This supposedly legendary set was last reviewed on ClassicalNet in 1995. It's been nearly 20 years, and the stature of these performances simply continues to slip as time goes on. It has nothing to do with modern scholarship, either. Conductors as diverse as Charles Munch, Georg Solti, and even James Levine have shown clearly that a big and traditional Brahms sound is as valid an approach as any. The fact of the matter remains that Wilhelm Furtwängler was one of the more erratic artists to ever mount a podium, and his results were occasionally great, but often not.
In his original review Mr. Stumpf seemed almost apologetic to not praise these performances over his preferred comparisons of Stokowski and Walter. The apology was then and is now entirely unnecessary. Both of the latter men knew how to get the sound they wanted from nearly any ensemble, and knew how to conduct Brahms. Furtwängler – at least on evidence here – possessed neither skill, and the composer suffers accordingly. Check out this hideous rendition of the 3rd, played with disconcerting awfulness by the Berlin Philharmonic. Furtwängler contributes only a clear lack of cogency on the proceedings, and not even great playing would save this. As it stands, this is not great playing, conducting, or Brahms generally.
There are some things that go reasonably well. The finale of the 2nd is pretty good, although there are some very strange moments here, too. The Furtwängler 1st is always worth hearing, and this is a work – like the Beethoven 3rd – that the conductor made quite a specialty of. But the 4th is ugly and ill-conceived, and the fillers are all a wash artistically. It's obviously a great musician at work here, but it's such a shame that the excellence is so occasional. Blame some on the state of art in post-war Europe if you must, but there's no way to make this more than a curio and a document for die-hard fans. The murky and unappealing radio sound adds to the overall impression of mediocrity. Meh.
Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman