Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor)
The Complete Wilhelm Furtwängler on Record
Remastered by Art & Son Studio, Annecy, 192kHZ/24bit (96kHZ/24bit)
WARNER CLASSICS 9029 523240 [55 CDs: ca 55 hrs]
The programme here is arranged in chronological order by recording session, from 1926 through to 1954, the year of Furtwängler’s death: 55 hours of music on 55 CDs – and that’s a lot of listening. The reviewer’s dilemma when presented with these large box sets resides in the contradictory impulses to listen to every note but also get a review out in time to be of use to any prospective purchaser looking for guidance – although I suspect that anyone even considering such an outlay will, like me, already be sufficiently familiar with conductor’s œuvre and be more interested to know whether the technical improvements inherent in remastering justify it. Everything here has been “newly remastered in 24-bit/192kHz from the original tapes by Art & Son Studio, Annecy”. So let me immediately confess that I have not listened to every single note here, nor do I comment on every recording, but I have at least sampled every disc in order to assess that remastering.
The first pedantic observation I must make is that Warner’s “The Complete Wilhelm Furtwängler on Record” – as ever, in these days of retro design, modishly set in lower case - isn’t. However, the notes clarify the rationale behind the selection thus: “Not only is it the first collection to unite Furtwängler’s entire catalogue of studio recordings, it also encompasses every live recording he made with a view to commercial release” – although in fact, none of them was issued during his lifetime.
Nonetheless, this accounts for some major omissions: for a start, neither of the Ring Cycles is here and, to cite a few random examples, nor is Strauss’ Metamorphosen or Sinfonia domestica, nor the third and fourth Brahms symphonies – which is odd, as some of those missing items have previously appeared on EMI LPs and CDs – nor any Bruckner
apart from the Adagio from the Seventh symphony, no Brahms Requiem - but my goodness there is still plenty to be getting on with here. This is particularly frustrating for those who prefer the risk-taking conductor to the safer, studio animal and I do find myself wondering at whom this issue is aimed. It will certainly save some space and enable the Furtwängler collector to sell, jettison or pass on as gifts a good few of the recordings already on the shelves, but comprehensive, it is not. One cannot help thinking that the brief for this huge box-set inevitably excludes some of the imperishable items in Furtwängler’s legacy – but of course much of that has been made available via the work of Andrew Rose at Pristine, particularly with regard to both the Ring cycles (La Scala review; RAI review), Fidelio (included in my survey), the Brahms’ symphonies set - which includes the first Violin Concerto with Menuhin in Lucerne in 1947 (review) - the studio Tristan und Isolde (review) and the final studio Die Walküre (review). If you have any of these issues you will not find any improvement in their sound here – indeed the Pristine remasterings remain superior; I find these new ones to be rather dull-edged.
Of course, there is a predominance of central, 19C German repertoire here, some of it duplicated, starting with Wagner. There are half a dozen different recordings of orchestral excerpts and extended vocal excerpts from Götterdämmerung, the complete Die Walküre and an Act III, and the famous complete recording of Tristan und Isolde plus numerous pieces from Die fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Tristan and Parsifal, and lots of Beethoven, including two recordings of each of the ‘Eroica’, the Fourth, the Sixth and the ‘Choral’ (both live) and no fewer than three of the Fifth – but, oddly, no Second or Eighth. In addition, there is a fair amount of Brahms – those missing symphonies notwithstanding – including two recordings of the St Anthony Variations, and quite why Furtwängler kept returning to Schubert’s Rosamunde – a work which, as much as I generally love Schubert, I have always found negligible - mystifies me.
According to a “Learned Friend” of mine, there are three distinct phases to Furtwangler’s conducting career: refined classical, wartime manic and a sadder, almost mystical, neo-classical maturity – although of course that third phase was curtailed by his unexpectedly early death; had he lived as long as his great rival Karajan we would have seen him record well into the stereo era. Certainly the assortment of music on the first four discs bears out that description; it is neat, clipped, controlled and pacy. These early electrical recordings made by Polydor are mostly bonbons by Weber, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Rossini and the like, but there are some more substantial items such as the Beethoven’s Fifth, Wagnerian concert pieces and Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, plus nine minutes of a rehearsal of the latter. I cannot imagine that anyone but the historical buff will be entranced by such things as Furtwängler’s take on “Fingal’s Cave” or the overture to Rossini’s La gazza ladra, especially preserved in primitive, crackly, if still very listenable, sound but they are signs of things to come. I have to say that I find my favourite Beethoven
overture, the “Egmont”, to be rather uninspired – first leaden then simply garbled.
