22 June 2016

Wilhelm Furtwängler Talking about Music

Two days after Furtwängler conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in a special concert at the Titania-Palast on 20 June 1950, he was invited by Werner Egk to have a colloquium at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik. It was repeated in February 1951. These 2 talks on music were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, and excerpts of these were issued on LPs included in box sets over the years.

Titled “Snippets of Discussions and Interviews”, these excerpts were first issued in a 6-LP “Wilhelm Furtwängler in Memoriam” box set in late 1963, for the 10th anniversary of the maestro’s passing. Karla Höcker selected and compiled the excerpts which open with “The Essence is the Work” and then cover 6 areas in 29 tracks: About the Tempo, Acoustics in Large and Small Halls, Technique and Expression, Style Questions, Conductor-Problems, and Music in the Opera.

These were reissued around 1968 in the budget label Heliodor’s 8-LP “Wilhelm Furtwängler Berliner Philharmoniker” box set, and then in 1979 in another DGG 10-LP box set, “Das Vermächtnis Wilhelm Furtwängler”. Part of these excerpts also appeared on one side of the last LP in the Berliner Philharmoniker 100th anniversary commemorative box set issued in 1982.

On CDs, parts (totally only 26’58”) of these two colloquia together with radio interviews were included in the bonus CD in the Japanese 33-CD box set in 1994 (POCG 9476-9508, duration of 26’58”). More recently, “The Complete RIAS Recordings” 12-plus-1-CD box set by Audite also included Furtwängler’s colloquium on the art of interpretation on 27 February 1951.

Many of his views are insightful. One example is on precision:
“To obtain precision, if one beats firmly and clearly, is very simple. But to combine with this firm and clear beat all the other qualities which one wants to and must obtain from the orchestra – either a hard sound or a gentle sound, a legato, a staccato, transitions, all these – is also part of conducting technique. Everyone’s technique is different.”

19 June 2016

The 1942 Furtwängler’s Bruckner Symphony No. 5 recording

(An update of the original post from 29 April 2011: A Furtwängler godsend from Testament -- The 1942 Bruckner 5th in spectacular sound)


With the recent issue of fragments of Bruckner Symphony No. 5 from an aircheck on acetates, by Delta Classics (DCCA-0076) in Japan, it is interesting to revisit an already well-known and well-preserved recording during this series of concerts from 25 to 28 October 1942.

This war-time (25-28/10/1942) Bruckner 5 recording by Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at Alte Philharmonie Berlin, is an intense, sensitive and passionate account. Those who are attuned to Furtwängler's music-making will be very much familiar with this recording, but never before in such excellent sound on CD as documented by the latest issue from Testament. It was transferred from the "real" mastertapes of this recording, quite unlike what has been claimed in whatever way in previous releases.

The recording was made on tapes in a concert by the RRG (Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft, i.e. National Radio Society), probably for broadcast. The original tapes were discovered by the Soviets after the war and taken to the USSR.  LPs of this recording were first issued in the USSR in the 1960s. Those in the West who were fortunate enough to be able to listen to these LPs in that era, were so impressed that these LPs immediately became collectors’ gems.

To cut a long story short, in 1987 twenty tapes of live recordings of Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic were returned to Radio Free Berlin (including this Bruckner recording), and CDs based on these tapes were issued by DGG. Many would think it was the end of the story. However, life is always not so simple. These tapes turned out to be not original ones, but 38 cm/s copies of the original 77 cm/s RRG tapes. With further search and negotiation, in March 1991, 1462 original RRG tapes were located in Moscow and returned to Germany. This new Testament release is based on these returned original tapes under the license of Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg.


The original LPs issued in the USSR by Melodiya were thought to be from the original RRG tapes. These are now obviously rare. There were also LPs issued by the Bruno Walter Society in the USA and Japan in the past from "Russian sources". The Japanese release in September 1982 (OS-7089->90-BS) and the American release (RR-538) were both licensed from "Educational Media Associates", and were believed to be the same.



Melodiya has reissued this Bruckner 5 recording on LPs in different years since the 1960s. I have three copies of them, from the 1970s and 1980s. They have a bold sound with a certain degree of echo added. 

The last issue was for the Japanese market in 1992, the “black label Melodiya” as usually identified by the Japanese. It was said to be made by the latest cutting machines, and produced a rich, soft sound which was much appreciated in that market, so much so that Opus Kura used this LP as sound source to produce a CD version (OPK 7013). I like the sound of this LP too.


There have been many different CD releases of this concert, albeit from different sound sources, over the years.

The sound sources of the various CD releases can be summarized as follows:

1) From tapes in the former Soviet Union: Melodiya MEL CD 1001103 (2006)

2) From digital copies of the tape copies returned to Germany in 1987: DGG in various releases (1989, 1995, 2001)

3) From Melodiya LP (Melodiya Black Label M10-42555-8): Opus Kura OPK 7013 (2005)

4) From Bruno Walter Society's "Russian sources": Nippon Columbia 35C37 7297 and Bruno Walter Society CD-538 (made by Denon/Nippon Columbia) (1982) or Music & Arts CD-1209 (5-CD box set) (2008)

5) From original RRG tapes: Testament SBT 1466 and JSBT 8466 (Japanese release) (2011)

On comparative listening of these CDs, I believe that the sound from the Testament release just sweeps the board; the other CDs made from other sound sources literally turn pale in comparison. This latest release has a much fuller-bodied sound. There is air around the woodwinds. The clarity in sound is so much evident as in the string tremolando in the Finale. The tympani sounds crisp and solid. It can easily be the best sounding CD of all the war-time Furtwängler CDs I've ever listened to. Now I don't have to bear with the many deficiencies from these old CDs any more, e.g. the transient signal loss in the first crescendo in the opening movement in the DGG release, the persistent intrusive hiss from the Opus Kura CD, or the distant and veiled sound from almost all of them. It is just like an old, priceless oil painting having been cleaned and its true glory restored.

It is indeed a benediction.

(Version 3.1)

14 June 2016

A "new" Furtwängler Bruckner recording, albeit shabby

(I'm back, after almost 2 years.)

Just when one is puzzled by the seemingly endless reissues of Furtwängler's previously available recordings, here comes a "new" one from a private archive (Delta DCCA-0076). Although it is far from a complete live recording of Bruckner 5 on one of the days between 25 to 28 October 1942, it offers us a further glimpse of the wartime Furtwängler style nontheless.

When one realises that the sound source is from a private aircheck recorded on acetate discs, one can already have a fairly good idea of the sound quality. The first movement is missing. Only 5 minutes 28 seconds of the Adagio is included, the sound being as if one is listening to a radio under water. The last two movements are almost complete, with slightly better sound, but decorated by loud spinning acetate noises and abrupt interruptions due to disc changes.

This CD is apparently intended for Furtwängler, or for that matter Bruckner, completists. One needs a healthily sympathetic and nostalgic mindset to appreciate the beautiful music out of the poor sound. I begin to enjoy it, but not until after a few listens to acclimatise myself to this sound world.