Furtwängler conducts Romantic Poems and Viennese Dances = Orchestral works by LISZT; WAGNER; BRAHMS; SMETANA; TCHAIKOVSKY; STRAUSS – Vienna Phil. Orch./ Berlin Phil. Orch. / Wilhelm Furtwängler – Praga Digitals 

Praga Digitals restores in stunning sound Wilhelm Furtwängler’s explorations into tone-poems and orchestral works that gain his sense of Romantic ardor.

Furtwängler conducts Romantic Poems and Viennese Dances = LISZT: Les Preludes; WAGNER: Siegfried Idyll; BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a; SMETANA: The Moldau; TCHAIKOVSKY: Waltz and Finale from Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48; STRAUSS: Pizzicato-Polka – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Brahms)/ Wilhelm Furtwängler – Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 350 148, 79:46 (1/26/18) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:   

Recorded 1949-1954, these symphonic poems and “incidental” pieces reflect no less of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler’s commitment to the Romantic sensibility, here for the most part featuring his work with his “mistress,” the Vienna Philharmonic.  Liszt’s 1848 Les Preludes, after Lamartine, fell into disrepute as having become Hitler’s favorite piece of music. Despite any political association—through no fault of the composer—the work conveys a through-composed motif that soon reaches heroically martial proportions, courtesy of trumpet and tympani. The storm eventually subsides into a bucolic and idyllic repose, harp, strings, and French horn inviting the violin and selected woodwinds into the glade.  The last section builds up to its potent, assertive, former glory, ripe with sturdy consolations, even from snare drum and cymbals. While the Ferenc Fricsay realization maintains its power over my imagination, Furtwängler’s rendition (4 March 1954) exerts a willful panorama of personal, spiritual victory.

Wagner’s A Siegfried Idyll (16-17 February 1949), the earliest of these recordings, captures in loving tones the (originally) 1870 work Wagner presented to his wife Cosima as a birthday offering. In 1877, the work appeared as a publication, having replaced “A Tribschen Idyll” with the name “Siegfried.”  Brunnhilde’s Act III song from Siegfried dominates the opening “steps-music” with the instrumental version of the words Ewig war ich, to be followed by a tender lullaby introduced by the oboe.  In the late pages, strings and French horn invoke every nuance of the German woods. Furtwangler’s natural affinity for Wagner’s music has each of the successive melodic periods flow into each other in an aura of beguiling rapture. Along with the New York Philharmonic commercial recording by Bruno Walter, this performance remains among my favorites.

The Brahms 1873 Haydn Variations (20 June 1950) proffers this disc’s only collaboration with the “wife,” the Berlin Philharmonic. Modern scholarship attributes the so-called St. Antoni theme for wind band to an ancient Burgenland pilgrim’s chant. Brahms creates eight variants from opening statement, which bears a close resemblance to the Haydn style. The first and third present a pastoral sensibility. The even-numbered variations, two and four and eight, move into the minor mode, two of them meditative, and the eighth a scherzo. The number 7, Grazioso, presents a siciliano that Beecham found enchanting. The finale evolves from a five-bar treatment of the tune meant to serve as passacaglia, a rehearsal for the Fourth Symphony finale.  Furtwängler applies a broad brush to the minor key variants, infusing the score with a solemn grandeur.

Smetana’s 1877 The Moldau, the second of the cycle Ma Vlast, is set as a rondo with eight intertwined, organically flowing sections, culminating as the river passes The High Castle and its legacy of national triumph. Furtwängler (rec. 25 January 1951) has any number of potent rivals in this gorgeous evocation of the Czech river, not the least of which come from Vaclav Talich and Ferenc Fricsay. The sheer (tragic) warmth of the VPO strings and the opening pair of flutes immediately captures our interest, not to mention the allure of the moonlit, night-music scene in woodwind, brass, and string Technicolor before the cascades hurl us toward Prague, resonant with all splendor the VPO brass and battery can supply.

I have always lamented the fact that Furtwängler never gave us a complete Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings, having bestowed to us two movements, The Waltz and the Theme-Russe Finale (rec. 2 February 1950). The Waltz, in particular, squeezes every ounce of subjective ardor the music contains, despite any affinity the work has with a Mozart ideal. Since the Finale exploits themes from the first movement, it would have been instructive, to say the least, to hear Furtwängler’s conception of the “chorale” aspect of that music prior to its becoming an evocation of rushing balalaikas in the rousing finish. Still his beginning, layered lines of the Finale bear that tragic dignity emblematic of the conductor’s late recordings, beautifully shaped.

Lastly, we have music by two Strauss brothers, Johann II and Josef, in the 1860 Pizzicato Polka (rec. 2 February 1950). Once more, the VPO strings (and triangle) exhibit their incisive resonance and capacity for light-hearted wit that makes us recall with what suavity they and Furtwängler also gave us the Strauss Emperor Waltz.

—Gary Lemco

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