Wilhelm Turtwangler: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca: Richard Osborne Grapples with the Complicated Recorded Legacy of the Great Conductor

By Osborne, Richard | Gramophone, December 2019 | Go to article overview

Wilhelm Turtwangler: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca: Richard Osborne Grapples with the Complicated Recorded Legacy of the Great Conductor


Osborne, Richard, Gramophone


Furtwangler's recorded legacy has long been a minefield for the uninitiated, and has become more so as company executives who 'knew the field' either retire or die. The glue that holds the inheritance together is the work of the Furtwangler Society's discographer extraordinary John Hunt. The seventh edition of his The Furtwangler Sound came out in 2015, though to judge by lapses of annotation in this newest anthology, that's not yet reached Berlin.

It would be splitting hairs to query the word 'complete' in the set's title, since it's only a single 1926 recording that's missing. (Weber's Freischiitz Overture, available on Naxos and elsewhere.) What the title doesn't explain is that, of the 34 CDs, 13 are wartime radio recordings--often of exceptional quality, though next to nothing to do with Deutsche Grammophon--along with 11 CDs taken from postwar radio recordings to which DG had early publishing rights.

That leaves just 10 discs which relate to actual DG or Decca releases. These include the sacred trinity of post-war DG studio recordings--Haydn's Symphony No 88, Schubert's Ninth and Schumann's Fourth--alongside Furtwangler's 1951 Berlin account of his own Second Symphony, a studio recording that served well enough until Orfeo released his live 1953 Vienna performance. As to the three-disc Decca contribution, this is as small as it's problematic.

The first three CDs are given over to recordings made between 1929 and 1937 by DG's predecessor company Polydor. Here the technical and musical qualities veer between the insupportable (brutally Germanic Rossini) and the entirely wonderful (a 1929 Till Eulenspiegel and a 1937 account of the Fledermaus Overture that would have made even Carlos Kleiber gaze).

Furtwangler's 1926 recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, made with Polydor's fallible 'beam of light' process, is included as a 'bonus' disc. The performance is striking, but with double basses and drum often inaudible in pianissimo it's no match for Furtwangler's peerless 1937 HMV studio version.

By 1942 German radio was recording onto 30ips [inch per second] iron-oxide tape. Hence the generally excellent piano sound on Furtwangler's 1942 recording of the Schumann Piano Concerto with Walter Gieseking as soloist. We probably think of Gieseking as a bit of a cool customer but with Furtwangler driving the performance, he emerges as a pianist of power and expressive range. (Claudio Arrau said that playing the Schumann with Furtwangler was pure heaven.) Equally, no musician has breathed more life into Schumann's late Cello Concerto as Furtwangler does with Tibor de Machula, the 30-year-old Hungarian-born cellist whom he had invited to become Principal Cello of the Berlin Philharmonic six years earlier.

As you might expect, Bruckner is well done by, beginning with a speedy, no-holds-barred 1942 Bruckner Fifth: a marvellous act of narrative retelling, caught in good quality sound. Also included are the two famous, audience-free radio recordings of Bruckner's Eighth and Ninth symphonies made with the Vienna Philharmonic in the autumn of 1944 (though not the equally revered 1944 Beethoven Eroica from that same series). The post-war Bruckner recordings include a notable Berlin Philharmonic Bruckner Seventh. Less agreeable are two Vienna Philharmonic concert performances of the Fourth Symphony in the cut and partly re-orchestrated Loewe/Schalk edition to which Furtwangler was addicted. The first was recorded by DG in Stuttgart in October 1951, the second recorded by Decca a week later in Munich.

Such 'completeness' can be a curse. And there's more, since the set includes two versions of the conceptually superb June 1943 Beethoven Fourth: one live with an audience, the other (much to be preferred) without. That said, both accounts of the Fifth Symphony are worth anthologizing: ablaze in 1943, a touch more dogmatic on the occasion of Furtwangler's return to Berlin in 1947, where the finale sounds as if it's been conceived as the ceremonial trampling underfoot of the lately vanquished regime. …

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