BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1; Variations on a Theme by Haydn; Three Hungarian Dances – Vienna Phil. Orch./ Wilhelm Furtwangler – Pristine Audio

by | Jul 5, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68; Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a; Three Hungarian Dances: No. 1 in G Minor; No. 2 in D Minor; No. 10 in F Major – Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Wilhelm Furtwaengler – Pristine Audio PASC 340, 75:06 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
A March 1985 Gramophone review of this live 1952 Furtwaengler Brahms C Minor Symphony in Vienna (from EMI) called the performance “incomparable,” which, considering the plethora of Furtwaengler Brahms readings extant, becomes a hearty claim. Most striking, the tone of the VPO strings, horns, and winds sustains its warm purity throughout, and the sustained melodic line of the first movement finds a consistent buttress in the tympanic girding of the ur-rhythm. That Furtwaengler saw the C Minor Symphony of Brahms as a direct extension of the Beethoven Ninth has become common currency, so a solemn energy pervades the whole that contains both menace and spiritual consolation. The Andante sostenuto receives, indeed, a lyrical flow that receives dramatic import without undue heaviness, an organic nostalgia that sings in spite of whatever personal malaise sounds ominously prior to the appearance of the conciliatory first violin, whom I assume to be Willi Boskovsky.
R.O. in his 1985 review stated that “the reading is full of insights. Nothing is wasted, not even the Allegretto e grazioso third movement which Furtwaengler treats as a microcosm of the symphony. . .” The “microcosm” notion, a clear allusion to the Beethoven procedure operative in his own last movement of the Ninth, may or may not find a receptive ear in every auditor, but Furtwaengler certainly educes a visceral response to the third movement’s middle section, whose subsequent horn calls assume a more Wagnerian character than the otherwise bucolic sentiments usually warrant. A deliberate marcato slows down the energy of the movement, now rife with portent, as its coda prepares for the dire shadows of the fourth movement’s Adagio. After the pizzicato interlude, Furtwaengler builds a colossal wall of sound up to the tympani roll prior to and included within the Schwarzwald aura of the horn call and its string support answered by the flute.
The well-familiar hymnody proceeds with noble fervor, and its evolution, canonically or sequentially, gains impressively clear vigor and resolution. The power of Furtwaengler’s transition to the recapitulation proves as noteworthy as the tumultuous development, and uncanny moments of light, of startling inwardness, manage to escape from the often turbid ebb and flow of emotions. The extended coda will provide for Furtwaengler devotees opportunities to indulge in metaphysics, but the musical effect hurtles us forward with a transcendent resolve, the con brio richly textured in spite of any tragic muse.
The Haydn Variations from the same concert (27 January 1952) reveal the same attention to color detail as the C Minor Symphony. A stately Andante sets the tone of the St. Antoni Chorale, and the variants follow in solemn, vivacious, or gracious character, as required. Furtwaengler called the Vienna Philharmonic his “mistress,” as opposed to the “wifely” duties and ministrations of the Berlin Philharmonic, and a genial but vibrant resonance permeates each of the transformations, and the Brahms penchant for siciliani (No. VII) finds a responsive vehicle with these collaborators. The French horn in the con moto variation (III) suffers a cracked note, but the general level of intonation proves accurate, especially as restoration engineer Andrew Rose has adjusted to the tuning to standard pitch. Flute and low strings gather an immense cloud to themselves in the Andante con moto (IV). The next two variations dispel any ideas that a lugubrious tempo prevails, since Furtwaengler, too, can shake the ground when he desires. The peroration, as per expectation, projects the grand heroism we expect from Furtwaengler, and the audience well appreciates the moment.
Furtwaengler made studio recordings of a few, selected Hungarian Dances between March and April 1949. Whatever 78 rpm crackle that may have intruded has been vanquished, and the G Minor urges a vivacious and oceanic, if tragically hued, gypsy dance. The D Minor I believe is usually numbered at 6, and its polka-like opening breaks out in to a gypsy dance that reminds us at once of Liszt and Sarasate. Bruno Walter also gave the No. 10 (Presto) loving attention; Furtwaengler’s alternates between a pesant energy and a whimsical bravura that quite takes the breath away.
—Gary Lemco

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