Brahms Piano Concerto No 2. Furtwängler Symphonic Concerto - exc

Two great musicians caught in concert in Berlin during the war in a performance of Brahms's Second Piano Concerto notable for its overall architecture

Author: 
Richard Osborne

Brahms Piano Concerto No 2. Furtwängler Symphonic Concerto - exc

  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2
  • Symphonic Concerto, Adagio solenne (sehr langsam)

This live German Radio recording of Brahms's B flat Concerto by Fischer, Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic has long been revered by musicians and critics, albeit warily, conscious, as anyone is bound to be, of the looseness of some of Fischer's playing.
In the past, the trick has been to draw attention, not to the detail of the performance, but to its overall shape: to what EG, in his review of the 1969 Unicorn release, called 'its emotional as well as musical contour'. In his book The Furtwangler Record (Amadeus: 1994), John Ardoin writes of 'many planes of sound' and 'contrasting emotions' before launching into the fetchingly descriptive 'with this comes the sensation of an autumn tempest eventually playing itself out and leaving in its wake coolness and serenity.'
The two essays accompanying this latest CD transfer are rather more direct in confronting the 'wrong notes' issue while at the same time trying to make light of it. In one, we are regaled with Fischer's famous 'suitcase' joke ('Of course, it's heavy, my dear friend, it contains all my wrong notes!') ; in the other, we read that Fischer's blemishes 'like pock marks on an old painting, are somehow part and parcel of his total effect.'
Really? Slapdash playing is slapdash playing; it can never enhance a performance, and on record it is pretty well intolerable. But, then, how inaccurate is Fischer's playing in this particular performance? 'Intermittently' would be a fair response. He is never really on top of the first movement, magically though he plays at the start of the development (8'32'') and again at the start of the recapitulation (11'33''). The Scherzo is superb - a terrific reading from everyone - as is the Andante, a performance which has long been cited as a locus classicus of how to pace, phrase, sound and imaginatively inhabit the music.
In the finale, a different problem arises (or so it seems to me). Not the sketchiness of Fischer's playing but the fact that it is a dull and unidiomatic reading of the music. The gracefulness, Fischer's and Furtwangler's, is an assumed, artificial gracefulness; there is precious little humour in the playing; and the music's gipsy element seems to have been almost totally suppressed. (Even as the gipsies themselves were being suppressed by the Nazis. A subconscious prompting, perhaps, or merely an unhappy coincidence?) Towards the end of the movement, Furtwangler really piles on the pressure in a way that seems contrived rather than organic, as though he knows the thing is not really working.
By my reckoning, this is the seventh CD transfer of the performance. (Odd to find Testament following the crowd.) It is as good as can be expected: tolerable in the outer movements, bordering on the pleasurable in the two inner ones. Certainly, the 'buzz' of distortion that, on LP, discoloured certain high-frequency piano chords has largely disappeared. The fill-up, the slow movement of Furtwangler's post-Brucknerian Symphonic Concerto, is a 1939 EMI studio recording, and a good one, too, though the Angst-ridden climax clearly had the peak programme meters lurching dangerously into the red.'

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