Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 / Furtwangler, Wiener Philharmoniker
Beethoven’s Choral was such a central part of Furtwängler’s repertoire that it is unsurprising that so many recordings exist of his live performances. The best known is that which re-opened the Bayreuth Opera House in 1951, but many versions from 1937 to 1954 are or have been available. The present performance was one of four given in May 1953, making up for an intended series in January of that year. This had to be abandoned after the conductor fainted during the slow movement at the first of the intended concerts. According to Michael Tanner’s interesting notes the only previous issue of this recording was in Japan.
I have heard only a few of the other versions of the Choral by this conductor so that I can make no helpful comparisons between them. This is however typical of those I do know in the extraordinary narrative structure that Furtwängler projects, from the protoplasmic opening to the almost insane energy of the last few bars. When I am actually listening to other classic versions by such diverse conductors as Toscanini, Klemperer and Walter, to say nothing of more recent historically informed performances, I find such a narrative simplistic and unrelated to the structure of the music. When listening instead to any of Furtwängler’s versions I am, for the moment at least, utterly convinced by it.
In the present recording the first movement is slow even by this conductor’s standards, but his flexibility of tempo to match the ever-changing character of the music prevents it becoming ponderous. The final movement has some particularly convincing soloists in this impossibly difficult music. Given their ridiculously close balance this is a good thing. The choir is also very good, but the main plaudits should go to the Vienna Philharmonic who manage not only to follow but to make great sense of the conductor’s considerable but subtle flexibility. Apart from the balance of the soloists the recording is more than adequate for its age if certainly not of demonstration quality. Curiously the double basses and timpani are heard to fine effect but at times the cellos and other instruments in the middle registers seem to disappear into the texture. I do not know if this is a characteristic of the original recording or the re-mastering but I soon ceased to bother about it. It is of no serious consequence. What matters is the opportunity we have here to encounter one of the greatest of recreative conductors on his best form in a work that was peculiarly his own.
Understandably enough the booklet notes are entirely about the performance rather than the work. Then again, I would not expect this to be anyone’s choice for their sole recording of the Symphony. It is nonetheless an account of such imagination and perception that it is worth hearing as an essential alternative or possibly even correction to other versions. It is good to have it available outside Japan.
-- John Sheppard, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: ICAC 5034
Label: ICA Classics
Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor: Wilhelm Furtwängler
Orchestra/Ensemble: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna Singakademie
Performer: Anton Dermota, Irmgard Seefried, Paul Schöffler, Rosette Anday