Lohengrin – Prelude to Act I
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude und Liebestod
Götterdämmerung – Siegfried’s Funeral Music
Hungarian Dances – No.1 in G minor & No.10 in F
Johann Strauss II
Die Fledermaus – Overture
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded between 1930 and 1936 in Hochschule für Musik, Berlin
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: December 2009
CD No: NAXOS 8.111005
Duration: 63 minutes
These ancient recordings have been refurbished with remarkable success – and what magnificent performances. The intensity of the shimmering strings that open the Prelude to “Lohengrin” is so gripping that residuary surface noise and limited frequency range seem immaterial. The sonic limitations seem equally unimportant in the excerpts from “Tristan und Isolde”. There is some blurring in the more complex passages but I was so taken with the beauty of the phrasing that it scarcely seemed to matter. Full marks to Mark Obert-Thorn for allowing the ‘Prelude and Liebestod’ to continue unbroken one into the other while still identifying a new track for the latter.
‘Siegfried’s Funeral Music’ from “Götterdämmerung” demands more from the recording system and Wilhelm Furtwängler’s towering interpretation is available in far more recent sound (and is due on Naxos in due course). Nevertheless this 1933 recording is of very listenable quality: the opening gives excellent realism to the timpani and musical tension is held with remarkable control until the first major climax. This and the following outbursts still retain their magic although the old recording cannot fully represent the great width of dynamic range that was always a notable feature of Furtwängler’s performances.
The two Hungarian Dances make for suitably light relief – there are signs of age in the originals and the bass does not always separate well but it is sufficient to depict Furtwängler’s free approach to the music – I like the quaint increase of pace approaching 2½ minutes into the first Dance and we have the rare occurrence of the orchestra not all keeping up with the beat. On the other hand the musicians are fully at home with the conductor’s humorous changes of speed in Dance No.10.
The six-year newer recording of the Johann Strauss is noticeably more transparent in quality and Furtwängler had great charm in Viennese music (I thought his later recording of Kaiserwalzer to be unsurpassed). In “Die Fledermaus” he allows a certain amount of portamento and he phrases the melodies very flexibly.
The 1930 Till Eulenspiegel is of particular interest. I used to have the set of 78s which were remarkable for containing the work on three sides – it is probably the only recording from then to take less than four. This Naxos release uses two Grammophon originals whereas I recall hearing the music on two Polydor discs which were notable for their lack of treble. Mark Obert-Thorn might possibly have improved this aspect but I think it more likely that the Grammophon pressings that he’s used were superior to the Polydors that I heard. Separation of instruments is remarkable for a recording of that period and it avoids the dryness that sometimes afflicted them. A good gauge of quality is to be heard at 2’49” where there is a very realistic cymbal clash with no sign of later re-equalisation. There is one feature of modern refurbishment that is rarely mentioned: the successfully inaudible changes from one side to the next in mid-music and here too this aspect is exemplary.
There are 63 minutes of fine music on this CD – I do wish Naxos had given us the fourth side fill-up to Till Eulenspiegel – the Prelude to Act III of Weber’s “Der Freischütz” – it would have suited this programme very well and the playing of the Berlin horns was thrilling; nevertheless, that is already available on Volume 3 (8.111044).