Great for musical quality, erratic for sound
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 04/21/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This box set gathers together some wonderful performances. Before and after his de-Nazification Wilhelm Furtwangler conducted at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, pulling together an ad hoc summer orchestra that responded to him amazingly well (his agogic beat was notoriously hard to follow, and he tended toward unexpected tempo changes). Lovers of Furtwangler probably know the most famous Lucerne recordings already: a Beethoven 9th on Tahra that has the best sound of any Furtwangler version and two violin concerto recordings -- the Beethoven and Brahms -- made by EMI on site, featuring Yehudi Menuhin.
Now Music & Arts fills in some gaps with private recordings and a few official shellacs, adding up to a treasury of great music-making but understandably variable sound. Let me give a run down of the four CDs, which contain mostly familiar works from Furtwangler's basic repertoire:
CD 1: Two works fill this disc, Beethoven's Piano Cto #1 with Swiss pianist Adrian Aeschbacher from 1947 and the Brahms Double C'to featuring Wolfgang Schneiderhan (violin) and Enrico Mainardi (cello) from 1949.
The Beethoven, which has had several earlier releases, is better than its reputation, I think. Aeschbacher is no Schnabel, but he plays energetically and with assurance. The piano is far forward, but the orchestra isn't too far back, so we can appreciate Furtwangler's contribution, which is appealing without being a revelation. The sound is quite good if you don't mind the highlighting of the piano.
The Brahms, far superior to Furtwangler's cumbersome, poorly recorded EMI version, comes from an amateur tape recording. At first the shrieky violin tone sent me running to turn down the volume, but after a while one adjusts -- and the sound improves somewhat -- revealing nothing less than an inspired reading. I was carried away, not only by Furtwangler's magnificent conception but also by the accurate, passionate soloists, who throw themselves headlong into a work that often comes off as melancholy and labored. One of the great Furtwangler performances, all in all.
CD 2: The Brahms First Sym.(from 1947) and Schumann Fourth Sym. (from 1953) fill this disc.
In the Brahms there are at least three other great readings from Furtwangler, and the one from Hamburg on Tahra easily wins the prize for best sound. Here the sonics are accurate but muffled; we hear the music through a blanket. Overall there is no surface gritch, though, and the pitch is stable. I'd call the sound average for off-the-air Furtwangler. The performance itself ranks high with collectors for sweep and power; there are many tempo changes and spontaneous inflections.
The Schumann Fourth is a discovery made in 1993 of a private tape recording. It has more presence and impact than the Brahms but is marred by slight flutter (not enough to bother me except in some wind solos), and the strings are decidedly gritty. For overall orchestral fidelity, I'd put it in the bottom third of Furtwangler radio broadcasts. Also, one msut remember that he made a famous Schumann Fourth for DG in the studio in quite good sound. This performance adheres to the contours of that reading, which means it's very, very good -- spontaneous, passionate, authoritative.
CD 3: This disc contains an Eroica from 1953, the Act I Prelude to Lohengrin from 1951, and rehearsal excerpts of the Beethoven Seventh from 1951.
The discovery of the Schumann led to this Eroica from the same concert made on the same amateur tape machine off the radio. As such, it contains the same sonic defects. The familiar contours of Furtwangler's interpretation, known from half a dozen other readings, is present. But that's not to say that this Eroica is standardized -- there are many singular expressive touches, well worth hearing even though you have to put up with considerable gritch and some noticeable flutter. Overall, this is mainly for serious collectors.
The Lohengrin Prelude was taken from a test pressing 78-rpm shellac owned by the conductor, part of a recording session done by HMV but never released. It has noticeable surface noise, and although the performance is luminous, the lack of dynamic range comapred with tape recordings puts this reading fairly low down among my favorites.
The rehearsal of the Beethoven Seventh will be of interest to those who speak German, as I do not.
CD 4: The final disc is all Beethoven: a Leonore Over. #3 from 1947 and Violin Cto with Yehudi Menuhin from 1949.
Furtwangler left several versions of the Leonore Over., both live and studio, and although this is a good one, the sound is the murkiest of anything in this box set. Worth a pass after one listen, perhaps.
As for the violin concerto, this version comes from HMV shellacs that are fairly gritty, with noticeable surface deterioration. But the official EMi release of this great collaboration is also in dodgy sound, so it's good to have an alternative. The perspective is slightly more distant than in the commercial release, but Menuhin's tone is clear.
All in all, buying this set at a low price on the used market is definitely worthwhile, but only one performance -- the Brahms Double Concerto -- adds significantly to the Furtwangler legacy. There are pirates of that performance, which could lead to quite a goose chase to select the one with best sound. If you don't own the Beethoven 1st piano concerto (Furtwangler's only surviving performance) and the Brahms First Sym., then the reasons for acquiring this set add up. Devotees of the conductor will find plenty to be intrigued by.