Forgotten Records has disinterred an LP with a history. When the Grieg was issued on Royale 1264 in 1952 it was listed as being played by Gerhard Stein with the Berlin Symphony, directed by Karl List. In fact it was Friedrich Wührer with the Vienna Philharmonic directed by Karl Böhm in 1944. This was rectified on its next release on Urania, where the real names replaced the pseudonyms. Why the false names? Partly because this was an Austrian radio recording, and not a studio recording – and Royale wanted to give the impression of a commercial undertaking. Possibly also because, by all accounts, Wührer was a bit of a bad egg and had been almost as enthusiastic a supporter of National Socialism – if that is possible - as his pianist confrère, Elly Ney. What seems not to be in doubt is that as later as 1952, when the Royale LP was released, he was refused teaching positions in East Germany because of his war record.
Naturally this is all interesting, biographically and politically. It’s also indicative of the subterfuge that was endemic in certain areas of the recording industry at the time and, indeed, for years to come. Wührer is an impressive pianist. I admire his Beethoven recordings, the cycle of concertos that he recorded, and those sonatas that have been preserved. His traversal of the last sonatas marries digital finesse with an intellectual clarity to produce readings that are eloquent without being romanticised. He was not a known exponent of the heroic repertoire and there were off-days. The very bright radio sound has a touch of ‘halo’ about it. It’s not enough to cover some far from note-perfect playing from a pianist who reveals frailty in both the opening chords and, more catastrophically, at the very end where there are fistfuls of wrong notes. In between things are better. The orchestral accompaniment is over-sugared with some very sleek string lines. Wührer’s natural austerity of expression has a directional power to it, not least in the first movement cadenza, after which some rather precious phrasing by the Vienna strings rather robs the music of nobility. The sentimentalised string playing in the slow movement contrasts powerfully with the pianist’s patrician reserve. In the finale the biting over-balanced trumpets spit fire but towards the final peroration the balance is unkind to the pianist - and perhaps the conductor is too. For stretches Wührer is swathed under the burnished colours of the Vienna Philharmonic; the pianist can just about be heard, usually in the treble. Maybe it’s that which led to his making a hash of the final chords.
The Scriabin F major Concerto was recorded with Hans Swarowsky, once again in Vienna, in 1954. The orchestra was the Pro Musica Orchestra, Vienna – in other words the hard-working Vienna Symphony. This is another recording in which tensions generate interesting results. This is objectified, almost romantically classicized Scriabin in which clarity trumps colour. It’s akin to performances of Debussy’s piano music by Daniel Ericourt and George Copeland, in contradistinction to those of Gieseking. Here Wührer plays the crystal-clear objectifier to the atmospheric drama exemplified by someone like Sofronitsky. Despite his reputation for elevated aloofness of expression there are times when, allied to his refined palette, the music does indeed generate a strange gravitational pull in his hands. It’s certainly unconventional but it is also diverting to hear.
I daresay these historical performances will enjoy only a relatively small hearing circle but I can certainly note that the transfers are, as so often from this source, exemplary in their fidelity. No notes.
Masterwork Index: Grieg piano concerto