Furtwängler Conducts Bruckner - Symphonies 4-9

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Immense and tragic, unerringly and compellingly directed in immediate sound.

Since one of the most familiar features of Furtwängler's discography is the pitiful lack of a commercially recorded Bruckner symphony cycle we all know what we're getting here. But given the competing performances that exist some separating of versions might be in order. I will note at the outset that this M & A set goes into the question of the editions used very briefly, with very different conclusions to those reached hitherto, especially by John Ardoin. This mainly concerns the apparent use by the conductor of Gutmann’s editions in Nos. 4 and 7 and the 1932 Orel in No.8. It includes Ardoin’s extensive and informed commentary on the performances. One further point – the transfers have been effected by Aaron Z Snyder; more on that at the end.

The Fourth is the Stuttgart performance given by the Vienna Philharmonic in October 1951. As a performance it is possibly superior to the in any case less well-recorded one in Munich, which was given a week later. The Munich performance is not quite as responsive or as well played even though the immensity of the transitions will compel interest either pro or contra. The audience is rather restive especially, of course, in the slow movement in Munich. But in Stuttgart the audience was quieter and the orchestral sound stage was more immediate; the performance therefore blazes with an extra intensity. Ardoin noted that Furtwängler habitually used the Schalk-Löwe edition but as noted above M & A identify it as the 1888 Gutmann.

The Fifth is one of four wartime broadcasts in this set. It was given in Berlin in October 1942. Others find the actual sound splendid but I find it rather occluded for its time. The heft of it however still registers powerfully. And the performance is better performed and one should probably concede better conducted than the post-war Vienna Philharmonic performance from Salzburg. In Berlin things are tougher hewn and powerfully impressive; the audience coughs and horn fluffs are here insignificant. This performance has been out on Music and Arts before - CD538 - and on the DG set 427 7742/427 7732. You may possibly have come across it on Bella Musica BMF 967.

Unfortunately the first movement of the Sixth has not survived. In any case this wasn't a work which the conductor found especially congenial. He first performed it shortly before this broadcast - November 1943 - and then never returned to it. This is the only survivor and the more to be valued for that reason but obviously recommendation is limited by reason of its being a torso. It's been out on Tahra.

The Seventh is not the one from Rome in 1951 with the touring Berlin orchestra, which I have always preferred, but the (to me) strangely uncommitted Cairo performance of the same year. Neither however is preferable to the best version, the 1949 Berlin - a towering achievement, memorably expressive. Still, the Seventh, here held to be the 1884-85 Gutmann was the only one of the symphonies of which Furtwängler left behind a commercially recorded trace – the Adagio was recorded – and his way with it, even in Cairo is to be savoured.

No.8 is with the Vienna Philharmonic, recorded there in October 1944, ten days after the final recording in this set, that of the Ninth Symphony. The Eighth was on Toshiba CE28 5757-8, also on DG (Japan) POCC2346 and probably most usually for the majority Music and Arts CD764 and Tahra FURT 1084-1087. This one has a blazing authority and commitment; the adagio is immense and tragic, unerringly and compellingly directed. The sound is immediate. He uses the modified Haas edition here whereas later in Vienna he used the Schalk; M & A going further to identify the Haas modifications as being the use of the 1892 Lenau edition “for guidance”.

The Ninth was on DG (Japan) POCC 2347 and DG 445 418-2GX2 and Music and Arts CD 730. It's slightly less well recorded than the Eighth but it is the only surviving example of his way with this symphony. We know from his own testimony that a performance in St Florian three days later than this preserved one was of great significance to him. But this one could scarcely have been less fine, so intense and searing is the resultant performance. This is probably the most consistently impressive and utterly necessary of all Furtwängler Bruckner recordings. Furthermore the edition used is noted as being the 1932 Orel.

So finally that word about Aaron Z Snyder’s digital remastering. He uses what’s called the “revolutionary new harmonic balancing” technique but beyond that M & A aren’t saying what this actually means. I’m assuming however that it’s analogous to something like Andrew Rose’s XR technique. I’m going to reserve critical judgement until the full mechanics are made known but what I can say, prima facie, is the amazing sense of immediacy generated by the transfer process, whether by rebalancing, or whatever. I played these transfers against some of the ones mentioned above, also against Andromeda’s, and the results were pretty startling in brilliance, definition and bass response.

-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International


Furtwängler’s connection with Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony went back to the dawn of his career: in fact, it was the featured work on the program with which he made his symphonic conducting debut in 1907, at the age of 20. But only one of Furtwängler’s performances of the Ninth was ever recorded, and this is it – a soulful reading with the Berlin Philharmonic from a concert given on October 7, 1944, in the dark final year of World War II. Furtwängler was always, in his interpretations of Bruckner at least, closer to the Apocalypse than the Elysian Fields, and that is certainly the case here. There is an urgency to the account that is palpable through all three of the symphony’s movements, and particularly apparent in the scherzo, which comes across with a ferocity that is not wildness, but something far more chilling. The intensity of vision in Furtwängler’s conception of the first movement is equally remarkable, as is the groping, almost glacial way he conducts the Adagio, probing the limits of sustainable sound. Apart from some ragged ensemble in the brass and occasional fits of poor intonation in the winds, the playing is on a very high level, and the sound, while veiled, conveys both the tonal beauty of the Philharmonic’s realization and the charged atmosphere generated by the performance. – Ted Libbey, author of The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection.

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: MA CD-1209

  • UPC: 017685120923

  • Label: Music & Arts Program

  • Composer: Anton Bruckner

  • Conductor: Wilhelm Furtwängler

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra