21 October 2016

A Furtwängler concert programme that is reserved for significant occasions

The recently released Otaken CD, TKC-365, reissued the Beethoven Symphonies No. 5 and 6 recorded in the concert on 25 May 1947, the first concert Furtwängler conducted the Berlin Philharmonic after his post-WII denazification. This famous concert is well known to seasoned classical music lovers. (The Egmont Overture in this concert was unfortunately not recorded.) The intensity of emotions of the occasion and that of the orchestral rendition is infectious. Otaken claims the sound of the new CD has an optimal dynamic range, with much freshness of sound. It points out in particular the bridge between the 3rd and 4th movements in Beethoven 5, saying they have faithfully captured the crescendo to much visceral effect. That obviously led me to take out the incumbent benchmark CD by Audite for comparison. Much as the richness of sound in the Otaken CD appears appealing, I prefer the more transparent, and also crisper, sound in the Audite CD. Just listen to the nuance in the famous anguished fermata in the eighth note in the opening movement and you will understand.

While on this concert, I’d like to point out something that I observed in relation to concert programming by Furtwängler. 

When I take a close look at Furtwängler’s concert listing, this programme of Beethoven's Egmont Overture, Sixth Symphony and Fifth Symphony interestingly occurred only on special occasions, apart perhaps from its first occurrence on 4 May 1927 when he performed in Copenhagen on tour with the Berlin Philharmonic. He had different combinations of Beethoven’s symphonies in concerts, but this exact combination of Egmont, 6th and 5th is special.

This concert programme was used:

1) in his “come-back” concerts when he resumed conducting after the Hindemith Affair in 1935 (12 April in Budapest, 13 & 14 April in Vienna with the VPO when his passport was returned to him, and then in 25 April with his BPO in Berlin, and then in other German cities, Hamburg, Munich and Stuttgart in the following months).

2) on 12 December 1937 with the VPO in the Concert for the 125th anniversary of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.

3) in his series of “come-back” concerts starting 25 May 1947 referred to above in Berlin. These were followed by the concert on 3 June in Postdam and on 12 & 13 June in Munich.

4) on 28 September 1948 in London as the first concert of the only Beethoven Zylus in his entire conducting career.

Note that the order is always Beethoven's Sixth before Fifth, except for the concert in 1937.

15 October 2016

Furtwängler and Beethoven Symphony No. 5

It would be an understatement to say that Beethoven Symphony No. 5 is important to Wilhelm Furtwängler. He has conducted it 253 times making it his most performed piece of orchestral music.

He wrote a long article titled Beethoven und wir. Bemerkungen über den ersten Satz der fünften Symphonie in 1951. (It takes up 19 pages in “Furtwängler on Music”, pp. 40-58.) From his analysis you will understand more about his interpretation of this symphony, at least the first movement.

In 1996 EMI issued a bonus CD for “The Art of Conducting – Great Conductors of the Past” set (Catalogue Number: CONDUCTCD 1). It includes recordings of the first movement of Beethoven Symphony No. 5 conducted by Nikisch (BPO 10/11/1913), Furtwängler (VPO 28/2 & 1/3/1954), Karajan (Philharmonia 9&10/11/1954) and Klemperer (Philharmonia Oct & Dec 1955) for comparison. It also includes rehearsal sequences of Beecham, Furtwängler and Barbirolli. The short liner notes are written by Alan Sanders.

In 1998, Tahra (FURT 1032-1033) issued a double CD set including 3 recordings of Beethoven 5 conducted by Furtwängler in Oct-Nov 1937 (HMV recording), on 30 June 1943 (RRG live recording) and on 23 May 1954 (RIAS recording). The most edifying part of this set is an analysis of each performance by Sami Habra, Lecturer of the French Furtwängler Society in 29 tracts.

There is much to learn and digest from these comparisons and analyses.

