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War-Time Wilhelm Furtwängler: Questionable Greatness

The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler’s art has so imbued itself into the collective conscious of the music-loving public that, to this day, 65 years after his death, the name still evokes greatness. Sure, there are factions – especially the Arturo Toscanini-loving types – that dispute Furtwängler’s greatness. Or those who suggest that for every moment of incandescence there were two of crud. And a modern listener might hear scratchy old recordings that are a far cry from today’s technical standards in terms of sound and performance and wonder what the big deal is. But even for those who cannot ascertain his dare-not-be-questioned ‘wondrous amazingness’ (and if you admit as much, be ready to be painted an ignoramus), the point is probably not to determine Furtwängler’s greatness in terms of what we can glean today from his art but by how lasting a legacy he has left. In fact, it’s perhaps even more amazing for that reputation to be so lasting in face of evidence that doesn’t always support it in ‘conventional ways’.

For decades this mythical reputation has lived off relatively few official releases (which weren’t always the best ones) and an enormous amount of semi-pirated gray-market imprints (which were often of disastrous technical quality). Eventually the Audite label took its painstaking restoration process and has opened much of the Furtwängler vault to potential listeners with their standard-setting releases and sets (especially notable the Complete RIAS recordings box). Now the Berlin Philharmonic, Furtwängler’s own band, gets in on it, too, and delivers what might be reasonably considered the definitive collection of the wartime recordings.

The set of 22 hybrid SACDs, striking a less marshal tone, is actually titled “The Radio Recordings 1939-1945” – and collects every surviving broadcast recording from that time – covering 21 concerts (partially, some) that Furtwängler gave in those years. The relatively good 77cm/s magnetic tape reels, which had been in Soviet custody until after the Cold War, were newly digitized on a custom tape machine of Radio Berlin-Brandenburg’s.

On paper, some of the most interesting ingredients are of course Furtwängler war time Beethoven symphonies: Complete performances of the Fourth (once with and once without an audience present), Fifth (twice), Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies. (There are also the Coriolan Overture and the Violin and Fourth Piano Concertos with longtime Berlin Philharmonic concert master Erich Röhn and Conrad Hansen as soloists, respectively.) There is some repertoire that has since fallen by the wayside, like Heinz Schubert’s Hymnic Concerto, Furtwängler’s own Symphonic Concerto (with Edwin Fischer as the pianist!), or Ernst Pepping’s Second Symphony. A complete Fifth and Ninth lure the Bruckner lover and Richard Strauss is well presented with tone poems and orchestrated songs. It’s also a pretty one-sided slice of the repertoire that the listener gets: Short pieces by Handel, Gluck and Mozart’s Symphony No.39 are the only earlier-than-romantic works and Ravel and Sibelius are the only non-Germanic entries.

As is typical of the coffee-table vanity sets of the Berlin Philharmonic’s own label, they are luxuriously packaged and shaped exactly so that they won’t fit into a single shelf – CD or book – of human devising. Previously, the CD/Blu-ray releases in that format have, after some time, been re-issued slightly less luxuriously but in conventionally shaped SACD boxes. Given the commemorative nature of this set, that might be less likely. The 180 page bilingual book is terrific, brimming with great photos and many excerpts from Furtwängler’s letters… especially to his record producers, which are telling especially when the conductor talks about his dissatisfaction with the end results.

Also among these excerpts is one snippet that shows that the Toscanini-Furtwängler rivalry was not just a figment of their respective follower’s imagination. Decrying to EMI their lack of interest in recording his performances, Furtwängler wrote them in May of 1953: “While in the past you had mentioned from time to time that I should record the IX. [Beethoven] symphony, I haven’t heard anything about that as of late. Instead I see the IX. Symphony of Toscanini’s praised beyond all measure (even in Germany) in a propagandistic way that stands in gross contrast to the quality of that record.” Furtwängler would be happy to know that he’s been the beneficiary of nearly as much propagandistic praise, since. Whether in gross contrast to the quality of the record, that is yours to decide.

(More pictures below.)


Unknown said...

The only SACD set I see listed so far that fits this description is from King International. They issue many SACD remasterings for the Japanese market, where SACD is more appreciated than here. In the rare cases these show up on the international market, they are prohibitively expensive.

jfl said...

You mean you don't see the set in question on offer (yet)?

G Gaudette said...

The set was released in the Japanese market a couple months before its European roll-out. I received the set as a gift - and what a gift it is. The transfers are very fine indeed, from slightly to enormously better than previous issues where I have had a chance to compare- though I wish the producers had not used artificial stereoized ambience to add body to the sound (thank goodness for my preamp's monaural button). The present blogger may not be a furtwängler fanboy, but this set should be of interest not only to his enthusiasts but those interested in the history of recording.

jfl said...

Hi Gene! Good to hear from you. :-)

You know 'the present blogger' personally, you are aware, right?

Nice gift, indeed. Hard to believe that they added "artificial stereoized ambience", though. Do they mention it in the notes? I've read the booklet, but not with a fine comb.

Cheerio & all the best,