Furtwangler Conducts - Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 & 9 / Leonore, No. 3 & Coriolan Overtures, Opp. 62,72b
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The finest World War II performances of Beethoven's symphonies under Furtwangler's baton. Previously released versions on the Music & Arts label were acclaimed in Fanfare, American Record Guide, Pulse!, Absolute Sound, Diapason, Musica, and numerous other journals. The Ninth Symphony has been completely re-mastered for this edition from a new source and sounds superior to any prior issue!
These may be the most gripping performances of Beethoven's symphonies you'll ever hear. No, not necessarily the most enjoyable or even the most accurate, but gripping--to say the least. In these wartime performances of Symphonies Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9, Wilhelm Furtwängler is at his most expressive, angry self. Conducting six of the world's greatest symphonies for audiences in Nazi Germany, Furtwängler has an inner turmoil that seems to shoot straight through his baton. He drives the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics to the edge of disaster, but miraculously they keep up--rising to the occasion. The Eroica and the Ninth are particularly emotion-filled; the latter features the great Bruno Kittel Choir and the BPO in fine form, but they--like everyone else here--are overshadowed by the conductor's bipolar mood swings and furious pacings. Brace yourself. These are shocking, awesome, thought-provoking performances that--thanks to a great remastering--have never sounded better. --Jason Verlinde
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1) The TAHRA editions of the 1944 Vienna EROICA and the 1943 Berlin 5th are the best I've heard; they are based on actual, first-generation tape sources (not tapes-of-tapes). Their transfer of the 1943 5th is nothing less then visceral, especially when the fourth movement erupts from the third - one of the greatest moments in all recorded music. Meanwhile, their transfer of the 1944 EROICA is almost good enough to make one forget the better-recorded Berlin performance of December 8, 1952 - the clear runner-up favorite EROICA of most Furtwangler admirers. (I prefer the June 20, 1950 Berlin EROICA as runner-up, with its more propelled phrasing and fleeter tempos. Both are available in pristine sound, based for the first time on original tape masters, in Audite's RIAS Furtwangler box.) The Opus Kura edition of the 1944 Vienna EROICA is based on a vintage Urania LP, but sounds rather foggy (as did that LP). Still, that disc is worth having, because it has perhaps the best-ever transfer of the wartime Coriolan Overture.
2) The Opus Kura transfers of both wartime 4ths - one with, and one without, an audience - as well as the wartime 6th, 7th and 9th, are the ones I would recommend most...The sound of the OKs is less filtered than Maggie Payne's work for M & A. They are based on pristine, early-stamper Russian Melodiya LPs - which were quite pure and untampered-with transfers of the original (lost) Magnetophon tapes. As such, they might be as close as we will ever get to that original sound. In any case, with the OKs one seems to hear - and FEEL ! - more of the almost "tactile" acoustics of the old (bombed) Philharmonie than with the M & A set.
Among the Berlin Magnetophon tapes taken by the Russians after 1945, the only wartime Furtwangler Beethoven Symphonies known to still exist - in first-generation originals - are the 9th's Scherzo and the last 3 movements of the with-audience 4th. (Although, as I just wrote, there are independent "Western" tape sources for the 1944 EROICA and 1943 5th, on which the Tahra transfers are based. The 1942 Magnetophon originals of the Schubert 'Great' and Bruckner 5th also survived.) The existing tape sources for the rest are reportedly 2nd-generation, i.e., Russian copies with added reverb, made before the original tapes deteriorated (whether through neglectful storage and care, or 'natural' decomposition). In any case, the circa 1990 DG Furtwangler 1942-1944 box is based on these copies, often imparting a layer of "screechy" distortion which, combined with the added reverb, tends to make these bedrock-level performances sound less truthful, more "hysterical."
3) As I just mentioned, there are TWO wartime 4ths, from June 1943: one with and one without an audience. The late John Ardoin preferred the live-audience 4th, for its greater overt energy and forcefulness. Had it been Furtwangler's only surviving 4th, we would still be lucky to have it. But along with reviewer Ralph Steinberg, I prefer the better-recorded, no-audience performance - which is not only more beautifully played, but radiates an aura and lyrical grace unmatched by any of Furtwangler's other Luddi Fourths. THIS is the performance which, after a lifetime of listening, finally sold me on the 4th as being greater than Robert Schumann's description of it as "a slender Greek Maiden between two Norse Giants" (i.e., the 3rd & 5th).
4) Given a choice, many prefer Furtwangler's wartime Beethoven symphonies over his post-war ones. But the 1944 Pastoral is (slightly) too heavy and ponderous. It also sports the worst, most congested sound of any of Furtwangler's wartime Beethoven symphonies (the 1943 Berlin 7th is runner-up in that category!) - to say nothing of the early Spring coughing obbligato in the first movement. Still, the symphony itself is great enough to bear a variety of approaches, and reviewer Ralph Steinberg is surely right when he calls this a "loving, flowing" performance. (And if you must have it, the Opus Kura transfer is the most listenable.)
