Notes and Editorial Reviews
WILHELM FURTWÄNGLER: The Vienna Concerts 1944–1954
Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond; Vienna PO
ORFEO 834118, mono (18 CDs: 979:00)
This remarkable achievement is an essential collection for anyone interested in the conducting of Wilhelm Furtwängler. Nothing here is a new discovery. All the material has been released before, some of it many times. I have spent considerable time doing A-B comparisons with earlier reissues. In most cases, Orfeo’s work surpasses prior efforts, even those done at a very high level, simply because Orfeo had access to the radio archives that made and preserved the original recordings, or to better source material than others. A few other labels (Andante and Tahra, for instance) had access to those radio tapes as well. In most of those cases Orfeo’s work still represents an improvement, slight in many instances, meaningful in others. I found no example in which Orfeo was less good than all competition. In other words, the sound quality here is consistently excellent—marginally better than the best earlier work, significantly better than most reissues. Rather than the usual
headnote, I thought it would be easier on the reader to go through the contents in the (almost) chronological order that Orfeo used in compiling the set, with recording details given along with the comments. The monaural sound is more than listenable even in the worst instances. Where performances derive from the same concert, I will treat them together as a unit. All performances are with the Vienna Philharmonic except for a single example (the 1952 excerpts from Brahms’s
A German Requiem
) with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
The 18-disc set comes with excellent and extensive notes, in German and English. As of this writing, it is available at ArkivMusic.com for $103.49, and on Amazon, where their list price is $116.87, but they have copies from other sellers ranging from $89.32 to $111.00. Documentation is excellent.
Symphony No. 40
Overture No. 3
Entr’acte No. 3 (Musikvereinssaal, 6/2–3/1944)
This program is from a
given twice specifically for the purpose of recording for broadcast. We have no information about which performance comes from which of the two dates. The Mozart and Schubert sound more natural here than in prior Tahra and Music & Arts releases. There is no feeling of artificial reverb or ambience being applied, just the warm feeling of the Grosser Saal in the Musikverein, one of the world’s finest concert halls. The Mozart is highly successful, quicker than one might expect and with very careful attention to balances and color. The conductor’s feel for orchestral color is clarified by the surprisingly good 1944 sound quality. The Schubert is warm and beautifully phrased. The
Overture has been issued more widely, most successfully by Eduardo Chibas at furtwanglersound.com. Orfeo’s is about the equal of that transfer. The performance seems a bit tentative for the first 10 minutes or so, and then picks up energy. It is not, I think, Furtwängler’s finest surviving recording of this piece.
Symphony No. 8
This is another
, given only once. It is one of Furtwängler’s greatest surviving Bruckner performances, and it has never sounded so good. It has had a spotty history. Early releases (Unicorn, Music & Arts, even DG) were plagued by what sounded like tape flutter, making sustained woodwinds sound as if they were underwater Many of those editions were also pitched a bit sharp. The first really listenable transfer was a two-disc Japanese EMI box, hard to find and very expensive. EMI eventually came up with something as good on one disc, and Pristine and Chibas improved on that somewhat. But Orfeo is better yet. The orchestral sound is more natural, with no sense of any kind of artificial boosting or enhancement of any part of the orchestral palette, and with a more naturally balanced frequency response from highs to lows.
The performance is staggering in its cumulative power. Despite some overwhelming climaxes in the first movement and the tremendous weight conveyed by the climax of the slow movement, there is still something left for adding one level more in the Finale. That last movement is by far the hardest to bring off convincingly, but Furtwängler has a surer sense of its shape than any conductor I have heard. Anyone who cares about the music of Bruckner should know this recording, and this is the version to own. If you want more detail, you can read my review of Pristine’s reissue of this performance in
’s Classical Hall of Fame (34:5), but know that here the sound quality is even better. The performance uses the Haas edition of the score, but modified somewhat by Furtwängler.
