Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 6,
Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.
Siegfried’s Funeral March
Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond; Berlin PO
OPUS KURA 2087, mono (71:42)
Since these are famous recordings familiar to many collectors, it would seem that this review should just
discuss the quality of the remastering, but since both the remastering and the performance style are thorny topics, a bit of elucidation is in order.
To begin with, I often wonder what non-historic collectors who did not grow up with Furtwängler’s recordings really think of them. I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t respond to his remarkable energy and emotional commitment, but I also can’t imagine that they wouldn’t notice how strange and arbitrary his tempo fluctuations sound. To be blunt, Furtwänger’s aesthetic was an outdated model based on Wagner’s writings on conducting, that one must “feel the moment” and not let the “tyranny” of the score dictate one’s spontaneous response. The conducting of Alfred Hertz, Karl Muck, Felix Weingartner, Richard Strauss, Artur Nikisch, and Arturo Toscanini (who most certainly fit into the Weingartner-Nikisch mold) were far more modern in outlook. They chose an overall tempo for each symphony or opera into which they fit their mood as well as subtle modifications of phrasing and rubato. Of course, this, too, has become outmoded over the years, as many conductors today don’t modify anything—they just pick a tempo and go full steam ahead. In some ways this is the influence of Leopold Stokowski, whose performances were like that, but also the result of people mishearing what Toscanini actually did.
Following this premise, one would think—as many Furtwängler fans do—that Toscanini detested Furtwängler as much as he did Stokowski. It isn’t true. Yes, these two antipodes never agreed on tempo fluctuations—Toscanini remained subtle while Furtwängler remained broad—but Toscanini enjoyed Furtwängler’s urgent emotional commitment, the meticulous care and detail he brought to rehearsals, and the tremendous impact his conducting had. The Italian loudly objected when Arthur Judson chose not to renew Furtwängler’s contract with the New York Philharmonic, insisting that he was a far more serious musician than Willem Mengelberg, and he continued to follow the German conductor’s career and listen to as many of his performances as possible. It was due to his respect for Furtwängler that Toscanini recommended him as his successor to the New York Philharmonic, and it was due to Furtwängler’s marvelous performances that Toscanini added Graener’s
Flöte de Sans Souci
to his repertoire and rethought his approaches to the Mozart 40th symphony and the Tchaikovsky Sixth.
There is, then, a similarity in approach, overriding tempos and tempo changes, between this 1938 Furtwängler recording of the Tchaikovsky and Toscanini’s equally marvelous 1942 Philadelphia Orchestra recording. Both men approached the music as emotionally powerful but not sentimental, a view quite different from Russian and French conductors. One may also note that this is one of the least fussy of Furtwängler’s performances. Despite some arbitrary accelerandos, his overall approach is quite moderate, yet the emotional commitment is never absent. Strikingly, there is even more similarity between his 1933 recording of
Siegfried’s Funeral March
and Toscanini’s performances of 1934 (Vienna Philharmonic) and 1945 (New York Philharmonic), but only a little relation between the Furtwängler and Toscanini versions of
Not surprisingly, both conductors catch the exuberance and power of the music, but not the humor that Strauss himself, or Bruno Walter, brought to it.
This brings us to the sound quality. Opus Kura crows its superiority to other CD versions of the “Pathétique” in terms of “clarity and presence.” I admit there is presence in their transfer but little clarity, as much of the symphony is literally buried under a thick blanket of surface hiss, crackle, and rumble. Moreover, removing these noises reveals that the unequal sound quality of often-adjoining sides (particularly the last movement) was not compensated for in any way. Now, I am aware that listeners whose ears are attuned to the peculiarities of high-end hiss and crackle often hear this noise as being “part of the music,” insisting that the surface noise contains the overtones of the instruments, but only a very small amount of overtones are actually present in that sea of noise. The ear fools itself into thinking that the noise has music in it. Of course, if you are a noise collector, you will enjoy this release, but I suggest comparing alternative pressings to determine the one that pleases you most.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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