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Pristine Classical

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806) [44:31]
Große Fuge, Op. 133 (1825) arr. string orchestra [18:38]
Wolfgang Schneiderhan (violin),
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. live, 18 May 1953 (Op. 61); 10 February 1952 (Op. 133), Titania Palast, Berlin, Germany.
Ambient Stereo

This pair of Beethoven works is from Pristine who specialise in the restoration and re-mastering of historic recordings. Restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has carried out the XR re-mastering and refers to the Violin Concerto as “among the most elusive of the conductor’s performances on CD”. For those interested in such technical things these recordings have been transferred from 1970s monaural Heliodor LP pressings. The Violin Concerto was first issued on Deutsche Grammophon LPM 18855 and the Große Fuge on LPM 18859.
Both were recorded in Berlin in the years in the decade after the end of the Second World War, The Berlin born maestro left an audio legacy, predominantly from live performances, that is cherished by devotees everywhere and in recent years is being disseminated to a much larger audience. He is inextricably linked with the Berlin Philharmonic owing to a long association that dates back to 1917. Succeeding Arthur Nikisch, Furtwängler became the principal conductor in 1922 at the age of 36 until his death in 1954. That tenure was interrupted between 1945 and 1947. Blacklisted by the Nazis and fearing arrest Furtwängler had fled to Switzerland a few months before the end of the war. After the end of hostilities in Europe there was the extremely short lived tenure of Russian Leo Borchard who was shot by mistake during confusion at a Berlin check-point. Next came the Romanian Sergiu Celibidache who in effect became an interim; keeping the seat warm until Furtwängler was allowed to resume the reins. After the ordeals of his successful de-Nazification in December 1946 Furtwängler was cleared to return. Extremely popular with the majority of the players he began conducting concerts in May 1947 returning officially as the orchestra’s principal in 1950.
The Berlin Philharmonic has a great tradition of performing Beethoven’s music - it runs like lifeblood through its veins. They made a large number of recordings over the years especially under Karajan. According to Vogt’s list in Annemarie Kleinert’s book ‘Music at its Best: The Berlin Philharmonicpublished by Books on Demand (2009), Beethoven’s music accounts for nearly ten percent of all concerts between 1945 and 2000.
Beethoven had to rush to complete his Violin Concerto in time for its premiere given by soloist Franz Clement in 1806 Vienna. It has become one of the best loved violin concertos. Furtwängler was clearly fond of it as he recorded it on five occasions, three of which were with the Berlin Philharmonic as given in the concert discography in John Hunt’s book ‘The Furtwängler Sound’ 6th edition (1999).On Pristine PASC 271 there is a live recording given by orchestra leader Erich Röhn on Wednesday 12 January 1944. It was the last concert he would conduct at the Alte Philharmonie, Berlin; just seventeen days later the hall was destroyed in a six hour Allied bombing raid. There is also a live recording from 30 September 1947 of Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic with Yehudi Menuhin. He then thirty-one.
In the case of the present CD the sweet singing tone of Vienna-born soloist Wolfgang Schneiderhan is appealing and clear as a bell. Less attractive is the rather dry and congested orchestral sound. This becomes most noticeable in the forte passages. There’s clean, decisive playing from Schneiderhan who evinces considerable concentration and appealing intonation. The lyrical Larghetto is played with real tenderness and an undertow of reflection. This is followed by the Rondo-Finale, here so vibrant and joyous. 

Beethoven’s Große Fuge was originally written in 1825 as the finale to the Quartet in B flat major, Op 130. In 1827 he had the Große Fuge published separately as his Op. 133. Furtwängler is here heard performing a version arranged for string orchestra. There are a number of arrangements and we are not told which version he is using. I know that Furtwängler prepared his own and one might assume that is the one he is playing. Although the Große Fuge was written as long ago as 1825 the music still has a near contemporary feel. From my experience with its sense of unremitting introspection the writing can present some thorny listening challenges. Furtwängler’s Berlin strings, playing with imposing intensity, reveal a dark and often unsettling side. The players adeptly overcome the considerable technical difficulties that push the score’s unconventional rhythms and dense harmonies to the limit. Although listenable it comes as no surprise that the sixty year old sound is somewhat arid and congested.
Both Beethoven works were recorded live at the Titania Palast, a Berlin cinema. The reason for the choice of a cinema in which to hold their concerts is an interesting one. After the home of the BPO the Alte Philharmonie on Bernburger Straße was destroyed the orchestra was forced to use a variety of temporary venues. Miraculously the Titania Palast cinema in another part of Berlin remained relatively unscathed throughout the Allied bombing and later through the Russian ground bombardment, and became their principal concert hall for number of years. On a visit to Berlin in September 2012 I noticed that the Titania Palast was still there; now serving as a multiplex cinema.

Pristine Audio has done splendid work with these Beethoven transfers which should prove vital listening for Furtwängler admirers. The ear soon adjusts to a sound that does not distract too much. This issue captures the essence of those live performances.  

Michael Cookson 

Masterwork Index: Beethoven Violin Concerto
Further Reading 
Music at its Best: The Berlin Philharmonic, from Karajan to Rattle’
by Annemarie Kleinert
Published by Books on Demand (2009)
ISBN: 978-3-83706-361-5
Annemarie Vogt’s list of most played composers, pg.154 
‘The Furtwängler Sound’ 6th edition
discography with concert register
compiled by John Hunt
Published John Hunt (1999)
ISBN: 978-1-901395-97-6.