Naxos Historical – Wilhelm Furtwängler The Early Recordings Volume 2

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Beethoven
Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Symphony No.5 in C minor Op.67
Rossini
La gazza ladra – Overture
Il barbiere di Siviglia – Overture
Weber
Der Freischütz – Overture

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Wilhelm Furtwängler

Recorded between 1926 and 1935, all in Berlin and some in Hochschule für Musik


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: July 2008
CD No: NAXOS HISTORICAL
8.111003
Duration: 67 minutes

fermata over a rest, giving the conductor licence to pause for as long, or indeed as short a time as he might wish before the exciting culmination of the work.

In Furtwängler’s performance the length of this pause was incredible. Second after second passed, the musicians, the conductor, the audience, indeed the hall itself were all utterly silent. This was daring interpretation, I have never experienced such tension in a concert hall before or since: there was no sound, yet the music was incredibly alive. This awesome moment would have sounded eccentric on a gramophone record, and indeed in this Naxos refurbishment from 1933 the pause is nowhere near as long, but the concert hall has its moments of magic and that was one of them.

For all its inevitable limitations, the Berlin recording of “Egmont” presents an enthralling interpretation. Adopting an extremely slow tempo for the introduction, Furtwängler builds up a feeling of extreme tension and the transition to the Allegro is the work of a master conductor. Flexible, but never wilful, this performance is gripping from start to finish and the sound is more than passable, being full and powerful albeit lacking clarity in the weighty bass.

The Fifth Symphony is disappointing. The conductor tended to follow the Wagnerian philosophy – that the composer expected performers to exploit those fermatas at the beginning of the work. Furtwängler does exactly that, but for all the power of the resultant rhetorical emphasis, the progress of the music is damagingly disrupted. The first movement becomes an immensely dramatic tone poem but such subjectivity undermines the structure of the symphony as a whole, especially as there is no exposition repeat here (clearly a stricture of the recording system of the day). I know of no other Furtwängler performance of the work that makes this omission.

The slow movement is very broad and flexible – the conductor makes no concessions to the recording engineers; his pianissimos are a characteristic of his conducting but unfortunately the ancient recording puts them virtually out of earshot. The last two movements are better but the brutally dry sound does the music no favours. Congratulations to Mark Obert-Thorn however for cleverly repairing the thirteen missing seconds in the third movement of this 1926 recording by using Furtwängler’s 1937 version. I cannot imagine that anyone would have noticed without the engineer’s advice in the booklet (and maybe not even then).

The overture to “Der Freischütz” was recorded on the same day as was some of the symphony and the same disturbing dryness is apparent. For some reason the timpani can be heard slightly better than they can in the symphony although they seem not to have any particular pitch – still I suppose a toneless thump to emphasise a strong chord is preferable to nothing.

Somehow Furtwängler and Rossini is not a combination that had ever crossed my mind. However these are interesting performances – I particularly like the 1930 recording of “The Thieving Magpie” – very decent balance and an interesting performance with a weighty, almost military introduction (shades of Furtwängler’s superbly rhythmic way with the opening of Johann Strauss II’s Emperor Waltz). There seems to be a bit more percussion about than usual – but percussion is a minefield with Rossini because it appears in some scores and not in others (the cymbals used by Furtwängler in this piece are an example). I have always suspected that Rossini didn’t mind about details of scoring in different editions. Good trombones and reasonable resonance (a pity about the cut-off at the end though).

“The Barber of Seville” is the most recent recording here (from 1935) and five years later than the other Rossini overture – it is brighter in the treble although otherwise no better. Once again we are given a solid performance – not for Furtwängler the Toscanini characteristic whereby crescendo equals accelerando. There are some dashing speed however.

I’m not sure if a selection of recordings by a great German conductor ought to leave me remembering Rossini overtures rather than Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony but I wouldn’t want to discourage Naxos – the company is presenting an admirable series of older recordings. It is just that the technical quality of the symphony is not very special even by the standards of the 1920s.

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