05 January 2017

R.I.P. Prêtre a fine Brucknerian

We mourn the passing of Georges Prêtre at the age of 92.

Apart from his very fine operatic and French orchestral recordings, his two Bruckner recordings, of Symphonies No. 7 and No. 8, in his ripe golden age are impressive readings that will stay in my mind for a long time.

Rest in peace Maestro.

02 November 2016

The 2 recordings of Furtwängler's Eroica that surfaced only in this century

It is not infrequent to run into the war between die-hard fans of LPs and their counterparts of CDs. Each camp will claim the superiority of their ethos with reasons of subjective pleasantness or objective physical characteristics or a mixed combination of both. I’m somewhat frightened by this exclusiveness of interests. 

In the case of Furtwängler’s recordings, it would be foolhardy to limit oneself to either LPs or CDs as the reasons for selection are challengingly complicated: sound source, remastering, unedited live recording vs edited and patched live recording, first editions vs. reissues, or even extant or not at a particular time, to name but a few.

On the issue of “extant or not at a particular time”, by the end of the last millennium, we can only listened to 9 different recordings of Furtwängler’s Eroica. The 31 August 1950 recording was still unissued. And the last recording on 4 September 1953 was even unheard of at that time. These 2 recordings at last saw light of the day in the early years of this century, of course in the format of CD. If you insist on the LP format, sorry, they are not available. (However in these days of the crazy renaissance of LPs, one won’t be surprised to see these recordings being reissued in vinyl. Of course, if the sound source is the same, I won’t buy the vinyl of the 1950 recording given its poor existing form. I may consider the 1954 one if it appears.)

The existence of the recording on 31 August 1950 during the Salzburg Festival with the VPO has been known for years since the Olsen days (Olsen No. 221), but it was still stated as unissued in the discography compiled by John Hunt and René Trémine, and also in the book by John Ardoin (utilizing John Hunt’s discography) in the 1990’s. 

Listed as "Not issued/Private archive" in Hunt's discography
Left blank in Tremine's discography

The 31 August 1950 and 4 Sep 1953 recordings are not listed in Ardoin's book

It was first issued in an EMI double CD set (CMS 5674222) in 2000. The sound is not satisfactory because of a poor sound source. The performance, however, is top-notch and entirely lovable, with a special quality of its being a post-war Furtwängler reading sounding paradoxically akin to his fervent, angst-ridden wartime ones. It was later also issued by Orfeo in its Salzburg Festival box set (C409048L). This recording also appeared secretively in 2010 as a “bonus” in an Archipel double-CD of “Wilhelm Furtwängler in his last Salzburg concert” on 30 August 1954 (ARPCD 0504), in which the Eroica is not mentioned in the cover art or even on CD2 which contains it; however, the sound is surprisingly good.

The CDs of the 31 August 1950 Eroica

The 4 September 1953 recording has now become his last extant Eroica recording. Out of the blue, it sprang into being in 2004 in the Furtwängler 2CD of the “Great Conductors of the 20th Century” series issued by IMG/EMI (5628752), more than half a century after his death. It is a live recording of the VPO on tour in Munich. Michael Tanner, in the liner notes, writes, “This whole performance will come as a revelation to anyone who thought they knew the Eroica but has not previously heard Furtwängler conduct it”. It is a very well recorded account. Although it is without the white heat of his wartime concerts, it is nevertheless a reading that pushes him to another level of sublime expressiveness, stunning deep down to your soul yet without the scorched stamp of war.

The IMG/EMI CD of the 4 September 1953 Eroica

The CDs of these 2 recordings have impressively enriched the discography of Furtwängler in particular, and that of Eroica in general. 

21 October 2016

A Furtwängler concert programme that is reserved for significant occasions

The recently released Otaken CD, TKC-365, reissued the Beethoven Symphonies No. 5 and 6 recorded in the concert on 25 May 1947, the first concert Furtwängler conducted the Berlin Philharmonic after his post-WII denazification. This famous concert is well known to seasoned classical music lovers. (The Egmont Overture in this concert was unfortunately not recorded.) The intensity of emotions of the occasion and that of the orchestral rendition is infectious. Otaken claims the sound of the new CD has an optimal dynamic range, with much freshness of sound. It points out in particular the bridge between the 3rd and 4th movements in Beethoven 5, saying they have faithfully captured the crescendo to much visceral effect. That obviously led me to take out the incumbent benchmark CD by Audite for comparison. Much as the richness of sound in the Otaken CD appears appealing, I prefer the more transparent, and also crisper, sound in the Audite CD. Just listen to the nuance in the famous anguished fermata in the eighth note in the opening movement and you will understand.

While on this concert, I’d like to point out something that I observed in relation to concert programming by Furtwängler. 

When I take a close look at Furtwängler’s concert listing, this programme of Beethoven's Egmont Overture, Sixth Symphony and Fifth Symphony interestingly occurred only on special occasions, apart perhaps from its first occurrence on 4 May 1927 when he performed in Copenhagen on tour with the Berlin Philharmonic. He had different combinations of Beethoven’s symphonies in concerts, but this exact combination of Egmont, 6th and 5th is special.

This concert programme was used:

1) in his “come-back” concerts when he resumed conducting after the Hindemith Affair in 1935 (12 April in Budapest, 13 & 14 April in Vienna with the VPO when his passport was returned to him, and then in 25 April with his BPO in Berlin, and then in other German cities, Hamburg, Munich and Stuttgart in the following months).

2) on 12 December 1937 with the VPO in the Concert for the 125th anniversary of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.

3) in his series of “come-back” concerts starting 25 May 1947 referred to above in Berlin. These were followed by the concert on 3 June in Postdam and on 12 & 13 June in Munich.

4) on 28 September 1948 in London as the first concert of the only Beethoven Zylus in his entire conducting career.

Note that the order is always Beethoven's Sixth before Fifth, except for the concert in 1937.