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CD Review

Wilhelm Furtwängler Conducts

DGG 471289

War Time Concerts 1942-1944, Volume I

Erich Rohn, violin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Deutsche Grammophon 471289 4CDs
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As you will soon discover, I am not going to essay these recordings in the order they are arranged in the box. Rather, I am going to discuss matters in the order that I followed in exploring them. For that matter, I may not even talk about every piece. I was just listening to the 7th again and realized I really don't have anything to say about it.

These performances have been around in various incarnations for years. As a focus for discussion I have the Beethoven 4, 5 and 7 on Music and Arts. Until listening to these releases I felt it was the best sounding transfers I knew. That has changed somewhat. These new DG recordings come straight from the horse's mouth. The notes go into the details about finding the original tapes (yes, the Nazi's had tape at that time… we came across it when we defeated them) I must say the result is clearer and I can appreciate more details. The timpani, in particular, are more powerful, riveting. The Music and Arts is good, it sounds a lot more distant. I also note a tad of ear strain when listening to the DG release after awhile but I soon adjust. The bottom line is that if you have the Music and Arts discs you should be satisfied just fine, but if you want the additional items in this set… well.

Beethoven's 5th is the most perfect symphony ever written. I might even offer the theory that it is the most perfect piece of music ever written. I am not saying it is the best. If, however, a student were to ask me what the word perfect means, I would tell him to listen to Beethoven's 5th and if s/he didn't understand it they weren't ready. There is a plethora of Furtwängler performances of The Fifth. This particular recording has a Brucknarian feel to it. Try to imagine it. The performance is taut, the tension is intense, and the timpani and trombones are given their rightful place in the fore of the score. (Sorry) I guess the bottom line is that this is one of the finest 5ths of all time and perhaps worth the price of the set.

The nest thing I checked into was the Mozart. I knew Furtwängler's Beethoven, Bruckner and Brahms, but his Mozart? Even Stokowski turned in classically acceptable results in his Haydn "53rd". Would it be like… ? Well, the first contextual relation (comparison of a sort) was a Bruno Walter's stereo recordings. On the other hand, Furtwängler made Walter's seem positively "historically informed" than Furtwängler (at least in the first three movements) A friend once accurately described Walter's last stereo recordings of Mozart as: Mozart à la Brahms. If so, this is Mozart à la Bruckner. Sound surreal? Well, maybe but it's not perverse. All of it is inherently within the score once you realize that the score is more than black marks on white paper (to paraphrase Stokowski) I have a friend who is into jazz à la Charlie Parker. When he hears anything that approaches metaphysical he mutters, "That kicks my shit!" I can't do much better than that to describe how I loved this music making.

Okay, next I turned to "The Great". Every once in awhile I happen to be listening to the radio when a performance grips me so that I have to pull over and listen! One such time was when I first heard Schubert's 9th. I came into it just after the first movement had started and didn't know who was conducting it. I pulled off the road and sat back and enjoyed every moment. At the close there were tears in my eyes. It was Furtwängler's 1952 recording. Naturally I wondered how the performance from a decade before would sound. It is more intense… no the word is "volatile". As I listen to the different recordings I realize more and more that these wartime performances were more volatile. There is beauty aplenty; nothing seems rushed. Over all it is almost five minutes shorter than in 1952. It is not just the tempo, however, the attacks are sharper too. The timpani is clearly in the fore.

The Handel immediately brought to mind Stokowski, but then differences drifted in like sands on a shore. The sonority is not as deep (need more double basses) nor is there the sweep of the arm you hear in Stokowski. One insight was realizing that the number of filigree has a lot to do with the difference between a Stokowski and a Furtwängler interpretation of a piece like this. The Furtwängler is just not as ornate… there are fewer filigree in the lace. Still, this Handel piece feels of Stokowski. I like it.

Okay, I would recommend this set strongly. What we have are performances that have stature and are historic. Every serious lover of classical music should listen to these discs. Now on to digressions.

If I have reservations about recommending the set they are related to the cost. While the single disc price is only about a fin or less, I wonder if it would have made more marketing sense to make them available separately. Okay, the "market" is statistically set. Or is it? Given that the market is statistically set at around the median age of 55 (my age, for what it's worth) by offering the CDs individually or at a less worse price as a set, and making sure the per-disc price is below $10 it seems to me that the companies would profit more so than given their proclivities: to sell the recordings at a set or be damned. If you want to help sustain a market and not just feed it; in fact if you want to expand a market and not just feed it; then you need to make sure that you nurse it well. In simple terms, it would be easier as a writer to recommend individual discs, less a gamble for the curious and they are the people who decide if they will buy another "Furtwängler" disc or not. The regulars are important, but not the whole game because they will pass.

Another digression: You know, I was listening to The 5th when awareness dawned. I realized the difference between Toscanini and Furtwängler, Stokowski, Walter and others at the podium. Toscanini played all of the notes but none of the music.

Yet another digression: looking over my notes I noticed that the word "timpani" appeared frequently. I went on to listen to the Beethoven Violin Concerto and the word "timpani" was written, but even as I was writing it I was aware that I was writing it because I was listening FOR it. That is, there is a difference between listening TO a piece of music and listening "FOR" a phrase in it. Then I realized that his word appeared not only in one essay, but in most of them. Then I began to wonder if I was losing my mind.

Seriously, once you start listening for things in music you have realized a new paradigm. Okay, there's the thesis and antithesis, where's the synthesis?

Copyright © 2002, Robert Stumpf II