The Bruckner collection in the new DG box set (2)

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?

The Bruckner collection in the new DG box set (1)

Overview

One of the highlights in the new Wilhelm Furtwängler – Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca box set is its excellent collection of Bruckner recordings within Furtwängler’s discography.

There are extant recordings of the last six Bruckner symphonies conducted by Furtwängler.

For the Fourth Symphony, there exists a 1941 performance but it is not complete and is in very poor sound. The other two post-war recordings, both in 1951 and by the VPO, are included within this new set. The earlier recording in Stuttgart was released by DG while that performed one week later was by Decca.

There exist two Bruckner 5’s. The magnificent wartime concert in 1942 is included here. The other one was in Salzburg in 1951, previously released by EMI.

The only extant Sixth is that of a wartime concert in 1943 but unfortunately the first movement is not available, whether it was not recorded or has been lost is not clear. It is not included in this new DG set.

Five recordings exist for Bruckner 7. The wartime one in 1941 suffers the same fate as the wartime Fourth, incomplete and in poor sound. There is a studio recording in 1942 of only the Adagio by Telefunken. Then there are three post-war recordings available. The 1949 performance was issued by EMI. The other two are from 1951. The earlier one in Cairo was first released by DG in 1976 on LP and is included here. The later one in Rome has been released by Tahra. These three post-war performances are quite similar, although many prefer the 1949 one.

When it comes to Bruckner 8, the wartime Magnetofonkonzert in 1944 is considered the best among Furtwängler’s four extant recordings of this symphony, and is fortunately included here. The other three are post-war concerts, less inspired and less angst-ridden than the wartime one.

The only Bruckner 9 performance in Furtwängler’s discography is considered by many as one of the best recordings in history of this symphony. It was first issued by DG in a memorial LP box set in 1963, and is logically included in this new CD set. A recording not to be missed!

The piles of relevant CDs previously released by DG and Decca/London for comparison with the 6 Bruckner CDs included in the new box set

The Decca Bruckner 4

This concert recording was made on 29 October 1951 in the Congress Hall of the Deutsche Museum, Munich. Strangely this Bruckner 4 has not been released on CD by Decca internationally and so it is considered rather rare.

The Japanese CD versions that I have include a 1996 CD released by King Record, “manufactured under license of Polydor K.K.” (KICC 2502), and a 1997 CD released by Polygram K.K. Japan (POCL-4302). The sound of the latter is not good, being dry and thin, compared to the former. The sound of KICC 2502 has an LP-feel, rich with a good bass; the timbre of the Viennese cellos is fuller and mellower in particular.

KICC 2502 on the left and POCL-4302 on the right

Later, in 2002, Orfeo released a double-CD of the concert on 29 October 1951 and also Haydn 88 of a week earlier (C5590221). The sound appears more modern and transparent, but the price to pay is that it becomes dry and the brass loses the mellowness of the VPO. The sort of monopoly by Gottfried Kraus on the remastering of Furtwängler’s VPO recordings has raised a few eyebrows, and I can confess that I’m not one of those who like his particularly sonic signature in these remasterings.

Then Tahra in 2004 included this Bruckner 4 in her 4-CD Wilhelm Furtwängler In Memoriam. The sound is even worse than the Orfeo’s, being aggressively bright and coarse, with the higher notes sounding piercing and shrill, and thus losing the famous Viennese charm of the VPO.

The Orfeo and Tahra releases of this performance

The CD in the new DG set (CD33) has a much better sound than that of Orfeo and Tahra. The sound is a good mix of clarity, fullness and warmth. There is no information given on remastering. The 1996 Japanese CD may sound a little richer but is less clear.

A good start I’d say 🙂

Why should I purchase the new DG Furtwängler box set?

This is a question many Furtwängler fans will ask themselves. In fact, it is also a question that many potential buyers of this box set will ask themselves.

There must be a thousand reasons, each of which may be unique to a particular person. The first obvious reason that comes to mind, which pertains to a group not few in numbers, is “Because I’m a Furtwängler collector or completist!” How about some more helpful reasons for potential buyers?

I also need to find some valid reasons to convince myself that this box set is worthwhile.