Symphony No. 3,
“Eroica” (Musikvereinssaal, 12/19/1944)
This is a very famous recording (another
that has been issued with reasonably good sound on a number of labels (Bayer, Preiser, Tahra, Music & Arts, Opus Kura, and furtwanglersound.com). The degree of improvement by Orfeo is not significant but it is still an improvement. There is a warmer, more natural sound to the orchestra (I know I’ve used that descriptor a few times already, but it is the most accurate one I can come up with). One is not conscious of listening to an “historic” recording after a few minutes, even though it is a 1944 monaural effort.
The intensity of this reading is searing. Fierce accents, an emphasis on the dissonant harmonies that must have shocked in Beethoven’s day, a deeply tragic Funeral March, and a wild exuberance in the Finale are all qualities that mark this “Eroica.” The interpretive outline is similar to all existing Furtwängler performances of this piece, but everything is just a bit more extreme and intense. The result is an experience that is not for every day listening, but that on occasion can remind you that this is revolutionary music.
Symphony in d
Symphony No. 2
These two performances (just fitting onto one disc) represent a crucial day in Furtwängler’s life. A few weeks earlier the conductor had learned from friends with close ties to the Nazis that he was slated for assassination. Goebbels had enough of Furtwängler’s support of Jewish musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic, and other Jewish friends. The conductor’s refusal to join the Nazi party was another offense. Albert Speer was apparently one of those who warned Furtwängler to get out. The conductor made his plans very quietly, conducted his final Berlin concert on January 23, and then did three public concerts in Vienna on January 27–29, all with this two-work program of Franck and Brahms. The January 28th concert was recorded and preserved. From February 1–6 he hid in the Austrian resort of Dornbirn, and on February 7 he crossed into Switzerland. He remained there in exile until early 1947.
One cannot hear these electric performances without knowing this background. He had a long and close association with the VPO, and he was in these concerts standing in front of them for what might be the last time ever—it certainly would be the last time for the foreseeable future—and he couldn’t even tell them. In the recordings of that preceding final Berlin concert and this Viennese one, flames almost erupt from the music-making, particularly the Brahms.
Both of these performances have circulated before, but once again Orfeo must have had access to superior source material, or else they did better work with the same original material. Most previous releases were extremely constricted, afflicted with flutter, pitched incorrectly, and distorted at climaxes. On some of the worst, it was like listening to an orchestra over the telephone. Even the best of the prior releases, as a part of Andante’s VPO/Brahms set, is congested and cramped. While the results of Orfeo’s transfer engineering are still not as good sounding as the
noted above, they are far superior to earlier editions. These sound like moderately limited monaural studio recordings from the mid-1940s, lacking the ideal spaciousness and richness of sound but more than listenable.The performances are irreplaceable.
Concerto for Two Pianos in E?,
K 365 (Paul Badura-Skoda, Dagmar Bella (pn); Musikvereinssaal, 2/8/1949)
This is the first post-war Furtwängler Vienna performance to survive, and only this work remains from the all-Mozart program. Badura-Skoda was at the beginning of his career in 1949, and Bella was Furtwängler’s daughter. The problem is that the performance given here is not, in fact, what it claims to be. I want to thank
colleague Ronald Grames for reminding me of the controversy surrounding this performance because I had simply assumed Orfeo, with its sources within the Vienna Philharmonic, had the right one. The problem is that there is no official VPO recording, because this was not an “official” VPO concert—VPO members played for a Mozart society event in the Musikvereinssaal. The only source for this was Paul Badura-Skoda himself, and when he first authorized its release to the French Furtwängler Society, he mistakenly gave them the wrong recording (a performance that he played with Jörg Demus and conductor Hans Swarowsky). Other labels perpetuated the error with reissues, including Music & Arts in their first release. Eventually Badura-Skoda realized his mistake and gave Music & Arts the correct performance (which is authenticated by an announcer introducing it). The two are similar in general interpretive outline, but there are enough different details to make clear that they are not the same. Ronald Grames and I are co-authoring an article for a future issue of
on the joint bit of investigative music-journalism we engaged in to determine with finality that this was
the Furtwängler performance. I was in touch with an archivist of the Vienna State Opera and with Professor Gottfried Kraus, who produced this set (and who now acknowledges that this is not the Furtwängler performance), and Mr. Grames was in touch with Paul Badura-Skoda. In the end, it doesn’t matter a great deal, because this is not a piece of music that calls on great interpretive insight from the conductor. The only release I know of that is the genuine article, for those who are Furtwängler completists, is Music & Arts CD-1097, but be warned that the sound is not very satisfying.
