Classical Reissue Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C Major; Symphony No. 2 in D Major; Leonore Ov. No. 3 in C Major – Berlin Philharmonic Orch. (Op. 21)/ Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Wilhelm Furtwangler – Pristine Audio

The restored Beethoven Second under Furtwaengler from London warrants our admiration and devotion, a most conscientious application of technology to musical history.

Published on November 4, 2012

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C Major; Symphony No. 2 in D Major; Leonore Ov. No. 3 in C Major – Berlin Philharmonic Orch. (Op. 21)/ Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Wilhelm Furtwangler – Pristine Audio

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21; Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36; Leonore Overture No. 3 in C Major, Op. 72b – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Op. 21)/ Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Wilhelm Furtwangler – Pristine Audio PASC 355, 72:20 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] **** :

When the 3 October 1949 performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 2 from Albert Hall, London, Wilhelm Furtwaengler conducting, appeared for the first time in 1979, music collectors hailed it for its historical completion of “The Nine” with Furtwaengler, a document that, despite its poor sound quality, enhanced our knowledge of this epic interpreter’s vision of the Beethoven symphonic oeuvre. Restoration engineer Andrew Rose has herein completed a meticulous upgrade of the original masters, utilizing his XR process, and presents us a virile studied rendition of the D Major Symphony, noted for its especially lovely second movement Larghetto which Berlioz much admired. Despite some of the lower frequency details having been lost, the interior rhythmic subtlety of the opening Adagio molto stands out, the pregnant dialogue of flute and strings, particularly. When the potency of the Beethoven personality does break forth to leave the niceties of the Haydn world behind, the explosions compel our awe at the emotional ferocity unleashed, and we might regret that Furtwaengler does not take the first movement repeat, the only such elision in his reading of this score. The ease of execution and tonal responsiveness of the VPO – Furtwaengler’s “mistress” – testify to the sheer virtuosity of this ensemble when urged by a convinced interpreter.

The songfulness of the Larghetto movement commands the price of admission, the emotional heart of the symphony and little indebted in its distribution of voices to models from Mozart or Haydn. A bit of Furtwaengler’s willful character emerges in his individual rubato, but his players interact well within his lyrico-dramatic parameters. Somewhat more mercurial in its changing moods than when interpreted by other conductors, the movement offers militant and sometimes exalted visions of an alternative world. The most mischievous of Beethoven’s Scherzos follows, acerbic even in its relative brevity. Furtwaengler balances a marcato approach with sudden onrushes of pent-up energy. The bassoon work in the Trio complements the big-hearted warmth in the VPO string line. The Allegro molto finale enjoys an unbuttoned momentum that lacks neither warmth nor power, and the upward rockets from the VPO strings provide a lesson in orchestral discipline in itself. Furtwaengler’s dionysiac coda plays with the meter and the drama but the result quite intoxicates our repeated auditions.

The commercial recording (18 October 1953) from EMI of the Leonore Overture No. 3 simply acknowledges the old Schnabel maxim that the best encore to Beethoven is more Beethoven. Grandly conceived and paced, the performance proves that the Overture replaces the spoken operatic drama  in absolute music and therefore becomes superfluous as an introduction. Eminently potent, the performance celebrates the woodwind choirs of the VPO at their resplendent best. Furtwaengler plays the overture as symphony in miniature, a testament to the composer’s passionate commitment to the idea of human political freedom. The famous trumpet calls over a string pedal, clear and resonant, emanate a thrilling grandeur of spirit, extending through the flute and bassoon into a new development that culminates in the colossal coda.

The Beethoven Symphony No. 1( 19 September 1954) derives from the last of Furtwaengler’s appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic before his death in November of 1954. This work seems consistently to have eluded Furtwaengler’s sympathy, insofar as he imposes upon it a weight – as he does in much Baroque and Classical composition – entirely over-wrought and more appropriate to Brahms or Wagner. Where Lorin Maazel in concert once made early Beethoven consonant with Rossini, Furtwaengler sees only the inevitable evolution in Beethoven’s volatile personality, the Promethean forces agitating below any placid surface. The latter figures in the Allegro con brio first movement hurtle forward like the Seventh. In spite of the tonal beauty of the BPO in the Andante cantabile, the massive aura plays like the equivalent movement in the Fourth. A richer and more resonant Menuetto you’d likely never hear, assuming you want the sforzati to adumbrate those in King Stephan. The last movement opens with the diaphanous texture requisite to the score, then the lure of the colossal proves too tempting, although the orchestral sheen remains dazzling. Furtwaengler loved and worshipped Beauty, but his vision could resemble that of Chirico, wherein the Herculean architecture of imposing marble appears to have consumed our sense of perspective.

—Gary Lemco




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