Looking at 3 upcoming Japanese Furtwängler CD releases as a child…..

Nowadays CD releases, in particular reissues, of Furtwängler’s recordings are so myriad that even his most ardent fans can have a headache. As such I have tried to regress to being a child in Hans Christian Anderson’s story, and look at 3 upcoming Japanese releases through this child’s eyes.

Bayreuth Beethoven 9 from Warner Music Japan HQCD (WPCS28425)

This repeatedly remastered and reissued recording now has a new descendant. What is so special about this new reissue? It is claimed to be based on a new 2019 DSD 11.2 MHz file made from the original analogue master tape. As such it is different from the 2011 96kHz/24bit master used for the “MQA-CDxUHQCD” issued just 3 months ago (WPCS28420), which at that time was claimed to be of the ultimate sound quality! So here you are, a further “improvement” from the “ultimate” just 3 months ago!

My question is if it is such a high-res master of DSD 11.2 MHz quality (supposed to be 256 times that of a red-book CD), then why do they regress/reduce it back to the meagre CD quality for reissue? Why don’t they just release this DSC 11.2MHz file for download in the market? It is not a million dollar question; it is only a 40 dollar question at most.

January 1951 VPO Beethoven 9 from Otaken CD (TKC367)

The sound source of this CD is a “mint LP” which presumably is King Records K19C287-8 (issued in 1983 and incidentally is identical to Cetra FE33). King Records had issued an LP of the same recording one year earlier (K22C173) which had a poorer sound (supposedly from an air check) and contained parts of the 1951 Bayreuth recording mixed into the 4th movement of this VPO recording. The “mint LP” used as the sound source was thought to be based on a master tape transcription. However, given the fact that this recording has been released by Orfeo (within the 18-CD box set C834118Y) utilizing the master tape from the radio station, you can know the difference in the generation of copies from the master tape being used between this upcoming Otaken CD and the Orfeo CD. This CD is just part of the trend in Japanese reissues using LPs as sound sources. You are the one to judge whether it adds anything meaningfully new to your collection.

June 1949 Wiesbaden Mozart and Brahms from Grand Slam CD (GS2212)

This CD is a new member of the series of CDs from its producer Naoya Hirabayashi using open-reel tapes as sound source. I won’t bother you with the merits and demerits of using these as sound source. My only question to this reissue is that according to the comments by Hirabayashi, this CD will overturn the previous “ranking” of the best Furtwängler’s Brahms 4 (btw, was opined to be the 1943 live and 1948 EMI live by the producer) because of the vivid sound of this CD. When did sound begin to take precedence over interpretation in “ranking” Furtwängler’s recordings? I’m puzzled.

All in all, going back to the child at the beginning of this posting, he seems to be only able to see the emperor’s new clothes in these 3 releases.

When Weitblick met Stockholm (1)

Given the intense interest in reissuing anything Furtwängler in the past three decades, it is almost inconceivable that all his recordings with the Stockholm Philharmonic were only grouped together in a box set in 2019. All of these recordings have been issued before, albeit in a piecemeal manner. Even the concert on 13 November 1948 has not been released commercially in one single package. That 1993 Music and Arts CD (CD793) was almost there when it included the Beethoven 7 and 8, but the Leonore Overture No. 3 was missing. Interestingly, only the rehearsal on the previous day was included.

CDs containing the recordings in this new Weitblick set, with the exception of Beethoven 8, were not commonly reissued previously, and this fact will make this new set appealing to some fans of the conductor.

First of all, let me say that the quality of sound in all these recordings is very much a case of caveat emptor. Strictly speaking, there were no original master tapes to speak of, because all of them were originally recorded on acetate discs. As such, don’t expect miracles in sound even if Weitblick claims that some of the recordings are firsts from Swedish Radio sources, namely Beethoven 7 and 9, Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde excerpts.

This 4-CD set contains a passionately-written essay by Néstor Castiglione. A very fine read I’d say, much better than those by Norman Lebrecht who seemingly can only write on Furtwängler in a denigrating tone one way or another.

The old warhorse re-appears: Stockholm Beethoven 8

This 1948 Beethoven Eighth recording is one of the two recordings, the other being the Second, that allowed EMI to issue a complete Furtwängler Beethoven symphony set after Furtwängler had died before the project to record all Beethoven symphonies with the Wiener Philharmoniker could be finished. It has been issued with different remastering by EMI, and lately by Warner, many times previously. So it is no stranger to music lovers.

In this performance, Furtwängler deftly depicted all the contrasts designed by Beethoven in this symphony while allowing sunshine to stream in the music. The orchestral sonority of the Stockholm Philharmonic was admirable, and did not sound distinctly different from the BPO or even the VPO.

In the second movement (Allegro scherzando), I can exclaim, “What rhythmic beauty!” The repeated staccato woodwind chords and the answering bass-line together painted a soundscape full of ebullience. In the third movement in Tempo di menuetto I can sense a very elegant dance. However, unfortunately there was some untidy playing in the Finale.

EMI, now Warner, has seen many competitors in this recording. Its own version in its latest remastering should be familiar to many of us. It has a compressed dynamic compared to others, with thinner sound too. The Music and Arts CD has added excessive echo that I’m not keen on. The French Furtwängler Society CD obviously employs less noise reduction, with better dynamic compared to EMI’s, but it is lighter in bass. The CD in the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra commemorative set has a sound which is more lively and full-bodied. The newcomer from Weitblick, fortunately, has a definitely better sound and dynamic. I’d say it is even better than the previous champion in the Orchestra’s set.

Do we need another CD reissue of Furtwängler’s 1951 Bayreuth Beethoven Ninth?

To celebrate the “Gustav Klimt: Vienna – Japan 1900” exhibition in the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum from 23 April to 10 July and then in the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art from 23 July to 14 October 2019, Warner Music Japan will issue a local release of Furtwängler’s 1951 Bayreuth Beethoven Ninth recording – again! This recording is said to be used as the background music during the exhibition.

What is so special about this reissue? The following are claims of its special points which to many are considered gimmicks at best:

  1. The CD jacket and booklet will use Klimt’s famous Beethoven Frieze painting
  2. 2019 new DSD11.2Mhz remastering from the original master tape at Abbey Road Studio
  3. Mastering for UHQCD by Kazuie Sugimoto (杉本一家) at JVC

Let’s hear how the CD sounds when it is released on 24 April.

Update: the cover art has been published.

Beethoven Ninth on 30 May 1953

When Dreamlife released the CD set RIPD003 back in February 2009, it caused much discussion because it was claimed to be a Beethoven 9 recording by Furtwängler on 30 May 1953. It sounds totally different from the recording previously issued by other companies dated 31 May 1953. Thus started heated discussions as to the authenticity of this recording and also the exact dates of the extant releases.

This controversial recording will be reissued in Japan in the format of UHQCD by a new Japanese label called Epitagraph. In Japan this recording has been widely acclaimed as the “ultimate” Beethoven Ninth by Furtwängler in his last years, not least by the Wilhelm Furtwängler Society Japan (日本フルトヴェングラー協会).

The original 2009 Dreamlife release is a neat box set containing a replica of programme notes. It will be a good chance for those who missed out on the Dreamlife CDs to get this particular release, hopefully in good sound as well.