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Historical recordings

Beethoven: Symphony No 7; Symphony No 8. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Orfeo C 293 921 B

One day on the car radio I heard a remarkable performance of the finale of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Salzburg Festival in 1954. I was not sure if the recording came from radio archives or from a CD. I had thought that the only Furtwängler performance of the 7th generally available was the one recorded in Berlin in 1943 (recently re-issued on Music & Arts CD-824, with Symphonies 4, 5 and 6). But on looking in an old Furtwängler discography (Furtwängler Society UK, 1982) I found that the 1954 performance used to be available on Cetra Japan K22C177 (an LP record in those days, of course). The 1943 performance is interesting, and the slow movement remarkably slow and intense - more Adagio than Allegretto - but the recording quality is lousy and the finale gets chaotic towards the end. The finale in the 1954 recording was much more tightly controlled yet still very exciting.

On a recent visit to Harold Moore's in London the staff tracked down the recording for me - it has been issued on CD on a number of small independent labels, most of them hard to find. In the end they sent it to me on Orfeo C 293 921 B. It is in much better sound than the 1943 version - despite a few dropouts - and coupled with an equally interesting version of Beethoven's 8th: measured, serious, powerful. In Furtwängler's hands the Eighth is a real bridge between the Seventh and the Ninth, not just a playful interlude. Try and hear this recording!

Furtwängler: Symphony No 2 in E minor. Beethoven: Symphony No 1. Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra / Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Mediaphon JA-75.100

A concert given on 30 March 1954 in the Stuttgart Liederhalle; the recording quality is excellent. Furtwängler's own second symphony is a long, slow-moving, "romantic" work, clearly influenced by the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, yet by no means derivative. I find the recording and performance preferable to those on the alternative Orfeo recording; and you get the bonus of a broad, serious interpretation of Beethoven's First.

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem. Hans Hotter, Agnes Giebel; Cologne Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra / Sergiu Celibidache

Myto 1 MCD 962.147

A typical Celibidache performance: beautifully played and sung, avoiding dramatic contrasts in the interests of the whole. Not the most exciting German Requiem you will ever hear, but perhaps the most satisfying. A good mono recording made on 28 October 1957 - except that the sound tends to wander from one channel to another.

Some more CDs I have enjoyed recently.

Gavin Bryars: Farewell to Philosophy. Julian Lloyd Webber; English Chamber Orchestra / James Judd.

Point Music 454 126-2

A lyrical cello concerto with echoes of two famous Haydn symphonies. Reviews have been mixed; some found it too uneventful and, I suspect, too undemanding. If you think modern music should sound like two skeletons copulating on a cast-iron roof (to quote a recent letter in the "Gramophone"), this is not for you.

Brahms: Piano Trios Nos 1 & 2. Maria Joao Pires, Augustin Dumay, Jian Wang.

DG 447 055-2

Brahms has always been a problematic composer for me. I like the Requiem (see above), the Piano Concertos, the Double Concerto ... but a lot of his music seems to me just uninteresting. (A bit like Hindemith with tunes.) So this disc was a revelation. Wonderful music, wonderfully played.

Allan Pettersson: Symphony No. 9. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin / Alun Francis.

CPO 999 231-2

The name of Allan Pettersson (1911 - 1980) is still not as well known as it deserves to be. A self-taught musician who grew up in dreadful poverty in the slums of Stockholm, in adult life he developed severe rheumatoid arthritis and was moved to write: "Someone once said that I compose out of self-pity. I have never pitied myself; I have never been able to cry. I know of pity for others but not self-pity....Self-pity is so damned unproductive." Nonetheless his music is not easy listening; he accepts tonality but rejects sonata form, relying instead on continuous development of material which is often brutal if not crude. His orchestration is often dominated by heavy brass and percussion. The Ninth Symphony is in one unbroken movement and lasts 70 minutes: an uncomfortable but remarkable work.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 9. Staatskapelle Dresden / Eugen Jochum.

EMI Seraphim 7243 5 68527 2 3

This bargain-price 2-CD set is worth having for the 9th alone. The exact date of the recording is not given, but clearly it is not new! But Jochum conducts a performance of extraordinary intensity, especially in the finale. After listening, I checked the timing: 27'39". For comparison, Bruno Walter takes 23'17", Leonard Bernstein 26'56", and neither of them is a speed merchant. I don't know if this set is available in Europe; I paid less than $10 in the Virgin Megastore in Los Angeles, which must be the best bargain of 1996 (so far, at least ...).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra / William Steinberg. Symphony No. 8. Munich Philharmonic Orchestra / Hans Knappertsbusch.

MCA Classics MCAD2-9825

Also to be had in the USA for less than $10 (I found it in the Tower store in Pasadena). Steinberg's 7th is straightforward and distinctly less neurotic than that of most conductors. But the real find is Kna's version of the 8th. You will look in vain in the CD documentation for details of the date and venue of the recording: but I can reveal that it was made in January 1963 in the Bavaria Studios, a few days after a concert performance. The recording was previously available on Westminster Records (WST 235) and is truly remarkable, both for the recording quality and the performance. Knappertsbusch's grasp of structure is unparallelled, especially in the Finale, which can seem dangerously episodic in some performances. Not so here: the forward motion, despite the slow tempo, is irresistible and the return of the first subject at the start of the recapitulation is awesome.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 6. Munich Philharmonic Orchestra / Sergiu Celibidache.

Artists Live Recordings [sic] FED 063

While on the subject of live Bruckner from Munich, does anyone know the origin of this recording? No date or venue is given. The sound quality is appalling, so I presume it is pirated. Once again it is the Finale that impresses above all, though Celibidache also finds an inner calm in the slow movement that most conductors (including, oddly enough, Klemperer) miss by adopting too fast a tempo.

Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Strauss: Metamorphosen. New Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir John Barbirolli.

EMI CZS 7 67816 2

When Barbirolli's recording of the Mahler 6 first appeared, the first movement was generally thought to be slow to the point of eccentricity. Maybe we were all mesmerized by Bernstein's very-quick-march approach. Today Barbirolli sounds very convincing indeed. When will EMI reissue his wonderful account of the Sibelius symphonies?



Revised 01 Jan 2010

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