Praga gives us Classic Wilhelm Furtwängler performances within and slightly askew of his familiar repertory. 

Wilhelm Furtwängler: From Gluck to Ravel = GLUCK: Overture for Alceste; MOZART: Don Giovanni – Overture; CHERUBINI: Anakreon – Overture; SCHUBERT: Rosamunde: Entr’acte No. 3; BRAHMS: Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor; Hungarian Dance No. 3 in D minor; WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude, Act III: MAHLER: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; RAVEL: Rapsodie espagnole – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone/ Philharmonia Orchestra of London/ Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Wilhelm Furtwängler – Praga Digitals DSD/PRD 350 150, 78:03 (5/11/18) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:  

Praga revitalizes a series of recordings that conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) made between 1949-1954, here in repertory both familiar and somewhat just outside his traditional, chosen oeuvre. The real exceptions lie in the music of Ravel and Mahler: Furtwängler specialized in the music of Anton Bruckner rather than that of Mahler, but in the London-based recording of 25 June 1952, we find his imparting a deep sympathy for the Songs of a Wayfarer which provides the song-context for the composer’s 1889 First Symphony.  The paradoxical union of detached wisdom and ingenuous vulnerability defines both the music and the musician: in his last interview, Fischer-Dieskau speaks of Furtwängler as “a child” in his worldly philosophy.

Furtwängler opens (8 March 1954) with the Overture to Gluck’s 1767 opera Alceste, after the tragedy by Euripides.  The VPO strings project both a high gloss and a deep, low resonance, while the woodwinds intone with lustrous transparency. Hector Berlioz held a high regard for this score, as had Mozart. The excruciating expressivity of the chromatic line Furtwängler embraces fervently, driving the music forward without smearing the internal lines that provide a layered passion to the progression.  No les dark and harmonically stormy, the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni  (27 July 1953) bears a sullen gravitas that barely justifies the term “drama giocoso.”  The Overture to Cherubini’s 1803 Anakreon had been as much a concert favorite of Willem Mengelberg as to Furtwängler.  ˘Furtwängler (11 January 1951) realizes an explosive rendition, vibrant, elastic, and eminently transparent. The polyphony sings, especially given the luster of the VPO strings, winds, and brass.  The titanic energy—Mannheim could hardly claim better “rocket” figures—tends to align Cherubini more with Beethoven than with Mozart.

The 1884-85 set of Songs of a Wayfarer by Gustav Mahler pay sad tribute to his unhappy affair of the heart with Johanna Richter, a young pianist with whom he had been infatuated. The cycle had originally contained six songs, but Mahler reduced the number to four.  The mood much corresponds to the disillusionment Schubert expresses in his Winterreise, a compulsion to see death or oblivion even within the sudden, spasmodic appeals to Nature. The narrator’s wandering the fields in the second song proves to be a moment of self-deception, the “Schöne welt” a painful moment of wishful thinking. The third song comes as close as Mahler ever did in an operatic paroxysm of unbridled, jealous passion. In the last song, the narrator wanders in a romantic haze, biding his time without his beloved in a state of agonized realization of an eternity without her, forever pursued by her blue eyes.

The Entr’acte No. 3 from Schubert’s 1823 Rosamunde (2 February 1950) possesses the natural Viennese warmth, lingering on the phrase-endings and exploiting the bucolic vitality of the woodwinds. The lovely theme in B-flat Major later shifts into the tonic minor, based on a lied, Der Leidende (“The Sufferer”), of 1816. The simplicity of heart appeals to the Furtwängler ethos of the post-war years, and the sensibility proves haunting. Furtwängler recorded two of the Brahms 1869 Hungarian Dances (March 30 and 4 April 1949, respectively), and each enjoys lush and plastic realization, even becoming explosive in the D minor. The gorgeous string tone and color vitality of the G minor transcends its “merely” gypsy influences to emerge as something definitely “symphonic.”

Furtwängler’s tragic ethos plunges us into the dire fate of Wagner’s eponymous couple Tristan und Isolde (rec. 22 June 1952), its Prelude to Act III rife with doom as Tristan lies in a coma, only to awake and to recount what will be a fatal dream. The sense of desolation proceeds from the last four notes of the Act I Prelude, intensified by the Shepherd’s melody, plangent and obsessive, dropping down a fatal half-tone in the course of what becomes the lure of Death, a true anticipation of the Sibelius The Swan of Tuonela.

Finally, Furtwängler explores the 1907-08 symphonic suite Rapsodie espagnole of Maurice Ravel, which begins with another obsessive moment, the descending four-note pattern of the Prelude a la nuit. The ambiguity of the four beats against the sway of triple time seduces and mystifies us, at once. The Malaguena extends the sense of fatal mystery, a la Carmen, whose own allure comes forth in the next movement, Habanera. In the Malaguena, the castanets and percussion contrast to the English horn’s exotic summons to the original call of the Prelude.  The alternation of triple and duple meters suggests more of a dream than a direct quotation from any Spanish dance. The explosive colors of the Feria prove rhythmically and erotically beguiling, with castanets, muted horns, and the ever-present English horn. We may well think of Marlene Dietrich in her last collaboration with director Sternberg in The Devil is a Woman, the adaptation of Woman and Puppet by Louys. A mockery of the “eternal feminine,” the music extends a siren’s hand, and we realize too late that human voices wake us, and we drown.

–—Gary Lemco