Concerto for Piano No. 22 in E?,
K 482 (Paul Badura-Skoda, pn; Schlosstheater Schönbrunn, 1/27/52)
The Concerto was paired with the big Serenade for 13 Winds, which Furtwängler recorded in the studio. The live performance of the Serenade from this concert has not survived. This is the best of the three surviving Mozart concerto performances by Furtwängler (the one above plus the D-Minor Concerto with Yvonne Lefébure). Badura-Skoda seems more able to be free than he was in the Double Concerto, and he and Furtwängler are particularly rapt in the second movement. Again, Orfeo’s sound is significantly cleaner and fuller than releases on Music & Arts, the French Furtwängler Society, and Japanese Seven Seas. Some releases have incorporated a different performance of a segment of the orchestral introduction, but this one uses the right performance.
Symphony No. 9
(Irmgard Seefried, Rosette Anday, Julius Patzak, Otto Edelmann, soloists; Vienna Singakademie Ch; Musikvereinssaal, 1/7/1951)
This is one of the least-circulated of all of Furtwängler’s performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, having been released on Cetra and the Japanese Seven Seas label. It is one of three performances of the work in this set (there are 13 Furtwängler Ninths that have survived, one still unissued). The conductor’s way with this music is highly dramatic in the outer movements, spiritual in the Adagio. The three most important Furtwängler performances are the wartime Berlin (ferocious in its intensity), the reopening of Bayreuth in 1951, and his final Lucerne reading. This one surprised me in a positive way. I had only heard it on the muddy Seven Seas transfer some years ago, and Orfeo’s far richer sound makes for a more communicative experience. Slashing accents, thundering timpani, all add to the drama of a powerful first movement. The second movement seems sluggish at first, but builds to a very strong intensity by its conclusion. The Adagio hardly underwent any conceptual change in Furtwängler’s recorded performances, which date from 1937–1954. The conductor described that movement as “steeped in an otherworldliness that properly belongs to the sphere of religion….It seems as if the full purpose of the Adagio—which in spite of its profoundly contemplative character must remain an episode, part of a single uniform creative process—is only revealed in retrospect, when the finale is announced in frightening tones.” The movement in his hands unfolds slowly, indeed almost religiously. The Finale, as with the beginning of the second movement, lacks the tautness and incisive bite of other Furtwängler performances. The soloists are a squally bunch, except for Seefried, and the choral singing is occasionally ill-tuned and badly blended.
A German Requiem:
Parts, 1, 3, 4, 5 (Vienna SO; Irmgard Seefried (sop); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (bar); Vienna Singakademie Ch; Konzerthaus, 1/25/1951)
Only about half of this
has survived and that only from off-the-air amateur recordings, not from master tapes. The sound is muffled and compressed, lacking presence and color. Orfeo has significantly improved on the quality of the prior Japanese releases of these fragments, and it is now listenable. The music that survived represents approximately half of the work. Given the sonic inadequacies and less than first-rate soloists of the one full performance of Furtwängler’s that does survive (from Stockholm) it is a shame we don’t have the rest of this one. Seefried and Fischer-Dieskau are as great as you would expect them to be, the choral singing is better than it was in Beethoven’s Ninth a year earlier, and the conductor’s way with the music is simultaneously devotional and dramatic. Even as half a performance and with limited sonics, it is worth hearing.
