LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA - The Centennial Set
WEBER: Oberon Overture (Nikisch, 1914). BERLIOZ: Le Roi Lear Overture (Harty, 1935).Benvenuto Cellini Overture and Act I, Trio (Davis, 1999). BEETHOVEN: Coriolan Overture (Walter, 1938). SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 6 (Krips, 1948). Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished" (Kertész, 1966). TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet Overture (Monteux, 1963). Symphony No. 5 in E minor (Solti, 1994). DVORAK: Symphony No. 6 (Kertész, 1966). STRAVINSKY: Petrushka (Solti, 1994). BERG: Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (Abbado, 1970). ELGAR: Cockaigne Overture (Previn, 1975). DEBUSSY: Jeux (Thomas, 1997).
ANDANTE AN4100 (4 CDS) TT: 76:06 / 64:19 / 79:16 / 77:23

"THE FASCINATION OF FURTWÄNGLER"
DGG RECORDINGS 1951-1954: HANDEL: Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 5. SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 (Andante). HAYDN: Symphony No. 88 (Largo). FURTWÄNGLER: Symphony No. 2 (Un poco moderato - Allegro). SCHUMANN: Symphony N o. 4 (Scherzo/Lengsam-Lebhaft). POLYDOR SHELLAC RECORDINGS 1926-1937: BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 (Allegro con brio). BACH: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. MOZART: Eine kleine Nachtmusik. SCHUBERT: Rosamunde: Ballet Music No. 2. MENDELSSOHN: Hebrides Overture (rehearsal extract & performance). WAGNER: Trauermarsch from Götterdämmerung. ROSSINI: La Gazza Ladra Overture. BRAHMS: Hungarian Dances Nos. 1 & 10. DVORÁK: Slavonic Dance, Op. 46 No. 3.
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond.
DGG 477 5238 (M) TT: 69:29 & 77:14
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To a greater degree (Andante’s 4-disc celebration of the London Symphony’s centennary in 2004) and a somewhat lesser one (DG’s 2-disc “Fascination of Furtwängler”), both of these releases are samplers – overall more coherent in the case of the LSO’s “official centennial set.” Three of its four discs are musically and interpretively fascinating for various reasons, although the final one is surely the most valuable, not only for the preservation of Claudio Abbado’s reading of Berg’s Three Pieces, Op. 6 (a DG recording from 1970, marvelously remastered), but for the best Debussy Jeux I’ve ever heard Michael Tilson Thomas conduct (1997 in London’s Barbican Center), and for the Berlioz Cellini Overture and first act trio in a blazing 1999 performance at the Barbican under Sir Colin Davis’ inspired, even spine-chilling direction. His singers may not be world-class artists despite the familiarity of tenor Giuseppe Sabbatini’s and soprano Elizabeth Futral’s names (baritone Laurent Naouri comes off best), but the Barbican acoustics have always been a problem. No matter; Sir Colin was fired up and the orchestra responded superbly. Nor, in the case of disc 4, should Previn’s Cockaigne Overture from the 1975 Salzburg Festival be overlooked: it is a Victorian beef roast succulently done.

Disc 1 is fascinating for different reasons, most importantly because it preserves a 1914 acoustic- horn performance of Weber’s Oberon Overture led by the legendary Artur Nikisch. The panache and poetry are more than historical, they are spot on. That Nikisch got such precision (the fiddles in the main body of the piece) and sonority from players huddled around him validates his primacy among conductors (he died in 1922, to be succeeded in dual posts at Berlin and Leipzig by Furtwängler). Sir Hamilton Harty’s Lear Overture of 1935 runs on a different wattage – almost stodgy in comparison, but he was a Berlioz champion along with Sir Thomas Beecham early on in the 20th century. Bruno Walter’s 1938 Coriolan Overture is musicianly but not in a league with the greatest on discs (that would be Reiner’s from Chicago in 1959), while Josef Krips’ Schubert Sixth is ebullient in a light-fingered style very much his own, briefly disfigured by a preposteriosly slow Trio in the “Presto” Scherzo that Schubert marked “Più lento” (Krips’ ignored the “più” which means “a little,” not a 20-mph zone). Otherwise it is acceptable Decca sound for 1948, with the harsh upper register of those early “ffrr” discs tamed in the remastering. At this point, one must switch from mono to stereo for a performance from the 1963 Vienna Festival of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture (final version), bracingly conducted by Pierre Monteux despite his 88 years, and smartly played indeed – an Austrian Radio tape originally issued stateside on Vanguard – but in truth nonessential. A posthumous valentine then for the orchestra’s conductor who, in 1961, had signed a contract as permanent director through 2000!

