02 November 2016

The 2 recordings of Furtwängler's Eroica that surfaced only in this century

It is not infrequent to run into the war between die-hard fans of LPs and their counterparts of CDs. Each camp will claim the superiority of their ethos with reasons of subjective pleasantness or objective physical characteristics or a mixed combination of both. I’m somewhat frightened by this exclusiveness of interests. 

In the case of Furtwängler’s recordings, it would be foolhardy to limit oneself to either LPs or CDs as the reasons for selection are challengingly complicated: sound source, remastering, unedited live recording vs edited and patched live recording, first editions vs. reissues, or even extant or not at a particular time, to name but a few.

On the issue of “extant or not at a particular time”, by the end of the last millennium, we can only listened to 9 different recordings of Furtwängler’s Eroica. The 31 August 1950 recording was still unissued. And the last recording on 4 September 1953 was even unheard of at that time. These 2 recordings at last saw light of the day in the early years of this century, of course in the format of CD. If you insist on the LP format, sorry, they are not available. (However in these days of the crazy renaissance of LPs, one won’t be surprised to see these recordings being reissued in vinyl. Of course, if the sound source is the same, I won’t buy the vinyl of the 1950 recording given its poor existing form. I may consider the 1954 one if it appears.)

The existence of the recording on 31 August 1950 during the Salzburg Festival with the VPO has been known for years since the Olsen days (Olsen No. 221), but it was still stated as unissued in the discography compiled by John Hunt and René Trémine, and also in the book by John Ardoin (utilizing John Hunt’s discography) in the 1990’s. 

Listed as "Not issued/Private archive" in Hunt's discography
Left blank in Tremine's discography

The 31 August 1950 and 4 Sep 1953 recordings are not listed in Ardoin's book

It was first issued in an EMI double CD set (CMS 5674222) in 2000. The sound is not satisfactory because of a poor sound source. The performance, however, is top-notch and entirely lovable, with a special quality of its being a post-war Furtwängler reading sounding paradoxically akin to his fervent, angst-ridden wartime ones. It was later also issued by Orfeo in its Salzburg Festival box set (C409048L). This recording also appeared secretively in 2010 as a “bonus” in an Archipel double-CD of “Wilhelm Furtwängler in his last Salzburg concert” on 30 August 1954 (ARPCD 0504), in which the Eroica is not mentioned in the cover art or even on CD2 which contains it; however, the sound is surprisingly good.

The CDs of the 31 August 1950 Eroica

The 4 September 1953 recording has now become his last extant Eroica recording. Out of the blue, it sprang into being in 2004 in the Furtwängler 2CD of the “Great Conductors of the 20th Century” series issued by IMG/EMI (5628752), more than half a century after his death. It is a live recording of the VPO on tour in Munich. Michael Tanner, in the liner notes, writes, “This whole performance will come as a revelation to anyone who thought they knew the Eroica but has not previously heard Furtwängler conduct it”. It is a very well recorded account. Although it is without the white heat of his wartime concerts, it is nevertheless a reading that pushes him to another level of sublime expressiveness, stunning deep down to your soul yet without the scorched stamp of war.

The IMG/EMI CD of the 4 September 1953 Eroica

The CDs of these 2 recordings have impressively enriched the discography of Furtwängler in particular, and that of Eroica in general.