Friday, September 9, 2011

Furtwängler's Baroque Solemnity

Following up on my indulging in the Brilliant Classics box of the complete string quartets of Joseph Haydn, I have now launched into listening to Wilhelm Furtwängler:  The Legacy, which appears to be the mother of all Furtwängler collections.  According to the readme_first file on the accompanying data CD, this is a product of membran Music Ltd., which is based in Dublin, Ireland and appears to be an affiliate of the German company Music Alliance Membran, based in Hamburg.  The collection has a whopping 107 CDs, along with data CD, which duplicates the accompanying booklet in one PDF file and provides the only comprehensive listing of all tracks in another.  A DVD of a lecture about Furtwängler is also included.  The collection is divided into eleven Boxes according to musical content, and there is a full summary given by T. Fisher in what is the only Customer Review on the Amazon page for this item.

The Editorial Reviews section on this page offers the following description of the collection as a whole:

These 107 CDs contain all the works Furtwangler ever recorded for release on record - and the "live" recordings he made for radio broadcast. In the case of different versions of the same work having been produced (for example there are 12 recordings of Beethoven's Eroica!.0 [typo sic] the best, most beautiful, or the most exciting interpretations have been chosen for this edition.

On the basis of this text, one would think that I could chuck all of my other Furtwängler CDs;  but this is not the case.  Most important is that the selection of symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven only partially overlaps those included in the recent EMI collection, Wilhelm Furtwängler:  The Great EMI Recordings.  However, the Membran project certainly goes a long way toward compensating for the fact that Deutsche Grammophon has not done as comprehensive a job of anthologizing the Furtwängler archives as EMI did.  Thus, it looks like I shall finally be able to recover the recordings I lost when I gave up the DG vinyl collection I had purchased in my student days.

On the whole I approve of Membran’s topic-based organization.  My only real regret is that the full track listing (which only appears on the data CD) does not provide the durations of the individual tracks.  Whether or not I shall recover these data points by feeding each CD to iTunes has yet to be determined.  I usually like such lengthy tedious tasks when I am on a trip, but I do not see taking this collection with me on such a trip!

I also approve of the Membran suggestion to begin with the seven-CD Box 1, entitled “Baroque and Pre-Classical Period.”  This provides a “double legacy” in that the first recording of the entire collection is the October 10, 1948 recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1068 orchestral suite in D major, which was also the first selection in the old DG box of vinyls.  By the time I bought those vinyls, the historically-informed approach to performing Bach was beginning to build up steam;  and, as a result, the opening measures of BWV 1068 were performed with the kind of solemnity that made for rather a jolt.  Indeed, when Teldec released the Bach 2000 account of Bach’s complete works, they added a supplemental CD presenting six different interpretations of an excerpt from the BWV 244 setting of Saint Matthew’s version of the Passion text.  One of those was a Furtwängler recording made between April 14 and 17 of 1954, and those who appreciate wildly different points of view will probably appreciate that Membran has included BWV 244 in its entirety.

Like Jeffrey Thomas, who is the Artistic Director of the American Bach Soloists, I am just as glad that this reverential approach to Bach, regardless of whether the music is sacred or secular, has become a thing of the past.  (Thomas’ first exposure was to The Bach Choir of Bethlehem, whose solemnity tended to approach, if not cross, the brink of stodginess.)  Nevertheless, I find it hard to accuse Furtwängler of being stodgy.  Rather, he seems to be seeking a grandeur in Bach that may be at odds with the historical record but was probably more consistent with a legacy of Bach interpretation that could be traced back to Felix Mendelssohn’s revival of BWV 244.  I eventually got used to the old DG vinyl;  and, by the time I had covered all seven CDs in Box 1 on the Legacy release, I found that I was able to recover my old listening habits, even with a bit of nostalgia thrown in for good measure.

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