BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D, op. 61. Große Fuge, op. 133.
Wolfgang Schneiderhan (violin); Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Pristine PASC 370 TT: 63:09.

This CD is available from PRISTINE AUDIO

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.

(January 2014)