09 October 2016

Eugen Jochum's Tahra Concertgebouw recordings reissued on LPs

That Tahra’s release (1997) of Eugen Jochum’s concert recording on 4 December 1986 of Bruckner 5 is a memorable event is beyond every Brucknerites’ doubts. Lately Altus, using the sound source from Tahra, has released this recording in LP format (TALTLP005) in Japan. The artistic value of this performance has been thoroughly discussed by reviewers over the years. Suffice it to say that it is one of my favourite Bruckner 5 recordings. There are some interesting points about this famous recording however.

1) Tahra states that it is his “very last performance”, but unfortunately it is not exactly true. His last performance in Amsterdam is the concert 2 days later on 6 December 1986 of the same music: Bruckner 5. Unfortunately this last concert was not recorded.

2) By that time, Jochum has performed the Bruckner Fifth 21 times with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. 

3) In his last concert, he performed the whole of the Finale again for the encore! 

4) In the finale of Bruckner 5, Eugen Jochum carried over but modified slightly Schalk's practice of augmenting the brass section towards the end of the movement with 11 extra brass instruments placed separately in a raised position behind the orchestra, often in the organ loft. He supported the brass with 11 additional instruments from the beginning of the Chorale (bar 583), using 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and 1 bass tuba. These were affectionately called the "11 Apostles" as the twelfth, Judas, was not included. Jochum placed them differently from Schalk’s original practice. He placed them in the orchestra just behind or beside the original brass players, as he thought placing them in the organ loft would have an effect too theatrical. The idea of this practice is to make sure that the divine ending will not otherwise become lacklustre or feeble due to fatigue of the brass players already by the beginning of the Chorale.

Eugen Jochum’s last concert was in January 1987 when he conducted the Munich Philharmonic on Bruckner 9. This concert was broadcast. At that time the Munich Philharmonic was very much Celibidache’s orchestra, and with their affinity to Bruckner, how Jochum has conducted them in that concert should be every Brucknerite’s wish to hear it.

In about 3 weeks' time, on Halloween, Altus will reissue Eugen Jochum’s Tahra Bruckner recordings with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in a 10-LP set (TALTLP007). It will include the 4 December 1986 Bruckner 5 and thus duplicate TALTLP005. The others included in this LP set are Bruckner 4 (16 January 1975), Bruckner 6 (2 November 1980), Bruckner 7 (15 March 1970) and Bruckner 8 (26 Sep 1984). Whether it is intended or not, Altus timed its release one day before Jochum’s birthday on 1 November.

Tahra's first release of these recordings: Bruckner 4, 6, 7 & 8 in a box set shared with his brother Georg-Ludwig in 1996; Bruckner 5 singly one year later.

Cover art of TALTLP005 (2-LP set)

Cover art of TALTLP007, a 10-LP set

07 October 2016

Furtwängler's 1947 Eroica

At the present moment, we know that 11 recordings of the Eroica conducted by Furtwängler have been issued on LP or CD, of which 2 are studio recordings for EMI, made in November 1947 and 1952 respectively. Although his live recordings, particularly the wartime ones, are generally preferred to his studio recordings, his 2 post-war EMI studio recordings of the Eroica are such wonderful readings that even the French Furtwängler Society has included them among their best choices of the Eroica. (The other 2 are his 1944 and 8 Dec 1952 live recordings.)

The studio recording of his conducting the Vienna Philharmonic on 10, 11, 12 & 17 November 1947, with a retake of the opening of the second movement on 15 February 1949, is the one discussed today.

1947 is a crucial year in Furtwängler’s conducting career. He had just been allowed to conduct again in May after his prolonged denazification process after WWII. He had to earn as much as he could to repay the debts accumulated in the preceding years since his escape from Germany in 1945. After his concert engagements in the Salzburg and Lucerne Festivals that summer, he spent the large part of November making recordings for EMI, including Beethoven Coriolan Overture and Symphony No. 3, Mozart Serenade No. 10 and Brahms Symphony No. 1.

The Eroica was issued on 13 sides of 78 rpm discs in 1948. When the LP era came, he was asked by EMI to record the Eroica again in 1952 to satisfy the market for this fast growing format with minimal surface noise and unbreakable discs.

