BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D, op. 61. Große Fuge, op.
Wolfgang Schneiderhan (violin); Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Pristine PASC 370 TT: 63:09.
This CD is available from PRISTINE
The star is blotted out by the sun. Like many good little Jewish boys,
my father "took" violin lessons in the Twenties and Thirties,
on the off-chance that he might turn into another Heifetz or Menuhin. It
didn't work out that way. In fact, as long as I knew him, he never took
his violin out of its case. I examined it more than he did. However, the
Beethoven was undoubtedly his favorite concerto, with the Brahms running
a close second. I also think Beethoven's concerto perhaps the finest ever
written (for me, a fallen creature, the Tchaikovsky stands next in line),
a major compositional miracle, in that Beethoven satisfies a concerto listener
without writing a lot of notes, compared to just about any other standard
violin concerto, including Tchaikovsky's or Bartok's.
In my mind, I tend to characterize a soloist who plays the Beethoven well
as a wise elder, a mature personality who has reflected long about life,
etc., etc. My favorite readings include Huberman/Szell, Milstein/Steinberg,
Haendel/Kubelík, Neveu/Rosbaud, Heifetz/Munch. Of the younger violinists,
I love Hilary Hahn's reading with Zinman.
If anything, Beethoven's score creates a conversation between equals --
soloist and orchestra having a philosophical exchange and coming into harmony
three times, once for each movement. One looks in vain for storms or fireworks,
the staples of the concerto. It has less wit than profound humor. Rather,
it's like following the talk of two sages. Therefore, both soloist and
orchestra matter equally. Although finger-dazzle may distract from deeper
matters in other concerti, a star violinist is essentially a sitting duck
in front of a slack orchestra, and a genius conductor can't carry a soloist
who doesn't come up to snuff.
During Beethoven's long opening for orchestra alone, Furtwängler sets
us up for perhaps the greatest interpretation of this score ever. One feels
both total understanding of Beethoven's musical meanings and a simultaneous
impression of magisterial interpretive freedom -- that he could go in any
one of fifty directions with each phrase, each one exactly right, as if
he contains a bottomless well of Beethoven. The Berlin Phil is … well,
the Berlin Phil, one of the world's finest orchestras under its best director.
Furtwängler's first movement, as long as some concertos and symphonies,
keeps the listener moving along the narrative line. The conductor engineers
a long, long build from a mid-level The second movement, symphonic variations
on a theme not particularly suited to variation, goes by almost as a rhapsodic
song. A lot of conductors take the third movement way too slowly and too
heavily. Furtwängler's third movement lightly dances with that Romantic
ideal of pastoral Greece (not for nothing did Disney's artists come up
with fauns and centaurs in Fantasia).
However, the interpretation founders on Schneiderhan, a brilliant technician
with spot-on intonation, full tone, and perfectly-executed double- and
triple-stops. His ability to clarify counterpoint in the cadenzas amazes,
and without resort to "broken" attacks. But Schneiderhan doesn't
convey Furtwängler's level of insight. Fine when he comments on the
orchestral matter underneath him -- a good ensemble player -- he stumbles
when Beethoven puts him in the spotlight, dazed and way too careful, even
dull. According to Furtwängler authorities (something I'm not), the
performance to get is with Menuhin which I admit I haven't heard.
I've never cared for the Große Fuge (great fugue) from any of its
orchestrators. To me, it belongs to the string quartet. I think of the
score as an extremely intimate diary, rather than as a public monument.
First, it gives the solo players a sense of struggle inherent in the music.
Second, a great quartet can phrase more subtly, more flexibly, more variously
than an orchestra. I suspect Furtwängler uses his own arrangement.
The Berlin plays pretty raggedy. The dotted-rhythm passage near the opening
relentlessly pounds and hectors, leaving the awesome power undoubtedly
intended for annoyance and Excedrin Headache #133. It's the musical equivalent
of TYPING IN ALL CAPS. On the other hand, a great string quartet, like
the Hollywood or the Quartetto Italiano, for example, is far more supple
and puts in lights and shades. The Berlin Phil sounds stodgy, mired in
the music. So in all, Furtwängler doesn't change my mind.
Pristine's raison d' être is to present great performances in sound
cleaned up and improved by present-day digital technology. Both performances
come from live concerts in 1952 (Große Fuge) and 1953 (Violin Concerto).
Producer and engineer Mark Obert-Thorn based his restoration on two mint-condition
1972 Unicorn LPs -- a good break, since Unicorn's sound was in general
excellent for the time. The concerto sounds better than the fugue, but
that's traceable, I think, to the original Berlin recordings. One can do
a lot, even the miraculous, with old recordings, to the point where aesthetic/ethical
questions arise. But there still is a wall you can't break through. The
violin concerto, at any rate, is quite clear, the restoration capturing
the breathing organism that was Furtwängler's Berlin Phil.
S.G.S. (January 2014)