16 April 2017

Furtwängler's St. Matthew Passion

Flashback to 14-17 April 1954

Sixty-three years ago today, Furtwängler conducted the Wiener Philharmoniker in a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) in the Konzerthaus, Vienna. The soloists included Anton Dermota, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Grümmer, Marga Höffgen and Otto Edelmann and the choirs were the Wiener Singakademie and Wiener Sängerknaben. It was one of the 4 consecutive nights from 14 to 17 April when this Passion was performed during Easter.

Furtwängler has performed the St. Matthew Passion a total of 37 times during his life, 26 times before and 11 times after World War II. 

Furtwängler’s view on Bach
He held Bach in extremely high regard. He has written: “He remains today what he has always been – the divine creator on his throne above the clouds, beyond the reach of all others”. “His music exudes a supreme serenity and assurance, the product of a perfect blend of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic elements which never ceases to amaze us.” And referring to the St. Matthew Passion, he remarked: “In no other works does a single ethos hold such complete sway from beginning to end, an ethos that issues from the very heart, the very soul of their creator.” (Furtwängler on Music, edited and translated by Ronald Taylor, Scolar Press, 1991)

Apple of discord
St. Matthew Passion is also the piece of music that attracted much discussion concerning his feud with Herbert von Karajan. 1950 was the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death. A Bach Festival would be held in June in Vienna. Furtwängler had expressed a wish to perform the St Matthew Passion at a relatively short notice but the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde refused to place its choir, the Wiener Singverein, to Furtwängler’s disposal because this choir was to perform with Karajan in the coming Bach Festival and that he was said to have had 50 rehearsals with this choir.  This certainly infuriated Furtwängler and he at once resigned from his post of Concert Director (Konzertdirektor) and his honorary membership of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. Thus the performance of this Passion in 1952 and 1954 took place in the Konzerthaus rather than the Musikverein.

Source Tapes and Recording Date(s)
As mentioned by Olsen in his discography, according to Christoph Nolte and Friedhelm Schöning in Berlin, there were 3 complete recordings of Furtwängler’s 1954 St. Matthew Passion stored in the archive of Electrola GmbH, the German branch of EMI. The concerts were recorded by EMI engineers for broadcast in German radio stations.

As such, it is natural that enthusiasts will compare the first commercial CD release by EMI in 1995 (CHS 5655092) and the 2012 Orfeo release contained in its 18-CD “Wilhelm Furtwängler – Wiener Philharmoniker” box set (C834118Y). The recording date in the EMI 2-CD release was stated as 14-17 April, while the Orfeo one was just a single date, of 15 April.

The matter was further complicated by the statement in the EMI release that 2 numbers in the Passion “had to be cut because of insurmountable technical problems in the original recording” when they were “editing and remastering the tapes for this CD transfer”. My wild guess is that at the time of their new remastering, the tapes were already 40 to 41 years old, and these magnetic tapes were quite fragile and prone to breakage with age.

From EMI’s notes, “In the original performance, 14 numbers from the score were omitted and some of the recitative was slightly trimmed”. The cuts were widely acknowledged in discographies and record reviews, but which 14 numbers were cut appeared to escape the attention of these discographers and reviewers. Even the most complete discography from Japan does not specify them. This fool of mine spent this morning comparing the EMI and Orfeo recordings to the score and came up with the answers. 
The following 14 movement numbers (according to the Neue Bach-Ausgabe) were omitted in the performance:
Part One: Nos. 13, 17, 23. [corresponding to Nos. 19, 23, 29 in the old BWV numbering system]
Part Two: Nos. 32, 34, 35, 40, 41, 42, 46, 52, 60, 65, 66. (Strictly speaking, No. 66 was not completely cut. The first part of 66a remained: track 28 of CD2 in EMI’s, and track 20 of CD18 in Orfeo’s. The cut started from Es war aber allda Maria Magdalena und die andere Maria.) [corresponding to Nos. 38, 40, 41, 48-51, 55, 61, 70, 75, 76 in the old BWV numbering system]

Trimmed Rezitativ: Nos. 26 and 28 in Part One, and Nos. 33, 43 and 58 in Part Two. [corresponding to Nos. 32, 34, 39, 52, 67 in the BWV numbering system]

The two further cuts due to technical reasons referred to in the EMI release are Nos. 56 and 57 (Nos. 65 & 66 in BWV). They are present in the Orfeo release in tracks 12 and 14 on CD 18.

(Note: It has to be pointed out that if NBA No. 66 (=BWV No. 76) was considered only heavily "trimmed" and not "cut", then according to NBA, only 13 movement numbers were cut in the performance, as NBA No. 41 = BWV No. 49 + No. 50.)

My notes (1)

My notes (2)

EMI- vs. Orfeo-issued recording
If we believe that the recording issued by Orfeo is from a performance on a single day, then on comparative listening, the recording issued by EMI appears to me to be a mix of recordings from different days, or at least from a day different from Orfeo’s. The differences between the two are more pronounced in Part One.

Example 1: No. 6 (EMI: CD1, track 10; Orfeo: CD16, track 9)
In this Aria by the Alto, “Buß und Reu”, EMI’s takes 5’15 while Orfeo’s 3’41. Moreover, extraneous noises, coughs and others, occur at different times.

Example 2: No. 10 (EMI: CD1, track 16; Orfeo: CD16, track 17)
In this chorale, EMI’s is 1’28 while Orfeo’s is 1’41. In the EMI recording, there were 2 obvious coughs in the last line at the word meine, and the last word Seel was sustained about one second shorter that its counterpart in the Orfeo recording.

The performance itself
This performance is obviously not to the taste of those who insist on HIP. However there is no argument that it is much spiritually inspired. Furtwängler has found a memorable fine balance between Teutonic mysticism and theatrical drama. The way and pace he takes the recitatives is the key to the special spiritual quality that distinguishes it to most other conductors’ performances.

P.S. For those who are interested in Furtwängler, please take time to visit my Facebook PageMy Furtwängler Journal
Thank you. 

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