One fact has been demonstrated to me as I did some research for this review: There is no logic whatsoever in pricing practices of the record industry. The major competition for this release is Daniel Barenboim’s Chicago Symphony Teldec recording (43495), which is also on two discs. Teldec U.S.A. priced it as two full discs—so on Amazon it sells for about $30, and on ArkivMusic forRead more $34.99. However, on the British site MDT.uk.com its price for U.S. customers is listed as $18.50, because Teldec in Europe decided to price it as if it were one disc (which is rational, since it is just two minutes over the limit for one disc). On the other hand, this Bavarian Radio release seems to be treated in precisely the opposite manner: $26.77 is the U.S. price listed on MDT, but it is only $19.99 on ArkivMusic! You figure it out—I can’t!
Time for full disclosure: At the time of Barenboim’s recording (2001), I was managing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and I played a role in persuading him to conduct the piece and him and Teldec to record it. Because of that I could not review it for Fanfare, but two reviewers did, in 26:2. Marc Mandel liked it very much but felt that Furtwängler’s own Vienna Philharmonic performance issued on Orfeo trumped Barenboim’s in the concluding section of the finale, where Mandel felt Barenboim let down just a bit. Martin Anderson expressed no reservations at all, in an unreservedly enthusiastic review.
Barenboim’s still remains the only readily available and enjoyable modern stereo recording. Alfred Walter’s Naxos effort is flabby beyond description, and one’s mind wanders halfway into the first movement, never to return. A performance by Georg Alexander Albrecht on Arte Nova is better, but not at the level of Barenboim or Furtwängler. Takashi Asahina’s fine Japanese recording from 1984 is just about impossible to obtain in the West (and may be so in Japan, too, for all I know). There are actually five (!) Furtwängler performances on disc, one a studio recording for DG, the other four all live readings. By far the best is the VPO on Orfeo (C365 941 B). It has good monaural 1950s broadcast sound, inspired playing, and of course the advocacy of the composer, who just happened to be one of the great conductors of the 20th century.
Both Barenboim and Furtwängler persuade one that this is an important, enjoyable score. As different writers have pointed out, there are elements of Bruckner, Strauss, Schmidt, Rachmaninoff, and probably others in its blood. It is old-fashioned for its time, to be sure, and it has its longeurs. But it is deeply moving, a work filled with some considerable anguish (much of it was written in Switzerland where Furtwängler had fled because he learned that he was on a Nazi assassination list, and where he was unable to conduct until he was cleared of Nazi affiliation charges by the Allies). It is also a work that doesn’t really sound like anyone else, despite having elements of many. In the end, one’s interest is maintained by the skillful orchestration and a strong element of melodic inspiration. For those interested in Furtwängler or in late-Romantic music, both Furtwängler’s and Barenboim’s recordings are valuable.
So where does this first-time issue of a 1954 broadcast fall? Right at the top level with those other two recordings. I reviewed the Furtwängler Orfeo release (a 1953 performance recorded in Vienna’s Musikvereinssaal) in the Classical Hall of Fame in Fanfare 18:5, and commented that it had some of the best recorded sound of any Furtwängler recording. That is true—but the Bavarian Radio folks were doing it even better in the middle 1950s, and what we have here is truly fine monaural recorded sound equal to many studio recordings being made at that time. It still of course cannot equal the sound quality of the Barenboim recording.
What distinguishes Jochum’s reading from the other two is his different approach to orchestral sonority and his tauter reading in general. Barenboim and Furtwängler both built their orchestral sound from the bottom up. Everything rested on a foundation of the basses and cellos, and, where appropriate, the lower brass. Jochum’s sound is brighter—it wouldn’t be fair to call it “top down,” but it is definitely a lighter sonority, with more emphasis on the upper strings and brass than is the case in the other two. What it lacks in lushness it compensates for with brighter colors. Add to that his extra dash of rhythmic snap, and you have a performance different enough to warrant exploration by anyone who loves this work. I would still not be without the composer’s own and the Barenboim, but I am very happy to have added this to my library. Renate Ulm’s very interesting and informative notes are an added plus.