The principal reservation regarding classical compact discs when they were introduced concerned repertory. Would CDs perpetuate only the Classical Top 40 and the most widely publicized contemporary performers? Yes and yes--in the beginning.
Then recently there appeared on CD, without a word of advance hoopla, some genuine classics of the early LP era: the Bruno Walter-led "Lied von der Erde" of Mahler (a monophonic recording, of all things) on the London label, and a cognoscenti-approved, but hardly commercial, program of Mozart Sonatas from the violin-piano team of Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil on Philips. CDs became serious stuff overnight.
With the recent release of a pair of EMI historical recordings and many more of their ilk promised, the compact disc further takes on the appearance of a product as seriously dedicated to art as to commerce.
The latest resuscitations on CD concern themselves with Wilhelm Furtwaengler (1886-1954), one of the most revered and influential conductors of the 20th Century.
EMI/Angel has reissued in digitally remastered compact disc format Furtwaengler's celebrated, exalted reading of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (CDC 7 47081 2), recorded live at the postwar reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. A second Furtwaengler CD pairs studio recordings made two years later of Beethoven and Mendelssohn violin concertos with Yehudi Menuhin (CDC 7 47119 2).
Furtwaengler was almost mythically unpredictable, nowhere more so than in the massive, visionary Beethoven Ninth, wherein the subjective interpretive approach is given one of its most notable recorded exemplars.
This is a performance that covers a vast time span. By the clock, it is slow. Yet the opening pages, which take longer getting to the climactic point than in any other recorded version, project an extraordinary degree of tension, so powerfully maintained its rhythmic structure and so effective its broad dynamic scheme.
The scherzo is thunderously, hammeringly effective, although the slowing down for the trio is--characteristically--excessive, while the slow movement is rapturously, sublimely attenuated. With the finale as the expected crown, the total interpretation is inescapably gripping.
Exasperating, too, as it no doubt was for the 1951 Bayreuth Festival, is an ad hoc band culled from the top German orchestras.
These players produce a quite astonishing amount of imprecise ensemble, ragged entrances and fluffed notes. The problems most likely had their origins in Furtwaengler's notoriously uncommunicative rehearsal practices.
The inspiration of the moment seems central to the conductor's method here, and it is impossible for the listener not be caught up in it. But it is also rather hard on musicians seated before--and trying to read--printed scores. One is led to the conclusion that the orchestra often found itself unprepared for the shifts in tempo and dynamics that characterize this unsettled, charismatic reading.
In the finale, the solo quartet, all principals in Bayreuth productions that summer, is a mixed bag. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf makes Beethoven's exorbitantly unvocal soprano part not only singable but beautiful; basso Otto Edelmann intones the "Joy" theme in engagingly blustery fashion. But Hans Hopf, a make-do Heldentenor of the era, makes his solo even more than usually vulgar, while mezzo Elisabeth Hoengen is, when audible, under pitch.
Sonically, this is the clearest among several reissues to date of Furtwaengler's Ninth. But it must be kept in mind that, never having been intended for commercial release, the recording was not made under controlled conditions.
The later studio recordings sound splendid from the technical as well as musical standpoint. And here one can experience the unique Furtwaengler mastery without the idiosyncrasy.
Beethoven's Violin Concerto, with the magnificent Philharmonia Orchestra of London, is nobly and dramatically conceived. And, while some tastes might dictate a more athletic, less magisterial approach to the Mendelssohn Concerto, it too benefits from the dignity and rhythmic strength of the conductor's approach. The excellent orchestra here is the Berlin Philharmonic.
Menuhin plays magnificently for Furtwaengler in both concertos, with a solidity of tone and regard for mechanical niceties seldom heard from him in succeeding years.