Furtwangler’s post-war Berlin recordings

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On January 30, 1944 the Berlin Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was completely destroyed during a bombing raid by the Allies. The orchestra then went on to play wherever a space with a surviving roof and walls was available.

In a matter of a few months its leader, Wilhelm Furtwängler decamped for self-imposed survival in Switzerland. After the surrender of Germany, he returned to what remained of Berlin and was quickly detained for questioning about his activities and possible allegiance to the Nazi regime during the years of the Third Reich. Once a protracted and uneasy process of denazification took place, the conductor was able to take up the baton to conduct what remained of the once great Berlin Philharmonic.

From May of 1947 through February of 1951, Furtwängler led the Berlin Philharmonic in a series of live radio recordings for the Berlin-based, American- operated broadcasting system. The recordings were made in the Titania Palast, an old movie house that had survived the war unscathed, and in the Schiller Theater, Berlin’s premier drama stage.

A number of producers and engineers made the project happen, and in 2009 the broadcasts formerly recorded on analog tapes were remastered by Ludger Boeckenhoff.

The German label audite has recently released a collection of a dozen CD’s. They come boxed, and accompanied by a bilingual set of thoroughly researched notes by Rüdiger Abrecht. The serious collector will be delighted to find a bonus CD as part of the collection, featuring an extended conversation between Furtwängler and a group of music students.

Among the works included in this collection, Beethoven’s symphonies no. 6 and no. 5 are featured twice, once in a 1947 performance, right after the fall of Germany, and another one from 1954, from one of Furtwangler’s last appearances.

There is a superb rendition of the Beethoven violin concerto, with Yehudi Menuhin as soloist, possibly the first Jewish musician to play in Berlin after the war. There is Bach and Handel played the way Baroque music was played before the concept of historic performance practice ever came into being. There are some surprising inclusions beyond the expected Beethoven/Schubert/Schumann/Brahms/Bruckner/Wagner/Strauss canon, among them a rare Hindemith, a fairly modern piece by Boris Blacher, and a violin concerto by an undeservedly neglected Wolfgang Fortner.

Throughout we get the vintage mid-century German orchestral sound: substantial, precise, technically beyond reproach. Furtwängler’s tempi tend to err on the side of caution, so that at times one is left hoping for more fire and less reverential gravitas. On the plus side, even with the inevitable compromise that re-mastering creates, there is much to admire, starting with the deep richness of the lower strings of the Berlin Philharmonic, the never-strident brilliance of the brass section, and the cohesiveness of the sound of the homogenous string section.

All in all, this is a formidable project worthy of attention. The release is available in the United States through Naxos.

Rafael de Acha     http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

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