The unique Bruckner 9
“How unique is this recording?” One may ask.
It is the only extant Furtwängler’s Bruckner 9 recording available to us at present. One amazing thing about this recording is that it has long been thought to be a live recording of a performance on 7 October 1944 for broadcast purposes. However, new evidence shows that it was in fact a “studio” recording made over 5 days from 3 October to 7 October. This finding challenges our long-held conception of the demarcation between live and studio recordings by Furtwängler.
Philippe Leduc, of the French Furtwängler Society, has described this Bruckner 9 as “one of the most beautiful performances in history”. As such, ever since Deutsche Grammophon first issued this recording on LP in 1963, DG has reissued it on CD a few times, and other companies or societies have also reissued it using different sound sources.
From the DG camp, the first reissue on CD was from Japan in 1991 (POCG-2347), and then in 1994 within the large 34-CD set (POCG-9491). Around the same time, Polygram France reissued it on a double-CD (coupled with Bruckner 7) which was also available outside France. We have to wait till 2004 for the official international release, which is included in the 6-CD box set Wilhelm Furtwängler – An Anniversary Tribute, marking the 50th anniversary of Furtwängler’s death. Fifteen years later today, it is again included in the new box set which marks the 65th anniversary of his death.
There are many releases from other companies, and I can include only a few common or salient ones for comparison here.
1996 Dante LYS 110
2004 French Furtwängler Society SWF 041
2008 Music & Arts CD-1209 (within this 5-CD set of Bruckner symphonies)
2017 Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 350125 (hybrid SACD)
2018 Berliner Philharmoniker (in the 22-hybrid SACD set of wartime recordings)
Before comparisons are made, we need to know what primary sound sources are available. Unfortunately, the master tape has not been found so far. This recording was not included either in the batch of half-speed copy tapes returned from the former USSR in 1987 or in the master tapes in 1991. However there exist several copy tapes of the original master tapes in:
- Deutscher Demokratischer Rundfunk Berlin (hence the Eterna LPs)
- Bayerischer Rundfunk Munich
- Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (DRA)
- Funkhaus Berlin (an incomplete copy)
The first DG release in 1963 was based on the copy tape from the former DDR, and subsequent DG reissues were also based on it or the copy tape in Munich licensed from the former Deutscher Demokratischer Rundfunk Berlin.
New vs Old DG’s
The sound of the CD in the new set is very similar, if not identical, to that in the 2004 Anniversary box set. The French release in 1994 was slightly drier and slightly boxier. The Japanese releases do not have the usually anticipated superiority. In short, the sound of the new reissue is very satisfactory to me.
DG vs others
The sound source of the Dante CD is not specified and is assumed to be from a DG LP. The sound is warm and gentle, but is muddier at the same time. Those who prefer a softer sound may like it. The French Society CD was claimed to have better dynamics, but to my wooden ears, the difference to DG’s is quite minimal. The tape hiss is more pronounced though.
The M&A reissue again did not specify its sound source, only saying the recordings are digitally remastered with the “revolutionary harmonic balancing technique”. Noise reduction is heavier and there is a hint of added echoes or reverberations. The timbre of the instruments is duller than that in the DG set.
Are the SACDs better? The Praga hybrid SACD has a higher level with a ”high-definition” inclination. I suspect it is just a digital upscaling of the digital file from a DG CD. As such, the tape hiss becomes intrusive in softer passages of music, and the sound is thinner. The sound of the DG CD is more natural. The remastering in the Berliner Philharmoniker hybrid SACD results in a slightly better sound, but not much. There is less tape hiss, but the trenchant sound is not to everyone’s liking. The slight distortion in the first tutti of the opening movement is still there, for example. I still prefer the more natural timbre of the brass and the more passionate-sounding woodwind in the DG CD.
Sound is no replacement of the performance
I’m rather1 sceptical of a current trend, especially in Japanese companies, of pursuing, or at least claiming, a better sound in a particular Furtwängler recording in endless reissues. If a new reissue is based on a better primary sound source, e.g. a newly discovered master or copy tape, e.g. the RIAS recordings from Audite, then it is more meaningful. If it is only just another “new remastering” from a secondary sound source, e.g. an old LP or the trendy 2-tract tapes, then it is little more than the emperor’s new clothes.
For many “new remastering” in recent years, the attention to improving each small passage of sound in the recording often results in losing a natural progression of the music which is very much the treasurable attribute in the performance captured in the original mastering of the past. In other words, many new remastering attempts have missed the wood for the trees.
For this particular Bruckner 9 in particular, when I listen to such a moving rendition and the music itself has attracted all my attention, any differences in the quality of sound becomes imperceptible and indeed irrelevant. The music itself is all that is important, isn’t it?