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Johannes Brahms
Symphony Number 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
Wilhelm Furtwängler
North German Radio Orchestra 
Berlin Philharmonic

Review by Ray Chowkwanyun
Click here to e-mail reviewer

Brahms Sym. Number 1 in C Minor, Op. 68

CD Stock: Music & Arts 4951

 

  Play word association with a Furtwängler fan and you will find that "Hamburg 1951" brings forth the instant response, "Brahms First". For it was in that city and year that the great conductor-composer led the North German Radio Orchestra in a Brahms First for the ages. The Orchestra was made up of crack players, assembled after WW II. He never conducted them again (they considered his fee too high!).

Furtwängler brings out and emphasizes the tragic aspect of the Brahms in an interpretation that begins with a Furtwängler trademark: thunderous tympani that don't just sound thunderous but are the very sound of thunder itself. For a change of pace the tympani at the 3.5-minute mark goes off like a cannon shot. This is followed by another Furtwängler trademark: sweeping strings. The players are impassioned and there is urgency to their playing. It was said that he could invoke this sound with a single glance at the string section. They really dig in; especially the bass section to produce the famed Furtwängler long legato line. At other times, there are jagged rhythms as wild as any in the Rite of Spring. The conductor does let a bit of sunlight peek in with the woodwinds, but soon it's back to the tragic stuff in ladlefuls. 

The second movement provides welcome respite from the intensity of the first, although it too is deeply tragic in mood, but in a much kinder, gentler vein. The music comes in great sheets with the strings at their most plaintive echoed by the horns and woodwinds in the background. Furtwängler's shaping of the tempos makes of the score a living breathing thing. At times the music surges while at others he slows down to let the music flower as at the 5 minute mark. 

The third movement continues the sunny outlook with a hopeful theme in the strings and a warm response in the woodwinds and brass. The mood turns triumphant around the 1.75 minute mark with bright calls from the brass that become increasingly urgent before relaxing again to close on a quiet note. 

Like so many Furtwängler interpretations, the last movement starts out gently enough. This is just to lull you into a false sense of security. For in this 17 minute movement he is building to a shattering climax at the 12 minute mark. We hear plucked strings before a pregnant pause that is punctuated by hammerblows on the tympani. This cycle of tension and relaxation is repeated until a glowing horn call with answering woodwinds. At the 5 minute mark a majestic theme appears in the strings before being taken up by the whole orchestra. From this point on, the music grows more and more agitated as Furtwängler ratchets up the tension. The fortissimos get louder and louder until the tympanis slam home the climax. There is an ebb before he gathers his forces for the finale. It begins with an awesome low rumbling in the basses and ends with the orchestra in full flight.

It is a commonplace after listening to one of Furtwängler's great performances to feel that the piece just couldn't be played any other way. Yet there is better. Who could beat arguably the greatest conductor of the last century? Why the great man himself. Unfortunately, there remains but a fragment of that Brahms First with the Berlin Philharmonic. You only get the very last movement and to get it, you have to buy the entire Brahms Symphony cycle on Music & Arts, but it would be worth it just to get this one fragment because it is quite possibly the most terrifying recording ever made.

Now the Hamburg 1951 is no slouch in the gripping and terrifying department, but it doesn't hold a candle to this, Furtwängler's last performance in wartime Germany. From the first, the phrases are held longer and go deeper than in Hamburg. The bass notes are guaranteed to make your subs rumble with an ominousness that signals the end of days for that hated regime. He lingers, nay he clings to the notes as if for dear life amidst the madness around him. When the majestic theme appears at the 5.5 minute mark it has a greater nobility than we are to hear in the later performance from Hamburg. From that point on, Furtwängler displays awesome single-mindedness of purpose. It is a performance stripped of all superfluities as he pursues but one aim: the great finale. The words "white hot" don't even come close to describing the searing emotional intensity of these final minutes. There is an utter desperation at the 12 minute mark that cannot fail to raise the goosebumps. As for the last two minutes: fasten your seatbelts. It is the Twilight of the Gods personified. 

That Furtwängler's wartime performances have a special quality there can be no doubt. It is pure speculation on my part to attribute this to the heightened sensibility and quickened pulse that come with the stresses of living under wartime conditions when every moment could be your last. Yet even amongst these special performances this last movement of the Brahms First stands out.

The sound is clear, but thin. Audience noises are minimal. Oh yeah, it's in glorious mono if that makes a difference.

Department of Utter Confusion

Of all the CD editions of the Hamburg 1951 performance, the Tahra is known for having the best sound (more dynamics and warmth than the Music and Arts). Unfortunately, the Tahra appears to be deleted. I include its serial number here (FURT 1001) in case you happen across it in a used bin. Better yet is the Societe Wilhelm Furtwängler LP (SWF 8201) which is more dynamic yet but that is even harder to come by than the Tahra. 

Music and Arts also complicates the picture by having previously issued the Brahms Zyklus under a different edition, but with the same serial number. The good folks at Music & Arts tell me that the new edition was entirely re-mastered but the Brahms First sounds the same to me in both editions. You can tell the difference between the two editions by their covers. The old edition features the good doctor himself while the new edition has a picture of some tree roots. Also, the older edition has Aeschbacher as soloist in the Second Concerto whereas the new edition has Fischer. (Finally, as of this writing, the Amazon website claims incorrectly that the First Symphony is performed by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.)

 

 

Enjoyment: 95

Sound Quality: 85

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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