Sticking with Beethoven, CD 5 gives us a work with which Furtwängler’s name will always be associated: the Ninth, in a live, gala concert recording made in the Queen’s Hall inaugurating his new association with HMV. This is primarily of historical interest and marks the first complete, authorised appearance of this performance, as the second movement repeats were cut in EMI’s 2004 “Great Conductors of the Century” issue. The sound is still a bit distant and crumbly but the grip and grandeur of Furtwängler’s direction comes through – and the thrillingly frenetic finale suggests that he has already entered his “manic” stage! His soloists are mightily impressive, too – especially the supposedly lyric but baritonal-sounding tenor Walther Ludwig. It must have been quite an experience to have been present.
Just over three weeks later, Walter Legge supervised a live recording of the Ring at Covent Garden but the results proved technically unsatisfactory and the project was shelved, with only the final Act of Die Walküre and 108 minutes of Götterdämmerung being salvaged. The sound is acceptable in its remastered guise here, even if the voices – even Flagstad’s – are sometimes placed too far back in the aural perspective and are somewhat masked by the orchestra. Rudolf Bockelmann is a fine, imposing Wotan, albeit one drowned out before the Magic Fire Music. Flagstad and Melchior are always worth hearing, especially under the baton of such a conductor. We should also bear in mind that despite singing these roles together twenty times, no fully listenable and complete recording of a broadcast exists of their partnership in Götterdämmerung apart from Richard Caniell’s patchwork issue on the Guild label, making this surviving excerpt all the more valuable. The grandeur of the singing and conducting manages to emerge through the distant, crackly sound and over a scratchy LPO, but this is no aural treat. Flagstad is extraordinary – with an intact top C to crown the opening duet and Melchior is hardly less impressive. Margarete Klose sings Waltraute with rich authority, Herbert Janssen is ideal as Gunther and Ludwig Weber makes a dark, baleful Hagen; the Vengeance Trio concluding Act II Scene 5 is splendid and Flagstad launches herself onto the funeral pyre with incomparable majesty. On CD 31, we have yet more Flagstad singing the final scene in Götterdämmerung recorded late for her in mid-1952, immediately after the Tristan recording in the same session and location, but obviously in considerably better sound than in 1937 and in a very resonant acoustic which suggests the stage. It has to be said that even though she is approaching 57 she sounds pretty good, just a little scooping and a harsh top B apart. A session with Fischer-Dieskau singing Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is also tacked on, and if his voice and delivery are your kind of thing in this kind of thing, then this is your kind of thing. Certainly, Furtwängler’s vivid shaping of these songs match his detailed manner, even though he disliked Mahler’s music.
CDs 9 and 10 give us complete recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth and Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathéthique’ from Berlin in 1937 and 1938respectively. Whatever the balance problems with the first - disappearing woodwind and timpani - it is incandescent. The Tchaikovsky plumbs depths of misery and despair to rival Karajan’s 1971 EMI recording, in very acceptable sound allowing the radiance of the BPO to come through; the glow of the middle movements contrasts tellingly with the desolation of the outer two.
CD 11 presents an intriguing and eclectic programme of Furtwängler’s own sub-Rachmaninov Symphonic Concerto for Piano & Orchestra played by his friend Edwin Fischer, Beethoven’s Cavatina arranged for string orchestra, the Adagio from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony and the overture from Gluck’s Alceste. It might be a ragbag but is very enjoyable and in passable sound. Furtwängler obviously esteemed Bruckner and took the trouble to prepare his own edition of the Eighth. His recording of that is very fine but not included here, so it is good to have this soulful and heartfelt recording of just the one movement from the Seventh.
There is not in fact much in this set from the war years – in some ways the most interesting phase of Furtwängler’s career – and we move swiftly on to the final, post-war period.
The recordings on CDs 12 to 14 contain much superb music-making somewhat compromised by edgy sound but the ‘Gran Partita’ on CD 15 with soloists from the VPO takes much more easily to the technology of the time, even if I cannot say that the remastering here is superior to the version I have on the History ‘Maestro Classico’ label, which is a little harsh but very immediate.
The Brahms symphonies on CDs 16 and 17 are of course very fine but may be heard in better sound on the Pristine issues of later performances also with the VPO, as referenced above.
