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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Cello concerto, Op. 129 [22:44]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op.74 ‘Pathétique’ [48:49]
Tibor de Machula (cello)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. 28 October 1942, Alte Philharmonie, Berlin (Schumann); 19–22 April 1951, Cairo, Egypt (Tchaikovsky)

For some, Tchaikovsky and Wilhelm Furtwängler have always seemed an unusual fit as composer and conductor – and it is certainly true that Furtwängler’s only surviving recordings of both the Fourth (Vienna, 1951) and Fifth (Turin, 1952) are not among his best recordings of this composer. His two performances of the Sixth, however, the first done with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1938 for EMI, and the second, recorded live in Cairo in April 1951, are of exceptional quality. Perhaps why Furtwängler was so persuasive in this symphony can be attributed in part to his own mercurial personality and a willingness to look at Tchaikovsky’s score through the prism of the emotional maelstrom which was at the core of its genetics. Few performances of the first movement, for example, are really willing to explore the legato lines, or give such three-dimensional shaping to individual instruments within the orchestra. Furtwängler does both these things. Whole bars are self-contained, like individual stanzas, as if they’re being placed within the context of a much larger, epic poetic structure. It isn’t necessarily what Tchaikovsky wrote – and Furtwängler is not in the slightest a conductor to be hamstrung by Tchaikovsky’s tempo changes, often within the space of short measures. What matters to Furtwängler is the longer line, the end vision, and that’s why his Tchaikovsky Sixth is not just a performance of astonishing power and depth but also one of unique intensity and beauty.

The catalyst for this release on Pristine Audio came from an email Andrew Rose received in October 2018 from someone requesting a remastering of this performance since the only CD release – on DG – sounded “boxy”. It’s certainly true that all the known Cairo recordings, a Bruckner Seventh and an excerpt from Parsifal among them, all suffer from poor sound – and intrusive audience noise (always a very notable problem with the Tchaikovsky Sixth). What isn’t true, however, is that the DG is the only CD release of the Cairo Sixth (there have, in fact, been a few, including on Archipel and Memories – the sound on the latter certainly not being an original master). However, Naoya Hirabayashi, the Japanese sound engineer, remastered this recording earlier this year for the label Grand Slam (avalable from HMV Japan).

Andrew Rose and Hirabayashi clearly have very different approaches when it comes to restoring recordings generally – I’ve admired both their work, especially in remastering Furtwängler performances – but when we look at the Cairo Tchaikovsky Sixth we can say with some certainty that how you listen to Rose’s recording makes a world of difference; this is much less dramatic in the Hirabayashi restoration which takes a significantly less interventionist approach, which is usually typical of his work. I listened to Rose’s disc without either a Digital Audio Converter, or without adjusting bass levels, and found the performance to be somewhat flawed; I then listened with both a DAC and a slight adjustment to bass and found that the performance sounded much more convincing. The major issue for me – no matter how you listen to Rose’s remastering - is the opening bar of the first movement. The sound of the bassoon is quite wrong, and it now also sounds much further away – almost disembodied from the rest of the orchestra - than in the mono recording. It does adjust, although listening without any filtering through headphones I still think the bassoon lacks depth, range and atmosphere in subsequent bars too – and this surely isn’t what Furtwängler intended, let alone Tchaikovsky. There are also subtle differences in the sound of other woodwind instruments, too. Listen to Hirabayashi at 6.15 as the flute solo begins, joined by clarinet, and both instruments sound slightly darker-toned (closer to the Berlin Philharmonic’s sound in 1951, I feel) – but listen to Rose’s recording in the same passage at 6’13 and the balance between the two instruments is quite extreme – the flute is brighter, but the clarinet is very reedy indeed, almost as if the tonal balance has been over-adjusted.

Both engineers also have a different approach to the first movement’s shattering climax as well. Hirabayashi (14’00 – 15’33) is to my ears closer to the cataclysmic meltdown that Furtwängler brought to this passage in Cairo. The timpani you feel are pushing through the crust of the orchestra until with one seismic explosion at 15’06 they do just that. Possibly because Rose has been slightly concerned with overload in the timpani and the brass – and nowhere is this going to be more of a problem than in this passage – separating the recording’s bass rumble from the lowest register instruments has led to some loss of definition in the orchestration here. Again, it’s just a preference, but in this most astonishing passage in all of the Tchaikovsky symphonies (even more so than in parts of Manfred), with its monolithic and terrifying scalic descent through two whole octaves, Hirabayashi succeeds so much better at conveying Furtwängler’s terrifying vision of this epochal crisis.

