BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1; Haydn Variations – North German Radio Sym., Hamburg/ Wilhelm Furtwaengler – Tahra

by | Mar 23, 2012 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op 68; Haydn Variations, Op. 56a – North German Radio Symphony, Hamburg/ Wilhelm Furtwaengler – Tahra Furt 2010 mono SACD, 69:01 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Tahra reissues its inscription (in SACD format) of Wilhelm Furtwaengler’s appearance (27 November 1951) with the recently-formed North German Radio Orchestra, the ensemble having been organized by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, who had invited Furtwaengler especially to lead an all Brahms concert. [Tahra has issued similar mono SACDs of historic recordings in the past: Beethoven Sym. No. 3;  Beethoven Sym. No. 9…Ed]
The program included the present works and the Double Concerto with soloists Roehn and Troester, unfortunately lost.  What has been preserved remains a truly incandescent reading of the two Brahms staples, enhanced by Schmidt-Isserstedt’s hand-picked string section and the often impassioned playing of timpanist Friedrich Weber. French critics bestowed on the original release the “Golden Diapason of the Century.”
The Haydn Variations, supposedly based on the so-called “St. Anthony Chorale” in B-flat Major, elicits from Furtwaengler lovingly rich phasing in the course of its ten-measure statement, and the first variation Andante con moto exploits silvery trumpet work. The influence of Beethoven exerts itself in Variation II, Piu vivace. The power of the Norddeutscher Rundfunk woodwinds and French horns injects a divertimento flavor to Variation III, marked Con moto but played with fluttery legato. The dark-hued Variation IV Andante receives a weighty reading over plucked low strings, menacing and vocally solemn. The Vivace Variation V moves with quicksilver grace and nervous accents, making a direct segue to the “hunting” Variation VI, explosive once more with Beethoven’s ubiquitous spirit. The Grazioso Variation VII offers the typical Brahms siciliano in a Baroque and Arcadian mood rife with especial nostalgia. The mumbling but briskly mercurial Presto non troppo Variation VIII brings to the five-bar statement of the “Chorale” a ground-bass chaconne form, a Finale: Andante rife for contrapuntal treatment according to the strictures of the Old School. Furtwaengler has imposed a serene humanism upon the entire progression, nobly austere but colorful and eventful at every turn; and the bright combination of tympani and triangle in the closing pages bestows a fine valediction on an elegant reading.
Even given the power of Furtwaengler’s 1952 inscription of the Brahms First Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic, this singular document with the Hamburg ensemble will resonate with critics and Brahms devotees for posterity. A wonderful flexibility of tempo permeates the opening Un poco sostenuto, dominated by a fervent tympani and agonized string work. From the outset we feel the pressure of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the ethos of this symphony’s working-out. Once the germ-motif of the Allegro establishes itself, Furtwaengler proves quite capable in adjusting its temper, both lyrically and dramatically. The ineluctable sway and fateful rhythmic thrust of the movement achieve a grim momentum, a remarkable transition of fluent energy to a preconceived end, the period capped with trumpet flourishes. The tension subsides beautifully, French horn and woodwinds limpid and strings almost static in their repose. The last kernel of the motto theme rises up to a layered peroration, only to snap into pizzicati and long-breathed sighs in C Major, a miracle of controlled transition.
Strength and intimacy mark the E Major Andante sostenuto second movement, with Furtwaengler’s underlining the vocalism of the strings and woodwinds. Despite the relatively tranquil mood of the movement’s three sections, Furtwaengler injects a deep song of tragic wisdom into its musical evolution, quite luxurious and sweeping. The violin solo conveys the influence of chamber music, likely Beethoven’s quartets, on this homage-driven symphony. The principal clarinet, flute, bassoon, and oboe color Furtwaengler’s 2/4 Allegretto movement in the midst of sparkling string work. The Trio exerts more than dance energies and becomes quite militant, rife with hues of the opening movement.
It might be appropriate, despite the fact that Brahms himself would quail at the thought, to characterize Furtwaengler’s approach to the last movement as “Brucknerian.”  The periodic structure of the movement, its persistent allusions to Beethoven notwithstanding, bear a gravity and harmonic tension that resemble Bruckner’s symphonic colossi. The hunting or Alpinehorn motif takes us to those same Harz Mountains that informed the Alto Rhapsody. The transparent treatment of the now-famous main theme leads to a virtuosic polyphony from the Hamburg orchestra, and the bright colors of the horns remain note-perfect. Oboe and low strings carry us to feverish heights, and Weber’s tympani reminds us of human mortality at every beat. The acceleration of the next period proves potent, virtually hallucinatory, exploding in another series of Alpine chorales over a frenzied tympani. The extended coda bears all the marks of the Furtwaengler sensibility: warm, tragic, exalted, “sweet though in sadness.” A performance for the ages, this document.
The transfer to SACD sounds extremely detailed and clear, though of course in mono.
—Gary Lemco

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