From the archives
Andrew Mcgregor takes in a lavish release marking the Berlin radio legacy of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler
These glamorous sets from the Berlin Philharmonic’s own label are so beautifully made that they push my ‘want one’ button before
I’ve managed to get a disc into the player. But do we need a new set of conductor Wilhelm
Furtwängler’s Berlin Radio recordings 1939-1945?
(Berliner Philharmoniker BPHR 180181; 22 CDS or SACDS) Vintage mono, a far-from polished orchestral sound; and we’ve heard them all before, haven’t we? Not quite it turns out; there are some surprises in store. Historically, this is still a vital collection: the wartime Berlin Philharmonic concentrating on Austro-german repertoire when music from enemy countries was banned. This is music-making of searing immediacy recorded as Germany was slowly losing the war, the Berliners constantly under the threat of allied bombing, not knowing whether they might be playing for the last time. Their home, Berlin’s Philharmonie, was destroyed in an air raid in January 1944, and the Beethoven Violin Concerto was Furtwängler’s last concert in the old hall. Furtwängler’s relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic had begun in the 1920s, and you can feel the trust they have in him, the way he coaxes extraordinary warmth from the strings in Schubert’s Great C major Symphony, the exhilarating control he exerts in Brahms Symphonies and Piano Concertos, his almost terrifying grip on Bruckner 9 in 1944. If you think Furtwängler’s Beethoven might seem old-fashioned, forget it; it’s powerfully communicative, and we can hear its legacy today perhaps in Barenboim and Rattle.
They’ve scoured the archives for the best possible copies of these recordings, including tapes that were taken to the Soviet Union after the fall of Berlin. For the first time we have music from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloë, Bruckner 5 and 9, Mozart 39, and Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica. They’ve worked hard on the sound, restoring and remastering all the recordings; indeed, Furtwängler’s Berlin radio legacy has never sounded as good, been as complete, or presented as beautifully as it is here.
Wartime conductor: Wilhelm Furtwängler circa 1945