  1. Compact size: the new set is almost one-fourth of the size of the 1994 Japanese box set of almost identical contents.
  2. Nice design: kaleidoscopic colour scheme which is pleasing to the eyes.
  3. Reasonable price: for a 34-CD plus one DVD set.
  4. Specialties of the house: the DGG recordings include one of the best, if not the best, Schumann 4 recordings ever made in many music lovers’ mind. The 1951 Schubert “Great” is truly splendid. The Furtwängler 2 recording embodies the romanticism the composer/conductor could offer.
  5. Ample representation of the best period of Furtwängler’s live recordings: 13 CDs of the wartime recordings.
  6. Excellent Bruckner collection: apart from the truncated Bruckner 6, the new set includes all the other Bruckner symphonies recorded by Furtwängler. Except perhaps Bruckner 7, all the Bruckner symphonies included represent the best Furtwängler recordings of that number – wartime 5th, 8th and 9th, and a lovely Stuttgart 4th.
  7. Unique Furtwängler opera video: Don Giovanni, though controversial of whether it is a truly live recording.
  8. Inclusion of relative rarities on CD: the Decca recordings are all included on 3 CDs.
  9. Curiosity-satisfying contents: his earliest recording of Beethoven 5 in 1926, and other excerpts from the 1930s, and his post-war return to Berlin concert recording in 1947 after his denazification.
  10. Contrasting documentation: I really doubt whether it is a reason for buying this set. DG chose to adopt the approach of praising Furtwängler’s music making but demeaning the man as a person by inviting Rob Cowan and Norman Lebrecht to write essays and do video interviews. Interestingly Lebrecht’s first YouTube video shows his erroneous view on recording history when he claimed, “When I started listening to classical music, mostly on LPs, in the 1960s, you couldn’t find a Furtwängler recording; they’ve all been deleted.” Furtwängler recordings in the catalogue were few in the 1960s or even early 1970s but they were not all deleted.

Wilhelm Furtwängler on Deutsche Grammophon (DG) CDs

With the first international release of a 34-CD Furtwängler box set by Deutsche Grammophon, many are interested in the sound quality of CDs in this new set compared to previous releases.

When comparisons are to be made, we should at least know what are available for this purpose. With this in mind, I have compiled a list to share with you what CDs have been released by DG both internationally and locally in Europe or Japan. As my knowledge is limited, I don’t pretend this list to be complete, and any information on what I have missed out will be much appreciated.

I’ll post pictures of the CDs that I own in this list later when I have time.

Happy listening!

Why is it risky to call a special edition “complete”?

In mathematics, to prove a theorem false, often all you need to do is to provide a counterexample. To play devil’s advocate, you can apply the same logic to the recent surge of “Complete Editions” of musicians in classical music.

How about the coming WILHELM FURTWÄNGLER: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon & Decca?

Does this edition include all of what DG or Decca has released on Wilhelm Furtwängler? Oh, I can almost see your devilish smile.

Life of course is not so simple. The answer is not a simple yes or no.

Two CDs in the Vienna Philharmonic 150th Anniversary Edition issued by Deutsche Grammophon in 1991, as shown in the following picture, have contents not included in the coming “Complete” Edition.

For the DG 435324-2, the 1944 Beethoven Leonore III and the 1945 Brahms Symphony No. 2 are included in the coming set on CD15. However the 1954 Beethoven Grosse Fuge is not included. The Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in May 1953 on DG 435325-2 is also not included in the coming “Complete” Edition.

The fact that these 2 recordings are not included may just be due to copyright reasons as they are part of the Archiv der Wiener Philharmoniker. Whatever the reason for their non-inclusion, it is a pity that these 2 very admirable recordings are not included in the coming “Complete” Edition.

Anyway, I’m perfectly happy with a glass half full rather than moaning a glass half empty.

WILHELM FURTWÄNGLER New DGG Edition – Digital download/streaming vs CDs

The “WILHELM FURTWÄNGLER Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon & Decca” 35-disc edition will also be available via streaming and download platforms.

The digital download or streaming format will be available in 7 volumes. At present 4 out of these 7 volumes have already been released.