Variations on a Theme of Haydn
. “Double” Concerto for Violin and Cello. Symphony No. 1
(Willi Boskovsky (vn); Emanuel Brabec (vc); Musikvereinssaal, 1/27/1951)
This is the middle of three performances of this program, and it has all been reissued on various labels by EMI. The Double Concerto has also been transferred by Pristine Audio. There is more focus and clarity to the Orfeo edition than is the case on EMI; there is not a great deal of difference between Pristine’s transfer and Orfeo’s. The former has a bit more ambience around the orchestral sound.
This all-Brahms concert is a real treasure. In
32:5 I reviewed this performance of the Double Concerto, and said: “There are only two Furtwängler performances of this that have been preserved, and this is decidedly the superior one. This is a performance that blisters in the outer movements but reaches depths of genuinely profound beauty in the Andante. Boskovsky and Brabec, both Vienna Philharmonic principals, play magnificently….Every time I hear this performance it sweeps me along from beginning to end.” I continue to feel the same way.
There are more energetic and dramatic performances by Furtwängler of the
and First Symphony, particularly the famous recording with the Hamburg Radio Orchestra, which also has superb sound. There is also a tauter Berlin Philharmonic Brahms First on DG. But these are certainly good, big-boned readings, and it is gratifying to be able to hear a complete Furtwängler concert exactly as he gave it, particularly in such warm sound.
Symphony No. 9
(Hilde Güden, Rosette Anday, Julius Patzak, Alfred Poell, soloists; Vienna Singakademie Ch; 2/3/1952, Musikvereinssaal)
Much of what I said above about the 1951 performance of the Ninth applies here too. The sound is somewhat warmer than on prior issues (Music & Arts and Andante), and we’d be grateful to have this if we didn’t have better alternatives. Again the first section of the Finale seems a bit unfocused, and in this performance the opening half of the first movement seems too heavy in its tread. Overall this is a slightly more convincing reading than the 1951, and the soloists are better, except for Patzak’s rather whiny tenor. The comparison with Andante’s version was interesting; even though the same transfer engineer oversaw both, they are not quite pitched the same. The Orfeo is pitched a bit lower, which may be partly responsible for what appears to be a warmer orchestral sound. The pitch difference is only detectable in a direct A-B comparison, or by examining the timings, but the difference is not insignificant. Total timing of music only for the four movements (all pauses subtracted) in the Andante transfer is 73:21, and the new Orfeo is 74:58. For two transfers of the same performance by the same engineer that is quite significant. The Orfeo sounds better to me.
Saint Matthew Passion:
Part One, Nos. 1–33 (Irmgard Seefried, Hildegard Rössel-Majdan, Julius Patzak, Hans Braun, Otto Wiener, soloists; Vienna Singakademie Ch; 4/6/1952, Konzerthaus, Vienna)
For the sake of completeness one can be glad this is here; it would be more valuable were there not a later complete performance. Previous issues of this (on Archipel and a Japanese LP) have sounded dreadful, and this is an improvement. But it is still muddy and distantly recorded. Despite some felicitous solo singing from Seefried and a sense of how Furtwängler approached this music, it is unlikely that many will listen to it more than once. Patzak’s Evangelist is raw-sounding.
Symphony No. 1
This is one of the gems in this set—probably the finest of the five Beethoven Firsts we have from this conductor. It followed immediately upon the EMI recording sessions. In fact, there is some date confusion because most other releases of this performance date it as November 30, but Andante’s earlier version identified it as November 29, as does Orfeo. With Orfeo’s access to the VPO archives, I accept the 29th as the accurate date. November 24–27 were the recording sessions for Beethoven’s First and Third symphonies. On November 29–30 Furtwängler and the VPO gave two concerts featuring both of those works plus Mahler’s
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
. Orfeo states that the Mahler and the “Eroica” recordings date from November 30, but the First from November 29.
