While most people will prefer Furtwangler's live concerts recordings to his studio ones, one cannot deny the fact that these final studio recordings of Beethoven symphonies were well-played and well-recorded. They may lack the urgency and angst of his wartime renditions, but they exude considerable charm on their own. EMI’s plan to have a full Beethoven symphonies cycle was foiled when Furtwängler died in 1954, and Symphony Nos. 2, 8 and 9 were yet to be recorded. Fate has it that the first EMI post-war Beethoven symphonies set went to Karajan and the Philharmonia instead, issued in 1956.
It was not until 1979 that EMI Electrola issued the first complete set of the Beethoven symphonies conducted by Furtwängler.
The fate of each of the three missing symphonies by the time Furtwängler died in 1954 differs. For the Ninth, EMI turned to the July 1951 concerts during the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival after the war, and the famous set of 2 LPs, HMV ALP 1286-7, now asking almost ridiculous prices in the second-hand market, was issued in November 1955. For the Eighth, it was originally thought that no broadcast recordings survived (the same with the Second), yet in 1972 the Wilhelm Furtwängler Society together with Unicorn issued a recently discovered 1948 Stockholm Philharmonic broadcast on LP, WFS 5, and in the same year, German EMI Electrola issued the same performance on 1C 053-93533. The French EMI Pathé might have thought a broadcast recording of the Second would never be found when in 1977 it issued a Beethoven set of 8 symphonies, 2 overtures, the Violin Concerto and 2 Romances with Menuhin, the Piano Concerto No. 5 with Fischer, and a Fidelio in a nice 13-LP set. The world had to wait for another 2 years before the final missing piece of the puzzle was discovered, a 1948 Vienna Philharmonic broadcast of Symphony No. 2. Thus 1979 saw the first complete Furtwängler Beethoven symphonies set on LP issued on EMI Electrola.
Furtwängler’s complete Beethoven symphonies CD sets have been widely documented, but strangely, their counterparts on LP were often only covered in a piecemeal manner. The following is a brief introduction of 4 “complete” sets issued between 1977 and 1986. It does not pretend to be exhaustive as I don’t have the Japanese set issued in 1983, Toshiba EAC 47240-6, at the moment.
1977 EMI Pathé 2C 153 52540-52 (13 LPs)
Pros: Includes 8 Symphonies, 2 Overtures, the Violin Concerto and 2 Romances with Menuhin, the Piano Concerto No. 5 with Fischer, and a Fidelio. Nice packaging. Nice booklet with essays by Rémi Jacobs. Attractive, warm sound.
Cons: Lacks Symphony No. 2 (yet to be discovered at that time).The Eroica’s Scherzo was severed and placed onto 2 sides. Essay in French only.
1979 EMI Electrola 1C 149 53432-9M (8 LPs)
Pros: The first complete set of all 9 symphonies. Includes 4 Overtures. No split within movements. Essay by Karl Schumann in German and English.
Cons: Symphony No. 2 is split on 2 records.
1979 EMI Italiana 3C 153 53600/06M (7 LPs)
Pros: Each symphony on one record. Essay by Paolo Isolta in both Italian and English. Box looks grand.Cons: The Funeral March of the Eroica is split into 2 parts and put onto 2 sides. Includes only one Overture, the Coriolan.
1986 EMI Electrola 137 2906603 (6 LPs)
Digital remastering: No 9 in 1984; Nos. 5&6 in 1985; the rest in 1986. DMM technology.
Pros: Very nice essay by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler in German and English (with translations into French and Italian too). No splits within movements. Easier to get used copies, and relatively inexpensive.
Cons: Narrower grooves may compromise sound (9 Symphonies and 4 Overtures cramped in only 6 LPs), and in fact they do. Odd and sometimes inconvenient grouping of symphonies and movements, e.g. Symphony No. 9 is split onto 3 records.
Listening to these vinyls is a valuable experience.