Many Furtwängler fans must have already got a large part, if not all, of the releases in this Edition, and some of you may not want too many repetitions in their collection. The digital download format may be a good choice to fill the gaps in your collection, which would otherwise not be available in CD format because the CDs in this Edition are apparently not available in separate smaller sets, at least in the near future.

The table below shows the CD numbers in the box set which correspond to the digital volumes, and hopefully it will help some to make their choices.

I guess most will be satisfied with streaming alone for the bonus disc, i.e. CD34, in the box set, which is available in Spotify. This perhaps applies to the Early Polydor Recordings as well. The Wartime Recordings, Post-war Radio Recordings and DGG Recordings have been released by DG previously and are quite easily available even now. Perhaps the most coveted part is the Decca Recordings which have not been widely available in CD format, thus a digital download of Volume 7 may be an economical method to complete one’s collection.

What will be missing in the digital downloads or streaming is the pretty booklet in the box set with rediscovered photos, contact prints, previously unpublished drawings and essays by Rob Cowan and Norman Lebrecht, although some of the photos will be available for viewing on social media.

DG marks the 65th anniversary of Furtwängler’s death with a new edition

2019 is the 65th anniversary of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s death, and Deutsche Grammophon is to mark it with the release of a new 35-disc edition: Wilhelm Furtwängler – Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca. As we all know, this set comprises 34 CDs and a DVD.

When the release date of 27 September is getting nearer, more information on this edition emerges. Here are some points:

  1. All recordings in the set will also be available via streaming and download platforms.
  2. Notes within the set are written by Rob Cowan and Norman Lebrecht (!)
  3. There will be an accompanying video blog series with interviews contributed by Norman Lebrecht.
  4. Lebrecht provides an assessment of Furtwängler’s world view, and concludes with: “There is nothing morally admirable about Furtwängler the man…… The music is another matter.”
  5. Rediscovered photos, contact prints and previously unpublished drawings of Furtwängler will be revealed in this edition and on social media.
  6. There is no mention of any new remastering yet, but the set does include “a number of rare Japanese remasterings, previously inaccessible outside Japan”.

Rob Cowan’s article on Furtwängler, Man and Myth, published in Gramophone in February 2005 can be viewed here.

2019 and 1994 DGG “Complete” box sets preliminarily compared

The coming 34-CD+1-DVD “Wilhelm Furtwängler – Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca” box set is apparently modelled on the Japanese Das Vermächtnis von Wilhelm Furtwängler 34-CD box set released back in 1994.

The 1994 Japanese box set
The new box set

The content is very similar, except that the new box set includes a Don Giovanni DVD, which is still available separately, and now with more information of the contents available, we can have a better understanding of how the new set compares with the earlier one.

The order of the recordings in both sets is very similar, because it is mostly chronological. The chronological order as stated by DG refers only to the grouping of recordings in the sequence of pre-war, wartime and post-war periods, and not to the chronological sequence of the recordings within each time period.

Given that the wartime recordings have been reissued in 2 small Collectors Edition box sets (471 2892-2 and  471 294-2) in 2001 after the initial ground-breaking 10-CD box set (427 773-2) released in 1989, and the DGG Recordings in the DG Originals series, it remains to be seen if there is any new remastering in this large box set.

Wilhelm Furtwängler – Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca

After Berliner Philharmoniker released a large box set of Furtwängler’s war-time recordings, and King International reissued Tahra’s releases in small boxes, Deutsche Grammophon would jump on the bandwagon and release a “Complete” box-set of his recordings.

“Wilhelm Furtwängler – Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca”

33CDs + 1 bonus CD + 1 bonus DVD

CD1-CD3: Pre-war Recordings

CD4-CD16: War-time Recordings

CD17-CD23: The Radio Recordings I

CD24-CD26: The DGG Recordings

CD27-CD30: The Radio Recordings II

CD31-CD33: The Decca Recordings

Bonus CD34: Beethoven Sym No. 5; Wilhelm Furtwängler speaks about music

Bonus DVD: Mozart: Don Giovanni

With a 76-page booklet (English and German) with the essays “The Fall and Rise of Wilhelm Furtwänger”, “A Childlike Dionysus” and rare and rediscovered photographic material.