Symphony Number Nine
In C Major
The Berlin Philharmonic
Review by Ray Chowkwanyun
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CD Numbers: DG 447 439-2 and Tahra FURT 1017
When classical music buffs gather to discuss Schubert's Great C Major symphony, one name floats to the top of the list: Wilhelm Furtwängler. His 1951 studio recording for Deutsche Grammophon has been released on that label as part of its Legendary Recordings series. Record company hype aside, this really is one of the greats from their archives and fully deserves the legendary moniker. All that made Furtwängler famous is here: incredible crescendos culminating in fortissimos of unbelievably crushing weight, fluid tempos that make of each performance a living thing. From the first note we are in the master's grip. And yet, and yet, something is missing. Even the most rabid fans of the great German composer conductor will admit that he was ill at ease in the studio. Live performance was his natural habitat.
Luckily Tahra has released a live recording from a 1953 concert and we can immediately hear what that missing something is. By comparison, the studio recording, wonderful as it is, is a bit remote, studied and stiff. From the very first note the live performance has more intensity and emotion. The phrasing is more nuanced, more deeply felt. At the same time it is more relaxed because the tempos are more fluid yet. The music breathes in a way that it does not in the studio. There was something in the makeup of the man that required the presence of a live audience. The thirty minutes before a Furtwängler concert were famous for the tension that would build and build in the concert hall before he even set foot on the podium. He needed that electricity from the audience to complete his psychic circuit.
Furtwängler was criticized for playing the same pieces over and over (more than 500 performances of the Brahms Symphonies alone). But what pieces they are! Who can blame him for concentrating on the core curriculum of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner? This is the heart and soul of the symphonic literature. And what performances! The mere fact that he played the same pieces over and over shouldn't lead to the easy conclusion that he was cranking out the same performance over and over. Far from it: no two were exactly alike. Each one was an individual journey of exploration. For Furtwängler, these symphonies were deep ponds into which he delved his whole life long, always seeking to plumb their deepest depths. (Having compared and contrasted the studio and live recordings, I will confine my further comments to the live version rather indulge in a tedious backing and
forth'ing between the two.)
The Great C Major Symphony begins with a clarion call from the horns. I love German brass. It has a rotund quality one just doesn't get from any other nation. Schubert's vision is a miracle of completeness considering he never got to hear the piece performed. No chances for fine-tuning or tweaking yet this symphony feels above all so finished. Not a superfluous note anywhere.
The first movement has great nobility. It is in fact perfectly suited to this conductor's temperament. After some initial lolling about Furtwängler picks up the pace. This is a trademark of his to start out slow, build up tension and then unleash the orchestra at just the right moment. He illuminates all the competing lines in the music without ever becoming pedantic or fussy. Furtwängler takes us on a great journey before finishing with a final triumphant flourish.
The second movement demonstrates why Furtwängler is a master of his art. Other conductors may be able to show you a good time in the faster outer movements, but Furtwängler owned the slow movements. He would stretch them out like so much taffy. There are several moments of absolute silence over which he lingers longingly. Under a lesser composer such treatment would lead inevitably to collapse but he is able somehow to hold it together and along the way squeezes out every last drop of emotion from the score.
After all the heaviness of the first two movements, the third offers rollicking relief in dance time. In mood it is allied to the last movement of Beethoven's Pastoral but where Beethoven's is a peasant celebration here it is their masters who kick up their heels. Even when this symphony cuts loose, it never forgets its aristocratic pedigree.
The final movement is martial through and through. It is dangerous to anthropomorphize absolute music, but there is a jaunty phrase that makes its appearance round about the 90-second mark that brings the vision of galloping horses irresistibly to mind. And when the trumpets blare, you can almost see the cavalry charge. Furtwängler takes this chance to interject some trademark booms with the kettledrums. He was a fiend for the tympani, frequently doubling them up to achieve the cannon like effect that he was after. Here he uses them to slam home the finale.
Bit nervous about the sound quality of a fifty-year-old recording? Don't be. OK, the bass is not subterranean, but then DG bass never was. Those old guys knew a thing or two about how to record in mono by this stage of the game. The Tahra is, if anything, even more stunning. The dynamic range is far superior to the DG, which in Furtwängler is a commodity to be valued. Prepare to be blasted out of your seats.