Thursday, March 4, 2010

Furtwängler: Pre-war Polydor Recordings (DG Japan)

Wilhelm Furtwängler: Early Polydor Recordings
(Disc 1) Mendelssohn: Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream; J.S. Bach: Air from Suite No.3; Wagner: Prelude to Act I from Lohengrin, Prelude to Act I and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde; Schubert: Overture to Rosamunde; R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks

(Disc 2) Mendelssohn: The Hebrides Overture; Berlioz: Hungarian March from The Damnation of Faust; Schubert: Interlude no.3 from Rosamunde; J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No.3; Rossini: Overture to La gazza ladra; Brahms: Hungarian Dances Nos.1 and 10; Weber: Invitation to the Dance (arr. Berlioz); Wagner: Siegfried's Funeral March from Götterdämmerung

(Disc 3) Beethoven: Overture to Egmont; Mozart: Overtures to The Marriage of Figaro and The Abduction from the Seraglio, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; Rossini: Overture to The Barber of Seville; Weber: Overture and Interlude to Act III from Der Freischütz; J. Strauss, Jr.: Overture to Die Fledermaus; rehearsal excerpt from Till Eulenspiegel recording sessions

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Deutsche Grammophon Japan POCG -234214 | Mono ADD

Sorry for the long delay between postings as of late. I hope you can at least appreciate quality over quantity.

In my post of Furtwängler's second recording of the Beethoven Fifth, I had mentioned how temperamental he could be when in the studio. Like many of his generation (Otto Klemperer was another notable example), he had a profound distrust of recordings. Part of it was based on the relatively primitive recording and playback equipment available back then. He often complained that what he heard on record was not what he had heard on the podium. And he was probably right. Peter Andry had commented on this phenomenon in his recent autobiography, Inside the Recording Studio. While recording Furtwängler and the Vienna Philharmonic in Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Andry was completely bowled over by the luscious and powerful string sound that Furtwängler could inspire from his orchestra. But on the finished record, Andry was dismayed to find that the sound captured on the mikes was only a shadow of what he actually heard. It's a mystery why some conductors are more "phonogenic" than others. Beecham, Karajan, and Stokowski were born recording artists. Furtwängler turned out some excellent studio recordings, but was at home in the concert hall before an audience.

The collection I have here are all studio recordings from the pre-war era. They constitute his complete pre-war Polydor recordings. Most of it is very good, but a great deal was superseded in quality by later HMV recordings and airchecks. Still, this collection is a valuable snapshot of Furtwängler and the superlative level of playing of his Berliners. The collection is programmed in chronological order.

There is so much to talk about here, so let me just touch on the highlights and down points of this set. First the bad news. Or not really bad news. Even the worst recordings here would still be considered very good. Abendroth quality, let's say. But some leave a bit to be desired. The Midsummer Night's Dream Overture that opens this set starts off in fine fashion, but is then hampered by a decidedly un-Mendelssohnian heaviness. Berlioz's Hungarian March sounds curiously prosaic here as do the Freischütz excerpts.

But the best of the best here is absolutely stunning. The Berliners' hearty romp through Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No.3 may be too much for those reared on more smaller scaled recordings. But what a heady delight it is! What sheen and body those strings had. The Wagner items are also outstanding. No surprise from the one of history's great Wagnerians. But what is a surprise is how deftly and wittily Furtwängler sashays through the two Rossini overtures. Rossini and Furtwängler seem about as mismatched as Toscanini and Bruckner. Yet it works! These recordings abound with great comic timing and with superlative playing from the BPO. Incidentally, Toscanini and Bruckner make for a surprisingly effective combo too. Remind me to post that CD some time.

Sound quality is fair on this set. Opus Kura is finally getting around to releasing their own set of the complete Furtwängler Polydors. That set should be one to watch out for. Koch released a more comprehensive set in the early 1990's that included some of Furtwängler's pre-war Electrola and HMV recordings. The transfers by Ward Marston and Mark Obert Thorn are very good; slightly more plump than these transfers, but also a little more diffuse. I had a difficult time choosing which one to post, but I think I made the right choice by going with the DG.

To fully understand what made Furtwängler great, you must hear his war-time recordings and his late HMV recordings. As great as these are, he would go on to outdo himself in time. But for a portrait of the "artist as a younger-ish man", this set can't be beat.