Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, Op.56a [Haydn Variations]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded in the Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna – on 17-20 November 1947 (Symphony) and 30 March & 2 April 1949
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: July 2007
CD No: NAXOS 8.110998
Duration: 67 minutes
There are several post-war performances of Brahms’s First Symphony available on CD in Furtwängler’s interpretation. Naxos is concentrating on his commercial recordings and this release is entitled: “Commercial Recordings 1940-1950 – Volume 5” (or 1949 on the front cover).
The Brahms symphony was originally on eleven 78 rpm sides; the sound is quite good for its day although some of Furtwängler’s later public performances are given greater impact by radio engineers – perhaps commercial recording engineers had in mind the possible effect of loud passages on gramophone pick-ups (even sound-boxes were still used in those days). Certainly the recording does not do full justice to Furtwängler’s use of a wide dynamic range but the strings are captured very effectively and woodwinds, though set back, are not unclear. The bass area is rather muddy at times: timpani are suitably weighty and adequately balanced but sometimes entries do not make the expected impact and at mezzo-forte their quality gets confused with the sound of the double basses.
This said, there is still sufficient quality to present Furtwängler’s intense performance in a way guaranteed to make today’s listeners sit up and take notice. Tempos are fairly free and tend towards considerable breadth – particularly in the first movement. Furtwängler does employ some of the traditional tempo adjustments but they seem to make dramatic sense in this conductor’s hands. Those same effects imposed by other performers often seem merely to be copies of well-worn conducting habits. It is never possible to predict when Furtwängler will choose to ignore these customs: for example the first announcement of the great finale theme is often played with huge breadth only to rush at the entry of full orchestra. Brahms simply asks for Allegro non troppo ma con brio and this is how Furtwängler plays it. Nor does Furtwängler include the emendations to the timpani part that were still commonly used at the period of this recording (even Toscanini imported unwritten drum-rolls in his NBC recording). Sadly Furtwängler does go along with the usual slowing at the final statement of the big chorale for which there is no indication in the score – indeed, a little earlier, Brahms asks for a slightly faster speed by marking the score Più allegro. In all, this is a notable performance in the Romantic tradition but not the most memorable performance by this conductor. My only immediate comparison in this work is with his Berlin performance of February 1952 – similar in interpretation but with greater impact regarding recorded sound.
The ‘Haydn Variations’ is slightly better recorded (this is still the era of 78s) and there is a little more definition. Take track 11 for example – the Variation with the horns and the rhythmic drums. The recording is by no means hi-fi, but it is pleasantly realistic. The work is given a broad rendering but there is always a consistent flow: the tempos have a natural feel. There are magical moments too – particularly the hushed start of the final Variation.
Ward Marston has refurbished the sound. He chooses to go to ‘black’ between movements in the symphony – not too disturbing because it is very well done but I prefer it when the surface noise runs all the way through a work. It is greatly to Marston’s credit, however, that extraneous noise has been reduced to a minimum without removing any of the very reasonable quality of the original. I cannot blame him for not catching the ear with Brahms’s delightful notion of adding a triangle to the final pages of the Variations. I very much doubt if anyone heard it in 1949 either – even with excellent equipment and the best thorn needles then available.