Both Rose and Hirabayashi have remastered the second movement Allegro con grazio beautifully, though taken in the context of the rest of the symphony it doesn’t present as many engineering challenges either. In part, much of this has to do with Furtwängler himself, too, who conducts with incredible elegance and vitality - and he rarely pushes and pulls the music – giving the final repeat as well, which he hadn’t in 1938. Often one of the weak points in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, Furtwängler’s waltz is notable for its flexibility – and this allows his players considerable freedom, in both string bowing and woodwind phrasing. Perhaps Hirabayashi’s pure mono sound has a slightly warmer edge to the tonal colour, and that seems to bind everything together just a little more tightly, but there isn’t much to separate the remasterings here. More problematic for both engineers has been the Allegro molto vivace. Furtwängler is broader here than he was in 1938, but more to the point he takes a much more pronounced view of Tchaikovsky’s score markings – and then adds more to it. The result is a march that is torrential in places, punctuated by staccato thunderstrokes of timpani that rattle like seismic aftershocks. There are moments that are captured in this live recording which are thrilling – the pizzicato writing (4’10 and 4’21 in Rose) and (4’12 and 4’24 in Hirabayashi), for example, which have such visual clarity. On the other hand, some of the timpani playing (at 7’50 in Hirabayashi and also at 7’50 in Rose) almost threatens to swamp the performance. Hirabayashi’s mono remastering doesn’t even begin to try and tame the extreme dynamic range of the timpani at its worst in this recording; Andrew Rose, on the other hand, has done an admirable job at doing just that. It’s quite impressive that he’s been able to reduce the distortion that was in the original tape to such a drastic extent and still preserve the sheer dramatic power of Furtwängler’s conducting. But it’s swings and roundabouts – where Rose can control the timpani when it’s over the orchestra, he’s less successful at doing so when it’s under the orchestra as it is from 5’20 through to 6’19. Again, it’s a difference which will come down to a listener’s preference – timpani which sounds like a rolling boil (Rose), or timpani which cracks the ground apart as if each timpani stroke is the root of a giant tree pushing outwards beneath the orchestra (Hirabayashi).

The Cairo performance was also broader in the final movement, too. Here we really have Furtwängler at his greatest – and most visionary. In many ways, only Furtwängler could have conducted the Adagio lamentoso quite this way; the turmoil, the sheer upheaval and tempest coupled with the final pages which, in this performance, have a shattering pall of resignation and finality veiled over them gets to the emotional core of this music like very few performances do. The gauntness, even bleakness, and the way the final bars just die away into complete stillness and silence is breath-taking – almost as if Furtwängler has preserved it through mummification. There is a sense of completeness in the last bars to this performance which is extraordinarily rare to witness in a recording of this symphony. (NB: Furtwängler would conduct just a handful of performances of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth after the concerts in Cairo and Alexandria, and none ever again with the BPO after May 1951. It was included on the VPO’s European City Tour with Furtwängler in October 1951 – but the only performance of the Sixth he was to give after 1951 was with the Winterthur Stadtorchester in February 1953.)

In a way, it’s entirely fitting that of the two restorations Andrew Rose’s is like an excavation of the Adagio. It’s a measure of this performance’s intensity that some of the dynamics have never been entirely clear in the mono transfer – especially on the DG release. Rose’s correspondent had talked of “boxiness” in the sound – but what was really an issue was an extremity in the balance of projection of sonority given to the strings. The middle and lower registers aren’t much of an issue, but go above the stave and the strings “buzz” in a way which is distracting, and this is particularly problematical in the Adagio. There’s no doubt that Rose has taken some of the harshness off the violins which has benefits at the opening of the movement but does cause a problem soon afterwards. At the start of the horn melody (after the caesura at 2.30 in Rose) I found much of the horn playing (which plays through to 4’10) under the violin writing to be heavily under-emphasised. Listen to Hirabayashi (at 2.32 through to 4’12) and the horns have a significantly more obbligato role. I think, to be honest, such details are only going to be apparent if one listens to the performances side-by-side and through headphones. It does little to underestimate the improvement in Rose’s remastering over the existing DG performance – but as an issue it was apparent during my listening.

I seem to know slightly more about the source material that Hirabayashi used for his restoration – a 2-track, 38cm, open-reel tape; Rose simply states he had access to a couple of sources but doesn’t elaborate beyond that. Generally, both engineers have not removed audience noise (of which there is a lot – this was an unusually bronchial audience, even in April in Cairo) but there is one disparity and it might go some way to explain the quality of bassoon sound in Rose’s opening bars of the first movement. He has either suppressed the audience cough which is clearly audible in Hirabayashi’s restoration at 0’51 – or he has used another source (though the more distant cough at 0’17 suggests this is probably not the case) which accounts for the difference in blended sound. There are, it should be said, the very slightest of differences in speed between the two restorations, and in many cases almost none – but these amount to a few seconds and in neither case are they sufficient to affect the pitch of the performance itself.

Given the comparative difficulty in obtaining Hirabayashi’s restoration, Andrew Rose’s will, for many, be a clear first choice. There are advantages to owning both in my view because neither is exactly perfect on their own. I largely prefer Hirabayashi’s restoration of the first and second movements, and he is also somewhat more successful at balancing the upper and lower ranges of the orchestra. I think one also has to make a choice between pure mono or processed stereo – a format I often find problematic with historic recordings. But Andrew Rose has transformed this performance into something quite glorious, largely retaining the power of Furtwängler’s intensity where it matters. I think the couplings are of secondary importance since it is the Cairo performance which is of historical value and which is why these discs are required listening. If nothing else, these restorations have certainly made me wonder what a label like Praga Digital might do with this Cairo Tchaikovsky Sixth.

Marc Bridle

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