Both of these recordings,
originally made by HMV, are justly famous.
They have been in and out of the catalogue
(more often "in" than "out")
since their first releases. Now, in
new transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn, they
reach possibly their widest potential
audience thanks to Naxos.
I’m not aware that
the two recordings have previously appeared
coupled together and in his useful notes
Ian Julier discusses the links between
the two composers represented on this
CD and the extent to which Wagner influenced
Tchaikovsky. He concludes that "rarely
has there been such a blatant passing
of potentially mutually sympathetic
composers by each other as ships in
the night." This is a provocative
judgment, but an interesting one, which
is given added spice since Furtwängler
was such a noted exponent of Wagner.
The present recording is, so far as
I know, his only studio traversal of
a Tchaikovsky symphony.
It is a very impressive
and deeply considered reading. The long
adagio introduction to the first movement
is stoic and resigned in his hands.
When the main allegro arrives (10’21")
the basic tempo is fairly steady, the
music well articulated. Of course, as
was ever the case with this conductor,
there are numerous small modifications
of pace within the basic tempo, some
marked in the score, others not. However,
he was a master of such changes and
of transitions so the whole is completely
convincing. The entire movement is an
exhibition of great conducting to which
the BPO respond ardently.
I’m less happy with
the second movement. To my ears the
basic tempo is sluggish and heavy. There’s
little evidence of charm (the tempo
marking is Allegro con grazia but
here the music has too little grace,
I find). The trio is downright lugubrious.
This movement should remind the listener
that Tchaikovsky was a great ballet
composer but that effect is not achieved
The March is free of
such idiosyncrasy. However, it is in
the finale that Furtwängler is
heard at his greatest. This is a reading
of gaunt sadness. Throughout the movement
the conductor ensures that his players
sustain a tremendous intensity. As the
searing conclusion arrives there is
a sense of loss and ineffable grief
but all is done nobly, without hysteria.
This is, in short, one of the most searching
accounts of this finale that I know.
Ian Julier points out that at the time
the recording took place both the general
situation in Germany and Furtwängler’s
personal position were fast deteriorating.
We can never know the extent to which
external events influence art but it
would not be surprising if Furtwängler’s
approach to this symphony at this time
was influenced by what was going on
Earlier that same year
he had set down equally penetrating
accounts of the Tristan Prelude
and Liebestod. These are incandescent
readings and hearing them makes one
feel that this is music that Furtwängler
was born to conduct. In the Prelude
he unfolds Wagner’s music of erotic
longing seamlessly and inevitably. The
Liebestod is no less successful. The
music is built passionately yet patiently;
while one is listening to Furtwängler’s
interpretation one simply cannot imagine
the music sounding any other way.
The transfers on this
Naxos CD seem to me to be very successful.
There’s a bit more surface hiss on the
Wagner items but nothing to detract
from enjoyment. As for the Tchaikovsky,
the recording sounds quite remarkable
for one cut 65 years ago. There’s a
great deal of detail reported (more
so than in the Wagner) and very little
distortion at climaxes. All told, Mark
Obert-Thorn has done a remarkable job.
But it’s the performances
that matter most. The Wagner is truly
splendid. The Tchaikovsky may not convince
all listeners (as I’ve indicated, I
don’t much care for the treatment of
the second movement.) However, the music
making is never less than inspired and
inspiring. The contents of this CD should
be mandatory listening for all who relish
the art of conducting.
see also reviews
of Christopher Howell and Jonathan Woolf