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
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
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)