Whatever the date, this performance of the First sizzles with energy. And while some of the prior reissues (Music & Arts and Tahra) were more than listenable, the sound here is notably more full and natural. Andante’s sound is closer to this, but still a bit hard-grained in comparison. This almost sounds as professionally recorded as the studio recording. You might expect Furtwängler to approach this rather heavily, but in fact much of it is fleet and light-textured. The second movement is absolutely lovely, with the conductor emphasizing the word “cantabile” in the
Andante cantabile con moto
marking. What Beethoven called, following tradition, a “Menuetto” is really the first of his scherzos, and so it is performed here with energy and tautness. The contrast between the slow introduction and main section of the Finale is dramatically emphasized. This won’t please those who insist on what we now call HIP, but all others will find this a stunning reading, and the conductor’s careful sense of balance and texture is more apparent in this transfer than it has ever been before.
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
(Alfred Poell, bar).
Symphony No. 3,
“Eroica” (11/30/52, Musikvereinssaal)
These two works comprise the rest of a concert that began with Beethoven’s First Symphony (they made them longer in the old days, didn’t they?). This cycle is the only Mahler we have from Furtwängler, though he did conduct some of the symphonies before the war. There are two other performances, one live and one studio, with the young Fischer-Dieskau, and no one will pretend that Poell has the imagination and deep musical instincts to equal that great singer. There is something attractive about the sound of Poell’s darker bass-baritone voice in this music, but he struggles with some of the high tessitura, and despite the sonic improvement of this over prior reissues, it is unlikely to hold much interest from those who know the alternatives.
This “Eroica” lacks the dramatic impact of the 1944 performance noted above, but it is not without interest. Again, Orfeo’s sonics are an improvement over Tahra’s, with the latter’s seemingly added ambiance. While the live Beethoven First is quite similar to its contemporaneous studio recording in general interpretive outline, this “Eroica” performance is meaningfully different from the studio recording in many details of phrasing and articulation. John Ardoin, in his excellent book
The Furtwängler Record
, notes that “the pace of the music is broken time and time again by heavy accents and very deliberate, marcato articulations in the lower strings…, with more
used in the upper strings than was Furtwängler’s norm. This results in a performance that is not always defensible in terms of the music, but one that exerts a curious fascination in its extremes and in light of the commercial disc.” Ardoin did not have the advantage of hearing the Tahra transfer when he wrote the book, only some inferior ones on Virtuoso and Nuova Era. Listening to Orfeo’s edition, one gets a different sense, because of a finer orchestral balance. The very strong bass line helps to carry the music through some of the pauses, and there is more of a sense of momentum than was evident in earlier transfers, though Tahra’s was close to this level. However, even with the help of Orfeo’s engineers, this recording suffers from close miking of the violins, resulting in some glare, and a general harshness. On balance, the 1944 performance reviewed above and the EMI studio recording are probably preferable versions.
Iphegenie in Aulis:
Symphony No. 2 in e
Orfeo released this performance of the Symphony in an identical sounding transfer as a single disc, and in
18:5 I entered it into the Classical Hall of Fame. This is a great conductor making a most persuasive case for his own music, something quite different from performances by composers who are part-time conductors. Furtwängler brings out the power and the beauty, the pain, and the sense of hope that are all parts of this huge work, composed while the composer/conductor was in Switzerland, where he fled in 1945 when he was warned that the Nazis had him on a hit list. The recorded sound here is quite wonderful, and anyone interested in this musical figure should know this performance. In a word, this performance and recording are thrilling.
The Gluck which opened the concert has not received wide circulation, probably because of the excellent EMI recording made with the VPO a year later. I am only familiar with a fairly congested-sounding Japanese Disques Refrain release. This is a huge improvement, and it now seems a more satisfying performance than the EMI studio effort. The latter seems earthbound after one has heard this. Furtwängler brings huge energy and thrust to this big-boned reading (using Wagner’s edition of the music, rather than Mozart’s), builds his sound from the bottom up, and seems particularly inspired on this occasion. Perhaps it is because he was about to lead his own major work after the intermission.