Disc 3 has the bulk of a BBC Prom concert from September 1966 – a coupling of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Dvorák’s Sixth, which the orchestra had recorded with Kertesz as part of the composer’s nine complete symphonies (still available in a 6-disc Decca “Legends” box). The exposition is not repeated in the first movement – you can hear it on disc – but otherwise this performance is a galvanizing, live-audience sib of the studio version. The Schubert, which Kertesz had recorded with the Vienna Phil, lacks the plush tone of Vienna’s strings but compensates with the virtuosity of LSO winds and horns. The non-essential disc, chosen no doubt for the caliber of playing and response to 81-year old Sir Georg Solti’s whipcrack conducting, is a concert tape from the Salzburg Festival of 1994. Although Solti had recorded the 1947 revision of Stravinsky’s Petrushka (to prolong its copyright) in Chicago this is the 1911 original, but read in a manner that suggests 1947. It is virtually humorless, but then there aren’t a plethora of 1911 versions to choose from, and the recording has been remastered excitingly. The Tchaik Fifth, however, had been recorded twice by Solti –both times in Chicago (1975 and 1987, pre- and post-digital in other words, but faster in ‘87). This Salzburg version of ‘94 features conventional tempi and typical Solti precision (except for a tiny horn “biff” in the slow movement) but it is not a reading that challenges Mravinsky, who remains my own benchmark along with a lot of other Tchaik 5 fanciers, which I happen not to be. Andante’s packaging and hard-cover program book, in four languages, is a model of what these should be – in some cases used to be – meaning a class-act, even if some of the contents are less than class-act readings.

The Furtwängler sampler is a commercial thing, with only two out of 14 “numbers” previously unpublished. One of these is a 1933 Polydor studio performance on disc 2 of “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” from Götterdämmerung that validates the inclusion of a lot else; it is the single greatest playing of this music I’ve ever heard, even if the recording 70 years ago could not capture the impact of timpani and low bass. Now, if that makes the first disc – a faux overture and “symphony” of excerpts from complete recordings – worth the price, then you are indeed a True Furtwänglerian.

Disc one begins, however, with a 1954 performance, just seven months before the conductor’s death, of Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D, Op. 6/5, mired in the quicksand of 19th-century “baroque practice.” Except for the second movement “Presto” which is a true marvel of precision and wit as well, and a not bad final “Allegro” except for a broadening at the end, the rest is sludge – overweight sound from the orchestra and interpretive quirks verging on somnolence. It ought never to have been issued in the second half of the 20th century. This is the faux overture (18minutes of it), followed by the first movement of Schubert’s “Great” C-major Ninth, whose slow-downs and hurry-ups have been controversial since its release in 1952. Next we hear the slow movement from Haydn’s Symphony 88 (in the dominant key of G via-a-vis Schubert, marked “Largo” and so conducted). Then we get a 16 minute “Scherzo” – “Un poco moderato–Allegro” – from the conductor’s own fustian Symphony No. 2 in E minor, recorded in 1951. But which movement it is, or when written, you won’t find in program notes that are maddeningly alphabetical. It has moments of interest but not coherence in a way the ear can follow without diagramming the content. After this we get another Scherzo, from Schumann’s Fourth Symphony plus the bridge into the finale played complete. That “Langsam” bridge is for me the greatest single interpretive inspiration in the Furtwängler canon I know – the hair stands up on the back of one’s neck and the tension can bring on a migraine. It is, in the vernacular of today’s (or yesterday’s) youth, Awesome! Everything lumped together, all the same, Disc 1 is Kitsch. One wants complete performances, not torsos, and no way ever that old-fashioned Handel.

Disc 2 begins with the first of 11 known WF recordings (including wartime broadcasts) of Beethoven’s Fifth, the opening movement of it recorded in 1926 and startlingly straightforward despite aged sound. I rather enjoyed a “big strings” version of Bach’s “Brandenburg” No. 3 from 1930 – it better survived what Handel could not 24 years later. Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik in a 1936-37 Polydor version is a tad weighty but inveigling all the same; likewise an excerpt from Schubert’s Rosamunde music, and a 1930 Hebrides Overture of Mendelssohn (with 3 minutes of rehearsal preceding it), although I prefer Furtwängler’s inspired postwar version for EMI with the Vienna Phil. Two Brahms Hungarian Dances (of the three he orchestrated) and a single Dvorák Slavonic Dance are professional without being specifically idiomatic, especially not the last-named. So, for whose purchase exactly did Universal/DG assemble this “specially priced limited-edition” sampler? For members of the thriving American Furtwängler Society? – except they probably have everything here except the Götterdämmerung breath-stopper (all the more fascinating, given that the Third Reich was born the same year Furtwängler recorded this “Funeral Music” performance).

A pun comes inescapably to mind by that master critic of American yesteryear, Irving Kolodin:
“ Ours is not to question why; ours is but to go and buy.” But who, if I may repeat myself?


R.D. (February 2005)