As Rob Cowan relates in his helpful booklet essay – factual, anecdotal, insightful – only two of the five Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) recordings included here are Decca originals. They are Brahms’s Second Symphony with the London Philharmonic, and César Franck’s D-minor Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic.
The Brahms (1948, Kingsway Hall), to my ears, finds the LPO hanging on Furtwängler’s every gesture if with some uncertainty as to delivering the maestro’s intentions, but there is much excitement in the Finale and heartfelt eloquence in the slow movement (note the prominence of the tuba and trombones in their exchanges). The first movement is temporarily handicapped by a hiatus at 5’08” (just as the development section begins), presumably one side of a 78 being turned for the next, which needed tidying, but there is much loveliness in the languorous conclusion. Other five-minute intervals come and go without technical incident.
The performance as a whole can seem unsettled, somewhat volatile as to tempo changes, whether intended or ‘of the moment’, if no doubting the electricity generated, or the sheen of the strings, even if the sound doesn’t give Kingsway Hall or engineer Kenneth Wilkinson as many plaudits as either usually attracts, for it seems Furtwängler had his own ideas as to microphone placement; certainly the third movement is rather colourless and its animated middle section is, interpretively, lethargic.
The other studio recording is the Franck (1953, Musikverein), a splendidly ‘big’ and dug-into reading full of character and passion, even exultation, engrossing from first bar to last; sounds good, played superbly. Great piece, too, which used to attract many distinguished conductors, if far fewer nowadays.
For the remainder we stay with the Vienna Phil, visiting Munich with Furtwängler for a generous concert, October 1951, first appearing on Decca Eclipse LPs long after the event: Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, intensely dramatic; Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony, some attractive things if rather heavy-handed at times; and Bruckner’s ‘Romantic’ Symphony, given a potent outing, Furtwängler typically looking beyond the printed page, here an early edition (by Ferdinand Loewe, further tinkered with by Gutmann) which includes a cymbal clash early in the Finale and a Scherzo that fades into the Trio – forgive me, fellow-Brucknerians, but I love both of these features! Today, Bruckner enlightenment, and numerous editions later, does not allow for such liberties (Thielemann’s wonderful recent account with the present-day Vienna Phil, for example, http://www.colinscolumn.com/released-today-october-8-christian-thielemann-the-vienna-philharmonic-record-bruckners-fourth-symphony-for-sony-classical/), so Furtwängler’s traversal, intriguing on its own terms, is also a record of what passed as a Bruckner score back in the day before Haas, Nowak, and others, got their pens out. Eloquence 482 8537 (3 CDs).