On CD 18, the Abbey Road recording of Act III, scene 3 of Götterdämmerung find him and Flagstad together once again in Wagner and she is still in magnificent voice – which is easier to hear than in the live recording a decade earlier and the Philharmonia is in best shape. The Mozart K. 550 is in wiry, remote sound and the outer movements sound rushed even to modern ears but nothing if not energised. More Wagner and Brahms on CDs 19-21, including a second Brahms St Anthony Variations with the VPO which is surprisingly considerably more urgent than the wartime recording on CD 12 but easier on the ear, too. A superb Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is coupled with Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’, but
it is with the advent of magnetic tape for his Ninth on CD 29 that we hear a sudden leap in audio quality. I have, however, always found both recordings to be somewhat stolid and ponderous, edging towards soporific rather than mysterious. As much as I admire Furtwängler, I do not necessarily think of him as a natural Schubertian; there is surely something too Prussian and Olympian about his temperament to admit of Viennese charm. He certainly takes no hostages in his annexing of Schubert as the natural son of Beethoven, giving his symphonies a Miltonic grandeur. The careful, weighty Andante opening is succeeded by a pacier, ostinato Allegro variation but all too soon relapses, then Furtwängler sells the Andante con moto short on "moto"; his march is more of a stolid trudge and the oboes do not swing as they should, while his rather deliberate application of rubato seems mannered compared with the more natural pacing of both Szell and Barbirolli. It is as if Furtwängler is too determined to underline that this movement is Schubert's tribute to the Allegretto of Beethoven's 7th Symphony and thus neglects the music's wit and sprightliness. Similarly, the Scherzo is heavily accented and almost menacing; the waltz does not lilt as it does with Barbirolli. It is in the fourth movement, however, that Furtwängler redeems and justifies his interpretation, achieving a kind of demonic intensity as he pounds out that insistent 2/4 beat. His phrasing is still very measured but he builds inexorably towards the Beethovenian bacchanal of the Coda. There is a wholly appropriate sense of homecoming when the clarinets triumphantly sound the "Freude, schöner Götterfunken" quotation. Included as a “previously unissued, world premiere release bonus” on CD 54 is a recording made by Furtwängler with VPO on tour in Copenhagen in 1950 and not approved by him for release. Apart from reasons of completeness, I don’t see much point in its inclusion.
Furtwängler was keen to embrace the technology of 33 rpm LPs made from magnetic tape masters and metal matrices but was not able to do so until late 1951 and early 1952 for DG and HMV respectively, and the recordings on CDs 23 to 26 are from 78 rpm originals. On CD 23 is a grand, sweeping account of Strauss’ tone poem Tod und Verklärung and on CD 39 is to be found the 1954 recordings of Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel – but it has to be said that Pristine has already revitalised these in their coupling with Strauss’ Four Last Songs with Furtwängler. There is a certain irony in the inclusion at the end of CD 24 of the two arias for the Queen of the Night from Die Zauberflöte, neatly sung by Wilma Lipp, as she was one of the entire Salzburg cast filched by Walter Legge and handed over to the upstart Karajan for the complete recording which according to Furtwängler’s understanding was to be his – and was, of course, made in the new format he coveted. Again, I actually prefer the immediacy of my recordings of the powerful Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony and Smetana’s Vltava on the History label to this new remastering, as those in this set are too tamed and smoothed over - but the rarity, the overture to Cherubini’s Anacréon, is a novel treat.
Two great concertos on CD 27 are for me the highlight of this collection: the combination of Edwin Fischer – “The Lion’s Paw”, as a music-loving friend has aptly dubbed him! – and Furtwängler in the Emperor is thrilling, as is that of the faithful and forgiving Menuhin in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, both with two great orchestras. I do not always warm to Menuhin but here he is poetic and fiery by turns and the musical symbiosis between him and his conductor is palpable. The sound is a tad screechy but this remains a GROC (as it was previously issued by EMI).
Disc 28 became the object of controversy when it emerged that this supposedly unadulterated recording of the live performance of Beethoven’s ‘Choral Symphony’ to reinaugurate the Bayreuth Festival in 1951 was in all probability the product of Legge’s tampering by splicing in material from the dress rehearsal and even lengthening the pauses between sections. It has been suggested that he added applause in order to substantiate the illusion that this was exclusively a live performance, and in this new issue that applause and three short tracks of “Hall Ambience” have been retained, which looks to some critics like an attempt to perpetuate Legge’s deceit. Furthermore, in 2008, Orfeo – and Archipel, but I have not heard it - issued what was clearly a truly unedited recording of the performance remastered from archival discs at Bayreuth and their sound is sharper, less muffled, but there are obvious indications of how, where and why Legge substituted passages from the dress rehearsal; for example, Otto Edelmann’s entry on “O Freunde” is more secure and better executed in the EMI version and timings for individual movements differ slightly – so in spite of all this, and the fact that the 1954 Lucerne performance, Furtwängler's last, remains the most desirable of all his recordings of this work by virtue of its having more tension and better solo singing, I cannot say that I am especially bothered by Legge’s “improvements” as the result is so enjoyable; this rather muddy remastering remains treasurable for its massive dignity and conviction. (As a postscript, I have to say that my own copy of what is evidently the EMI release on the 4 CD “Furtwängler” Artone/Documents set is inferior to this new one, to which I will now listen in preference.)
Furtwängler's own Second Symphony straddling CDs 29 and 30 is a curiosity; I rather like its moody grandeur even though it doesn’t really go anywhere.
CDs 32, 33, 34 and 38 are dedicated to Beethoven symphonies and I surely need not say much about Furtwängler’s titanic, massively energised delivery; their weight and warmth are central to his reputation and legacy – he was a stupendous Beethoven conductor. CD 35 features the remake of the Violin Concerto with Menuhin on mono LP; whether two recordings of the same work by the same team – but admittedly, with different orchestras – made within six years of each other are essential, remains debatable. Interpretatively, there is little difference but obviously the sound of the second one is far superior. Similarly glorious and granitic is the recording of another great Romantic symphony, Schumann’s Fourth on CD 26 – surely one of Furtwängler’s best recordings.
The sequence of half a dozen overtures on CD 40, too, present Furtwängler at his best and one assumes that Klemperer knew his contemporary’s recording of the Iphigénie en Aulide overture, their recordings are so similar.
Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on CDs 41-43, recorded live in April 1954, just a few months before his death, is essentially Furtwängler’s last testament and here it is issued complete for the first time, having previously appeared with 13 minutes edited out. The opening sets the tone, similar to Gönnenwein’s and Richter’s recordings, which are typically solemn, stately and Germanic; you must not expect anything approaching period clarity or briskness and unfortunately the choir suffers from the “wind tunnel” effect when they are singing at high volume, being somewhat blurred and distorted. The soloists, however, could hardly be bettered: the role of Jesus suited the Fischer-Dieskau as he proved again in later recordings for Karajan and Richter, tenor Dermota is neat and stylish, Elisabeth Grümmer was as fluty and silvery a soprano as you could wish for and Höffgen and Edelmann were stalwarts of that epoch. This is not a work we automatically associate with Furtwängler but is its devotional intensity and constant musicality are a delight, as long as you jettison unreasonable stylistic expectations.
There is one addition to Furtwängler’s discography on the penultimate “Bonus” disc: the “world premiere release” of the third movement ‘Élégie’ from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. It may be just a “test recording” but this lovely music is so elegantly played and seems to sit well with the acoustic of the Brahmssaal in the Musikverein.
The final bonus disc provides a fascinating collection of reminiscences and observations by the great and the good of the musical world from among Furtwängler’s acquaintance, none of whom is any longer with us, regarding the magnetic effect he had on orchestras and audiences alike. Those interview snippets are interspersed with brief, judiciously selected musical illustrations. The whole is linked by a narrative commentary from Jon Tolansky. Topics such as his famously vague beat, de-Nazification and his ability to make music “a mystical experience” are revealingly explored.
The presentation is excellent: a cube box containing cardboard slipcase bearing modified versions of the original artwork, a 160-page booklet in English, French and German, amply illustrated with fascinating black and white photographs charting Furtwängler’s life. The inclusion of an alphabetical index to the works and composers would have been useful, as it is awkward trying to find specific works among so many CDs, but Amazon reviewer John Fowler created one which he kindly donated to the public domain via his review and I attach it as an appendix.
I find that this massive issue – obviously a labour of love on the part of the Warner and Art & Son team - leaves me in two minds. While it is convenient to have the music collected and remastered thus, some of it is of historical or academic interest only and many of the most celebrated recordings have already been remastered and refurbished by Pristine to what is, to my ears, a superior standard. Those who do not have any Furtwängler and collectors who have the previous EMI issues would be better advised to acquire the individual those Pristine issues rather than invest the £100 or more - current prices go up to £130 – in a set which is neither comprehensive nor always in the best sound available.
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