But there is a greater Furtwangler Pastoral, from Berlin on May 23, 1954. It isn't a performance of "classical incision" (as are Toscanini's 1952 NBC, Karajan's Philharmonia and Reiner's 1961 Chicago), but still one of grace and rhythmic flow, with textures and phrasing lighter-than-air when they need to be. The impression - no, the experience - which emerges from this performance is one of cleansing, healing relief at the coming of Spring: you can almost SMELL it. The Audite RIAS box offers this and the 5th from the same concert, in near-perfect sound quality (based, for once, on the pristine, first-generation tapes, as opposed to tapes-of-broadcasts or tapes-of-tapes-of-tapes). This has become my favorite Pastoral, bar none.
5) The 1943 Berlin 7th is one of Furtwangler's best surviving accounts of this symphony (along with the 1951 EMI Vienna recording, and the live 1953 Berlin on DG). The Opus Kura sound is less congested than with the M & A transfer, but still somewhat hard on the ears. (The first four measures of the 4th movement were accidentally not recorded, but this was easily repaired by using the same four measures of music as they reappear in that movement's recapitulation.) At the risk of a well-aimed bolt of lightning, to this writer it falls just short of Furtwangler's greatest wartime performances: the 1944 Vienna Eroica; the Berlin no-audience 1943 4th, 5th and Coriolan Overture; the March 1942 9th; or the 1945 Brahms 1st Finale and 1943 Brahms 4th. In those performances, Furtwangler's contemplative depth and sheer cohesive fire burn through any fleeting problems of ensemble or sound quality. But the wartime 7th has some downright painful brass intonation throughout (the first trumpet was clearly having an off night) - which you do NOT hear on Furtwangler's other wartime Beethoven performances. For a Furtwangler Beethoven 7th, the live Berlin performance of April 14, 1953 remains this writer's go-to version. (The 8th, from that same concert, is perhaps the best of Furtwangler's three surviving Beethoven 8ths. In that performance, the solo flute takes the first movement repeat, as the rest of the orchestra goes on. The 1985 DG disc presents the mistake unedited; in DG's 2003 Furtwangler "Anniversary" box, it's digitally patched up. This writer confesses a guilty preference for the less jarring, patched-up version!)
6) Although it may not be pertinent to this box, for the sake of "completeness":
John Ardoin's preferred Furtwangler Beethoven 1st is the live Vienna Philharmonic performance of November 30, 1952...with which one certainly wouldn't go wrong. (It's been available in various transfers on M & A, as well as TAHRA.) However, this writer's favorite Furtwangler First is the Concertgebouw performance of July 13, 1950. Ardoin criticizes it somewhat, for being less "vivid" than the other surviving Firsts. But it is the most exquisitely played (at the time, this was Eduard van Beinum's orchestra); Furtwangler is still very much "himself"; and for once, he doesn't try to "Eroica-ize" the First. That is, Furtwangler keeps up an at least outward appearance of the "classicism" which Beethoven was evolving out of, while still fanning the inner flames of the coming Romantic Era. (This performance was released by TAHRA in 1995.)
There is only one surviving Furtwangler performance of the 2nd - a less-than-mid-fi air check from October 3, 1948 (discovered in the BBC archives, circa 1979), with the Vienna Philharmonic in its first postwar appearances in London. Still, we should be grateful that it captures Furtwangler's way with this symphony. The first EMI CD release is at least listenable; the later "ART" edition uses greater noise reduction, somewhat at the expense of the music. (I have heard good reports of the Pristine transfer, but haven't yet heard it, myself.)
To use a shop-worn cliche applied to Otto Klemperer, Furtwangler's Beethoven is "rough-hewn." Or, to put it another way, it is a potent brew - NOT for casual consumption - partly the result of one composer plunging into another, and coming up with structural and emotive insights that might be otherwise impossible. And of course, it is far more than that. (I will NOT add to all the gushy cliches spilled about Furtwangler's March 1942 Berlin Ninth OR the wartime 5th...except to say that, in this case, the gushy cliches happen to be TRUE.) These are not finely chiseled performances of crisp, consistently razor-sharp ensemble. Nor are they "hi-fi." There are several choices for Beethoven which meet those criteria : Schmidt-Isserstedt's Berlin cycle, and Jochum's Concertgebouw cycle, come to mind, as well as "Mister Slick Brilliance" (a/k/a Herbert von Karajan) in his 1951-55 Philharmonia and 1961-62 Berlin cycles. But - stopping just short of the Biblical sense of the word - if you don't experience Furtwangler's Beethoven, it is hard to say that you KNOW Beethoven.
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