Wilhelm Furtwängler – Brahms & Bruckner

0 of 5 stars

Brahms
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73
Bruckner
Symphony No.7 in E – Adagio

London Philharmonic Orchestra [Brahms]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Wilhelm Furtwängler

Brahms recorded 22-25 March 1948 in Kingsway Hall, London; Bruckner recorded 1 April 1942 in Berlin


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: December 2008
CD No: NAXOS HISTORICAL
8.111000
Duration: 64 minutes

This London Philharmonic Brahms 2 appeared in the early days of LP having been transferred from 78s. The critics were not very impressed: The Record Year (November 1952) said: “this dubbing of the previously existing SP set does nothing to reconcile us to the conductor’s eccentricities of tempo and dynamics” and it is interesting that the Naxos booklet-note writer (Ian Julier) acknowledges this, even going so far as to say that “the most notable trait of the LPO recording is the extreme variance of tempo employed throughout the work.”

Nearly always with Furtwängler, his moments of subjective intervention have musical logic behind them but here I find it difficult to go along with him. The first movement is beautifully phrased but it comes out more like a symphonic poem. Each episode is treated differently and new ideas are frequently emphasised by a change of pace. Because of this freedom of tempo – which is basically rather slow – the subsequent Adagio non troppo movement makes very little contrast, indeed it seems almost like a continuation of what has gone before. The very slow opening of the Allegretto grazioso is also unusual but it works quite well and the contrast with the fast central section is effective. It is only in the finale where the personal approach to tempo begins to make sense. True Furtwängler’s very cautious approach to the opening theme (both at the start and at its later reappearance) is unexpected but when the music gets going there is a great deal of excitement.

I am delighted that Furtwängler does not ruin the impulse by suddenly slowing for the second subject – many a more classically-inclined conductor insists on this unwelcome intervention, even including Toscanini. With Furtwängler, the first appearance of this melody is introduced by no more than a momentary emphasis on its first few notes before proceeding at the basic speed and on the later appearance the tune sweeps in without any emphasis at all and drives forward excitingly. Indeed from the return of the main material right through to the end there is a feeling of acceleration and tense wildness. But, the conductor’s very subjective approach seems only to work in the last movement. Had the recording been more positive the freedom with regard to variation of speed might have been more acceptable but with very modestly recorded brass and drums, significant chords lack firmness and the swirl of free-moving music seems not to find repose.

Decca was making excellent recordings at this time, for example I have a superb transfer of Eduard van Beinum’s 78 rpm Concertgebouw recording of Bruckner 7 made in September 1947 and it is infinitely superior to this LPO production. Restoration Engineer Ward Marston seems to have done a good job with the material to hand and I approve of his not taking out all the background noise – so often engineers get rid of residual surface but in doing so take much of the music with it. I do rather wish however that the recording did not ‘fade to black’ between movements – this is far more disturbing than leaving surface noise running. On the whole I fear that nothing more could have been done for this rather boxy old recording.

The single movement from Bruckner 7 represents another world. We think of Furtwängler as an inspirational conductor who is at his best in the concert hall, but this was a commercial recording on three Telefunken 78s. It took place in Berlin in the middle of the war – goodness knows what musicians would have been available in Germany in 1942 … but the playing is magnificent. This is a deeply serious interpretation, moving broadly and with great grandeur and the recorded sound is amazingly good with a gorgeous resonance, which is ideal for Bruckner.

From the outset the music seems to build to the great climax with its cymbals and other percussion (the slight emphasis of the timpani rolls here underlines the essence of the thematic material superbly). I realise that this movement is a mere ‘fill-up’ but without question it is a performance of greatness. I found it deeply moving and it is a matter for regret that the rest of the work could not have been recorded. Those Telefunken engineers had certainly brought recording to a high standard. Despite its age, this sound is vastly superior to that of the Brahms and I was so captivated by the performance that it did not occur to me that its origins date back to 1942.

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