TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 Pathétique. WAGNER: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond. (both recorded 1938)
NAXOS 8.110865 (B) (ADD) TT: 67:05

From the time it was released in 1939 as RCA Victor album M-553, this was the “Pathétique” of choice chez Dettmer. Although it cost a dollar more than the then-recent Ormandy-Philadelphia or elderly Koussevitzky-Boston versions also on Red Seal 78s, my father brought it home – not because he was moved by all of the music but for the development of the first movement and the scherzo march that had made such an impression when he heard Fritz Reiner conduct it in concert years earlier with the Cincinnati Symphony. We didn’t listen often, and each time I found it deeply disturbing as music, although my mind’s eye could see Furtwängler and the pre-war Berlin in the Beethovensaal of the old Philharmonie a year earlier – creating an orchestral sound in Beethoven of depth and power as I’d never heard before, nor did again until Reiner raised the Chicago Symphony to international primacy nearly two decades later.

This personal preface is offered as an apology as well as a tribute to Furtwängler whom I never heard live again, nor a very different Berliner Philharmoniker when Karajan brought it stateside in 1955. Furtwängler had succumbed to pneumonia in November 1954, and Karajan’s price for “rescuing” a long-planned tour was lifetime directorship of the orchestra. What one heard in the prewar Berlin Phil was a fullness of tone throughout, from the Nibelheim depth of its contrabassi to the brilliance of the strings, soprano winds and brass. That sound was never again balanced during the Karajan decades – there was always a weakness (if not a hole) in the mid-range – and not restored until Claudio Abbado had worked three seasons as Karajan’s successor after 1989. Amazingly, it is preserved here in Mark-Obert Thorn’s superlative transfer, not just of Tchaikovsky but of the Wagner Prelude and “Liebestod” from Tristan. British HMV made both recordings as well as a weighty Beethoven Fifth and Beecham’s guest-led Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and during the LP era all issued by EMI in comparatively mediocre transfers.
Now, thanks to Naxos and its alliance with Obert-Thorn, justice has been done at the same price in 2004 dollars as the RCA Victor 78s in 1939 dollars (which bought a Packard sedan for only slightly more than $2,000!). This performance of Tchaikovsky, heard by me for the first time in roughly six decades, is a thing of extraordinary beauty and solidarity, from a creamy contrabassoon opening over murmuring low strings to a sorrowing but not sentimental or teary finale. Fascinating how, in the A-section repeat of the 5/4 waltz movement, Furtwängler injects a shadowy note of sadness – as if presciently – and how he begins the march not as parade music but with a speed and delicacy that would work as well in portions of The Nutcracker or in any of the orchestral suites. But when string scales introduce the March proper (and how cleanly we hear the cymbals and piccolo!), the tempo almost imperceptibly slows until an accelerando in the coda that is sheerly intuitional and exhilarating. Furtwängler’s timing for the Adagio lamentoso finale is 10:23 – there is nothing, as David Hall once charged, “Teutonic” about it, there or anywhere else.

Two generations bred on Toscanini’s pepperoni readings, or Mravinsky’s Leningrad mono performance recorded in Vienna by DGG (breathtaking, but Tchaikovsky as a statue of Lenin?) may find Furtwängler and the Berlin Phil of October-November 1938 a different world – but one closer to reality, in terms of the composer.

Despite the lambent performance recorded in February 1938 – pre-Anschluss – of Wagner’s concert coupling from Tristan, the Prelude to Act I that is not resolved cadentially until Isolde’s love-death over the corpse of Tristan three hours later in the opera house, the raison d’etre for investment in this disc is perhaps the noblest and most subtle Pathétique in the history of recording. Every collection should have a copy.

R.D. (March 2004)