An often asked question is why they had a retake of the first 68 bars of the Funeral March in 1949. The original recording in 1947 was made in the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna. In this 1949 remake, a smaller orchestral force was employed and the recording was made in the smaller Brahmssaal. The “reason” for this remake has been given as the introduction of autochangers into the 78rpm market. However, the exact reason why a retake, and hence a new issue of this retake, is necessary for these autochangers is not explained in any detail. Here I attempt to give a technical explanation. At that time, a 78 rpm disc can accommodate at most 5 minutes of music. Side 5 of the original recording is just a few seconds short of 5 minutes. It is fine if the stylus is placed manually on the thin outer margin to start the music, but for autochangers with automatic placement of the stylus, a wider margin is supposed to be needed, and hence the music is to be shorter for proper functioning of the system. From CDs using the 78 rpm discs as the sound source, we know the 1949 retake lasts 4’39” to 4’47” depending on which remastering is used, and thus a safe margin at the periphery of the disc is ensured.

This 1947 Eroica is an account with beautiful playing from the Vienna Philharmonic and warm, attractive sound. In the opening movement, the tempo Furtwängler adopted is not significantly different from those in his other extant recordings. There is an extraordinary unity of structure. The trumpets are prominent in the later part of the movement, quite typical of his. The Funeral March is mesmerising in the hands of Furtwängler, with a very rich bass-line. The Scherzo is lively and energetic, contrasting with a slower Trio. The rubato is lovely. The allegro molto of the last movement is impulsive and it is the fastest in all his versions except perhaps the recording on 20 June 1950, and it drives the way to an overwhelming finale with tremendous power.

Brief comments on CDs of this recording

Shinseido SGR-8221 (issued on 21/3/1998): The CD and the remastering are made by Toshiba EMI, which claims an improvement in sound on TOCE 6054. It includes a separate track for the 1949 retake (4’39”). The sound of the instruments in the retake is closer, the timbre of the cellos is more resonant and the oboe is more prominent, all related to the acoustics of the smaller hall and probably different microphone placement. The pitch of this CD is a little higher than that of Tahra’s and Naxos’.

Tahra FURT 1027 (1999): Tahra states the reason for this reissue as they considered TOCE 6054 a “disaster” with "dampened sound, compressed dynamics, very noisy pressing and wrong pitch". In this CD, the background noise is much controlled. The first movement sounds more musical than Shinseido’s but unfortunately the sound is thinner particularly in the second movement, probably due to more aggressive noise suppression. It also includes a separate track for the 1949 retake (4’47”).

Naxos 8.110995 (2006): Remastered by Ward Marston. It states, “Every copy of this recording that I have inspected has contained the re-take of side 5, and therefore, I have not been able to include the original take of this side for the present edition”. However, on comparative listening, the exposition of the second movement is more similar to the original 1947 take than the later one.  The timing of this movement is also a clue. This CD has the least background noise compared with the others. The equalisation is shifted slightly more to the treble resulting in a brighter sound but unfortunately also thinner. The second movement is more doctored, e.g. the middle registers are boosted and a hint of reverb is added to give an apparent fully bass. The noise reduction also varies in intensity according to the music, e.g. during the oboe solo, it is more aggressive making the oboe sound cleaner and more prominent.

Goodies 78CD-3000 (issued on 17/4/2015): It is essentially a CD version of the set of 78 rpm discs. It contains 13 tracks, each corresponding to one side of the original 78s set. The producer claims he is not satisfied with the sound of the LP reissue of this recording in 1957 in the HMV/Columbia Great Recordings of the Century series. Therefore he uses the original 78s for its more vivid sound. He uses all-tube equipment to reproduce the sound and the present recording is a direct DSD recording. No extra equalisation or noise suppression was employed. The background surface noise is obviously loud and become rather intrusive in quieter passages of music. If your mind can ignore the ever-present background noise, the sound of the music is livelier than Shinseido’s though.