings in due course. In many ways – even given the true lack of stereo sound – the Richard Strauss pieces on this disc are something of a revelation even if, as always with just overlaying stereo, it never solves inherent problems with the recordings themselves.

Although the CD coupling makes perfect sense the test pressings come from two different sources – the Don Juan and Metamorphosen both from 1947 and the Till Eulenspiegel from 1943. Ideally, if you wanted to hear a direct mono to stereo comparison you would want both this disc and the two mono ones, even if DG later remastered the sound on all of the performances. There are, of course, alternative and, depending on your preference, better transfers of these Strauss works on other labels: Music & Arts, Société Wilhelm Furtwängler, Chibás. Metamorphosen has attracted the most attention on other labels, and with very good reason: it is a magnificent performance, the only one that Furtwängler ever performed of the work, the only one he ever needed to perform.

In my review of the Complete Recordings of Wilhelm Furtwängler on Deutsche Grammophon I rather glossed over the details of his Strauss recordings. If I gave a preference it was for his later performances of Till Eulenspiegel, although the 1942 Don Juan I considered then, as I still do today, to be a “swaggering piece of virtuosity… It smoulders, the playing incinerates the pages of the score and he rarely matched this… in later performances of the work”. When I first played this stereo version of the September 1947 Don Juan I found it thrilling, although your compass points not so much towards the music but rather towards the extraordinary sound of the Berlin Philharmonic, an orchestra that always sounded so much more powerful on record at this time than its Vienna counterpart.

Furtwängler’s tempos are not especially in harmony with each other. It opens fast, and when the gorgeous string theme first arrives he applies the handbrakes hard – but what opulence he pulls out of the Berliners. It’s ravishing. What it has in common with the wartime versions is an impulsiveness, even reckless drive, that makes this Don Juan something uniquely Furtwänglerian rather than a cut-out figure from literature. The sound can be a touch aggressive – the brass especially. Like many late 1940s live recordings Furtwängler left behind this one tends to be on the boxy side so you think the performance is barely self-contained. The stereo, I think, does make this slightly worse. Still, it’s a thrilling ride.

Metamorphosen most certainly isn’t. Furtwängler’s reasons for performing this score with the Berliners rather than with the Vienna orchestra are perhaps self-evident. Emotionally, geo-politically and not least for cathartic and self-healing reasons point to some equivalence with Strauss’s own. I think also the sentiments expressed in Strauss’s work, an elegy to the destruction of the opera houses and very musical foundations of the cities of Dresden and Munich, point to a score which is unambivalently powerful but at the same time extraordinarily intimate.

Many of Furtwängler’s post-war performances were the opposite of his wartime ones; they weren’t apologies, but they were often troubled and inward-looking. It is perhaps hardly surprising that Strauss’s references to the funeral music of the second movement of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ should be so powerfully etched in this performance. Nor is it surprising that Furtwängler is masterly at creating extraordinary intensity. No performance of Metamorphosen comes quite so close as this one in sounding so Wagnerian either. Each and every string can in places bleed like Amfortas’s wound. But the Berlin strings – especially the cellos and basses – are heavy, so much so that almost all definition is lost. It’s true that there is a clarity to them at the beginning of the work; but the great waves of sound that amass in the latter half are simply overwhelming. This Metamorphosen rides on a crest like none other. It is unquestionably a revelation to hear this performance in such rich sound; the sonorities of the Berlin strings are marvellous. But it’s one of those performances you really wish sounded so much better than it does given its importance in the Furtwängler discography and the fact very few of this quality exist. Little wonder he never touched the work again.

The 1943 Till Eulenspiegel is by far the best sounding performance on this disc. There is very little distortion, it has a beautiful sense of space, individual instruments are caught with exquisite detail. Many of Furtwängler’s wartime concerts were of this quality – although the window in which they appeared is quite a narrow one. There are generally two reasons for this: the Berlin Philharmonie and magnetic tape. Post-January 1944 and pre-middle 1942 neither of those conditions, respectively, applied to Furtwängler recordings. Neither the Beethovensaal, nor particularly the Musikverein in Vienna, gave Furtwängler the best conditions for his concerts which we now have as recordings.

Of the three performances on this disc this is the one which benefits most from stereo. So theatrical is it, so fiery and dramatic it sounds almost authentic. Details are dovetailed very well indeed; it really is a most enjoyable performance, fresh – really quite miraculous for 1943, and now a real glory in stereo.

Is the disc worth buying? I think the primary importance of the disc is that it originated from Deutsche Grammophon and the mastering has been done by the conductor’s own label. But Furtwängler collectors will no doubt want this as well as issues by Pristine. There are further unpublished test pressings. Among them are: Bruckner’s Symphony Nr. 9, Furtwängler’s Symphony Nr. 2, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (Wolfgang Schneiderhan) and the great Schumann Nr. 4.

Marc Bridle

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