Symphony No. 9
(Irmgard Seefried, Rosette Anday, Anton Dermota, Paul Schöffler, soloists; Vienna Singakademie C; 5/30/1953, Musikvereinssaal)
This third performance of the Ninth in this set is the best. The shaping is more cohesive, particularly in the Finale, and Anton Dermota is a huge improvement over Julius Patzak. Orfeo has opened the sound up considerably when compared to prior releases (Music & Arts was the best I knew of). The fact is that the unique wartime Berlin reading, along with the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951 and the final performance in Lucerne in 1954 a few months before the conductor’s death, remain the essential Beethoven Ninths from Furtwängler. This is a fine one, but because of the stature of those alternatives this becomes of interest mainly to the specialist.
Symphony No. 8
I reviewed earlier issues of this performance in
6:2 and 13:5. At the time I identified it as the Nowak edition of the score. In fact it is closer to the Schalk-edited 1892 published version, though Furtwängler has made his own modifications. The sound here is a huge improvement over prior issues except for Andante’s (to which it is similar), but it doesn’t help this rather limp performance. Only in the slow movement does one feel that one is in the presence of a great conductor. For the rest, the cohesion and momentum that this conductor usually brought to Bruckner’s massive symphonies are not in evidence, at least not to the degree one expects. In earlier reviews I questioned whether Furtwängler was really conducting this performance, but research with the archives of the VPO has convinced me that the performance is genuine. By April 1954 Furtwängler’s health was beginning to fail, and perhaps this was just an off day.
St. Matthew Passion
(Elisabeth Grümmer, Marga Höffgen, Anton Dermota, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Otto Edelmann, soloists; Vienna Singakademie Ch; Vienna Boys Ch; 4/15/1954, Konzerthaus, Vienna)
In a few details this differs from EMI’s release of this same performance (Réferences 5 65509 2). In order to fit it on two discs, EMI shortened the pauses between numbers. But those pauses are an integral part of the conception of the performance, and shortening them has a stronger effect on the overall shape and mood of the work than one might think, particularly in
performance. Secondly, above and beyond Furtwängler’s unfortunate cuts, EMI cut one additional bass recitative and aria. They claimed it was due to “insurmountable technical problems.” An earlier Fonit-Cetra LP reissue had that recitative and aria included (the aria is “Komm, süsses Kreuz, so will ich sagen”) and there is no problem with the recording. The “insurmountable technical problem” that I hear is Otto Edelmann’s clumsy and ill-tuned singing!
With this preservation of the original radio tapes, with all the original music and pauses from the performance, one can admire Furtwängler’s dramatic, powerful way with the music while at the same time being horrified at the number of cuts. Parts or all of 22 different numbers are omitted. It is true that this kind of cutting was much more common in those days than it is now, but this seems excessive even by those more relaxed standards. The performance may be “old-fashioned,” with interpretive touches that some will find inappropriate but which are applied with reverence, restraint, and taste. Tempos are on the broad side, accents and attacks are rounded rather than crisp, textures are rich rather than lean. This is a dramatic, even theatrical performance of a work that has a great deal of theater in it. And aside from Edelmann, the soloists are superb. Dermota is a much more satisfying Evangelist than the bawling Patzak, and the young Fischer-Dieskau is a wonderful Jesus. It must be noted that there is some congestion and distortion at climaxes of the chorales in this recording.
A significant piece of music performance history of the middle 20th century is contained in this 18-disc box. Furtwängler collectors will certainly want to obtain it, and others with an interest in the history of performance practice will want it as well. In fact, any music lover willing to listen to good monaural sound from the 1940s and 1950s in order to experience one of the great conductors in recorded history will find this a gratifying collection. Orfeo provides extensive notes, in English as well as German. They are decently, if not perfectly, translated, and they tend to be somewhat over-the-top in their treatment of the conductor, but there is much good information to be had from them. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this set.