BEETHOVEN, WILHELM FURTWANGLER AND THE SOUND OF SILENCE

I’d always thought that the deafening silence that greets the frantic close of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as cued in Berlin in 1942 by Wilhelm Furtwängler (Archipel ARPCD0270) was mute fear inspired by the presence of the Nazi Propaganda Minister Dr. Goebbels. All other Furtwängler performances of the piece that I’d heard were tailed by immediate volleys of applause but on that night a good few second elapsed before anyone dare to ‘cast the first clap.’ Frightening is what I’d call it, but apparently not unique. The most celebrated of Furtwängler’s 9ths is the one he conducted for the post-war re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival on July 29th1951, oft-reissued, most recently on a fine sounding transfer included in Warner Classics’ 55-cd ‘The Complete Wilhelm Furtwängler on Record’, not quite what it says on the box but I shan’t go into that now. 

Apparently Furtwängler was furious when during the drive home after the concert EMI’s Walter Legge seemed lukewarm about the performance, so much so that Furtwängler insisted he stop the car so that he could take a walk, cool off and gather his angry thoughts. This reaction on Legge’s part has always seemed to me ludicrous. To describe the performance as magnificent is an understatement, which isn’t to say that it will suit all moods or indeed all tastes. It’s more a happening than a performance, which opens among descending mists, confronts thunderclaps for the first movement’s stormy centre, dances demonically in the scherzo, stretches the sublime slow movement to near-on 20 minutes then for the finale, after the Biblical-sounding low string recitatives at the beginning and a long, suspenseful pause, ushers in the ‘Ode to Joy’ as if from the far distance. The theme itself builds with excitable abandon, wrapped in expressive counterpoint, while Furtwängler has his chorus distend chords where other choirs would run out of breath.  The percussive march episode (Hans Hopf, tenor) forges impatiently forwards and the fugue that follows argues a furious response. Has this movement ever sounded so compelling on disc? Or more inevitable? Not in my experience.

But in a sense the best is yet to come. At the close of the work Furtwängler takes Beethoven at his word with a reckless prestissimo, hurtles towards a precipice, then rockets high into the ether. Whatever lies below is so far down as to be invisible. At least that’s the impression given by this latest transfer which unlike its Warners rival honours a very long silence that recalls that 1942 Berlin performance. So you see … it wasn’t Goebbels and his mob who ‘inspired’ a respectful, pause but Furtwängler himself, leaving his audience mute and open mouthed. The big difference is the intensity of the applause.  Fairly standard I’d say in Berlin, but at Bayreuth, ecstatic with loud stamping and deafening shouts from the audience. On and on it goes.  OK, I know this was the post-war reopening of a major German theatre and the man on the rostrum was loved and respected beyond all measure by many music lovers, but still… what a response. 

The sound itself is set at a lower level than the Warners transfer and suffers minor flaws (some occasional quiet rumble and acetate scratch), but the dynamic range of the performance comes across with impressive immediacy, so much so that there were times when I wondered whether I was listening to the same performance. Also included (and separately tracked) are welcoming announcements, programme announcements and, in addition to the applause, closing remarks. The general idea, according to BIS, was not to change anything, ‘not to ‘brush up’ the sound, not to clean or shorten the pauses or omit audience noises within the music, but to keep the original as it was. In this way we recreate the feeling of actually sitting in front of an old radio in 1951, listening to this important concert, thus creating a true historical document.’ In other words, providing the listener with an authentic listening context. I’d say that even if you have all previous editions of this recording, add this one to them. It will likely prove revelatory. It’s on BIS BIS-9060 (c£11.50).

8 thoughts on “BEETHOVEN, WILHELM FURTWANGLER AND THE SOUND OF SILENCE

  1. David Paul Edwards

    Thank you Rob for this fabulous piece of writing, also deserving of the word ‘revelatory’. I can tell you that it provoked a comparable response: a moment of awe at what I’d just read and then the question ‘is there anyone who writes about interpretations on record with such immediacy and passion?’

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    1. Thank you so much David. I’m blushing and hardly rate myself that highly. But it’s really heartening to receive such an enthusiastic response. With best wishes for the New Year. Rob.

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  2. John Duke

    “there were times when I wondered whether I was listening to the same performance”

    You weren’t, according to Henning Smidth – EMI/Warner issued an edited version combining parts of rehearsal recordings with parts of the live recording, whereas the BIS issue is the performance itself, complete and unadulterated.

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  3. Brian Gardner

    In the light of the comments above, and of your review in the March 22 Gramophone, I would be fascinated to know what, if anything, is the difference between this wonderful BIS release, and the Orfeo one of a few years ago?

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  4. Thank you so much Brian. The Orfeo sound was always a massive improvement on its EMI/Warners predecessors. With BIS the improvement is nothing like as marked but the real difference, as I said in my reviews, is the long silence at the end of the performance followed by wild applause. This might not seem important – until you actually hear how moving it is. BIS’s intention is, as they said on their booklet, to rekindle the sensation of listening to the original broadcast, complete with various announcements. When it comes to sound I’d say that Orfeo, BIS and the new ‘Complete Furtwängler’ transfer (Warners) are all vastly superior to EMI’s original CDs, LPs, etc. Best. Rob

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    1. Brian

      Hi Rob.
      Thank you for this swift, helpful reply. It’s good to be in touch again! Having listened via a streaming service to the BIS version, I plan to renew acquaintance with the Orfeo CD later. I also have the Tahra disc of the Lucerne 1954 Beethoven 9 which I will also sample later. I think it was Furtwangler’s last concert?
      Take care.
      Brian.

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      1. Yes I think it is Brian. I still prefer the Bayreuth 9th (there’s one from 1954 too [Bayreuth that is] but in ‘iffy’ sound and not quite so compelling interpretatively). All in all I think BIS offer the most comprehensive experience of this wonderful performance. Great to be in touch and you keep well too. Rob.

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