Classical Reissue Reviews
SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120; TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36 – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Tchaikovsky)/Wilhelm Furtwaengler – Opus Kura
Published on June 2, 2010
SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120; TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36 – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Tchaikovsky)/Wilhelm Furtwaengler
Opus Kura OPK 7053, 75:15 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
Opus Kura pairs two of the most enduring commercial recordings made by Wilhelm Furtwaengler (1886-1954). The 1953 Schumann Fourth, inscribed by DGG, presents a monolithic conception that permits little compromise by way of rhythmic or linear deviation. The affect becomes distinctly “Baroque,” if we take that term to mean exerting a singularity–even an obsessive mania–of tone and sensibility. Structurally, the whole symphony builds itself from kernels set forth in the opening movement, a tendency even more pronounced in the Cello Concerto. It seems evident to me that this particular conception of the score colored Leonard Bernstein’s own reading with the New York Philharmonic for CBS. The work is meant to be played in one continuous flow and flux; and while the DGG LP inscription did not heed the Attacca after the Lebhaft to the Romanze, the Opus Kura engineers have reduced the pause (using a French Gramophone 10’’ LP source) between the movements. In my recollection of the older traversals of this score, only Monteux (on LM 1714) obeyed Schumann’s instructions implicitly.
There are several qualities to celebrate in Furtwaengler’s Schumann D Minor Symphony, not the least of which is the scale of the conception, which clearly aligns Schumann to the (cyclic) ambitions of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The arched power of the phraseology exerts itself in the relation between strings and French horn, and the visceral mounting of stretti, especially in the latter part of the first movement and in the entire final movement. The emergence of the sad string line (and Furtwaengler takes the repeat) in the first movement’s espessivo theme becomes a tragic song in the midst of enraged Furies. The transitions–so vital to any Furtwaengler experience–become frenzied mountains of sound, only to burst forth in guarded exaltation at the respective codas. The Romanze proceeds in a hallucinatory mode, a fantasia between oboe, solo violin, the woodwind choir, and the strings. The Beethoven fist shows itself in the Scherzo, a pummeling experience under Furtwaengler whose lyricism appears almost as an afterthought. The colossal tension insinuate themselves at the second appearance of the Trio and graduate to an Apocalyptic invocation of the last movement’s heroic lightning bolts. In my opinion, Furtwaengler’s cosmic scale in this through-composed work no less influenced Guido Cantelli, who was not one to be zealously doctrinaire in his devotion to the Mediterranean ethos.
The 1951 Tchaikovsky Fourth (taken from the HMV 12 LP) maintains a special place in the Furtwaengler catalogue, representing as it does a thoroughly Apollinian vision of this otherwise pounding and even emotionally stolid composition. The adapted ethos entirely opposes the rhetorical strategies of the Schumann Fourth: the gesture, the flexion, moves inward, seeking transcendence and spiritual clarity through the often violent perversities of tragic Fate. In terms of orchestral response, the Vienna Philharmonic indeed proves itself Furwaengler’s coy and artful mistress in every nuanced phrase and pliant expression of Tchaikovsky’s lyric gifts. It might be relevant that Bruno Walter, too, attempted to downplay the histrionics of this same composer’s Fifth Symphony, when Walter performed it with the NBC Symphony.
The tonal qualities of the VPO flute, French horn, and cello section in the opening movement–aided by bassoon and basses–simply beguile us with a valedictory ballet that soon echoes the palpitations and torments of the human heart. The passions of a soul in crisis have seldom found such an ardent implosive interpreter. The slight but palpable ritard of the tempo in the Andantino movement adds a unique pathos that cannot be imitated without stylistic mannerism. The “canzona” element assumes a schwung that combines sincerity and theatricality. Striking sonics attune us to the mysteries of the Pizzicato ostinato, a plucked round dance with mortality. Furtwaengler’s last movement concedes to the Russian’s capacity for self-indulgent grandeur, but Furtwaengler relinquishes his own grip grudgingly, always retaining a fervent nobility of line. Heartily, mightily recommended and a clear addition to the Best of the Year candidates.