Symphony No. 9
Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond; Gré Brouwenstijn (sop); Ira Malaniuk (mez); Wolfgang Windgassen (ten); Ludwig Weber (bs); Bayreuth Festival Ch & O
ORFEO 851121, mono (75:11) Live: Salzburg 8/9/1954
This is a very different Furtwängler Beethoven Ninth from the performance of August 22, 1954, issued on Music & Arts 790 and given a glowing review by Henry Fogel in these pages. This one was previously released as Music & Arts 1127 in 2004. I didn’t hear that release, but the extensive notes in the booklet for this one say that this is the first time they’ve had the technology to correct the many and various flaws of this recording, to wit: “generally listless sound…strong, atmospheric, partly modulated hissing…a distinct electrical humming, tonal distortions, ticks and even short dropouts” as well as “strong variations of pitch.” The back cover of the CD insert claims that this release was possible “only thanks to completely new techniques that have finally allowed us to restore the damaged tapes of the performance.”
The sound is still rather dull and dead-sounding—a problem that might have been corrected by boosting the treble by .08 db and adding a little judicious reverb—but that’s not the real problem with this performance. The real problem is that it’s deadly dull. For the first time in my experience, Furtwängler actually conducts the first three movements of this symphony without the capricious tempo fluctuations that were always part and parcel of his approach to the symphonic repertoire in general throughout most of his career. That’s the good news. The bad news is: The tempos he chose are so slow as to be almost granitic-sounding. There is absolutely no feeling of forward momentum in the first three movements or the first part of the fourth (up until the end of the bass solo, when things finally pick up a little, then stay fairly brisk through to the end). Of course, since Furtwängler by this time was, we are told, a broken man who felt that the horrific crimes his country had committed during the Nazi era could never be compensated for, it’s quite possible that this performance of the Ninth may have expressed the way he felt about the work at that time, that it was no longer a call to “joy” and the “brotherhood of man” but rather a hollow and lifeless piece that no longer held the same meaning for him. Another less obscure reason may simply be his failing health—he would be dead before the end of the year. Whatever the reason, however, this is a dull, overly slow and nearly lifeless performance of the symphony, at least until he and the orchestra (and singers) wake up in the finale.
All of this—the poor sound and the generally lifeless reading—is rather a shame, because this was undoubtedly the finest quartet of singers I’ve heard in any of Furtwängler’s Beethoven Ninths. Brouwenstijn, in particular, simply sails through this music whereas Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (in at least two of the previous performances) struggles mightily; Malaniuk has a strong enough voice to match her note for note, and of course both Windgassen and Weber were Wagnerian singers, and both are in fine voice here.
Furtwängler completists will, of course, want to have this recording, but I can’t imagine that any others will.
Lynn René Bayley