WILHELM FURTWÄNGLER TRANSFERS by Eduardo Chibás - Various performances detailed below - Available as downloads from www.furtwanglersound.com
The art of transferring historic recordings, particularly broadcasts and other "unofficial" or non-studio recordings, is a very tricky combination of art and science. It has improved enormously in the past decade, with transfer specialists like Mark Obert-Thorn, Ward Marston, Andrew Rose, and others. For those of us who admire the work of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, the progress has been a source of both joy and confusion. What really is the best transfer of any specific Furtwängler performance? Can one say that one is the "best," when, in fact, taste and judgment are heavily involved, and when even if there are people around who attended Furtwängler performances sixty years ago, just how reliable are their memories likely to be?
I have recently written with enthusiasm about the Pristine transfers, which for the most part have impressed me as being the best so far. Now, along comes a different set, and from a most unlikely source, and after spending almost a month doing direct A-B comparisons, I have to say that while I continue to have enormous admiration for Pristine's work, I find myself attracted to these new ones even more enthusiastically. It is important to recognize that technology is constantly changing, and today's ideal may be superseded by tomorrow's developments. It is equally important to recognize the central role of individual tastes and preferences, both on the part of the person doing the transfer work and those of us who listen to the results. There is no black and white here, and in the end all one can do is go by what one hears, and how one reacts to that. Having spent the better part of a month listening to Furtwängler recordings mainly in Chibás' transfers and Pristine's, but also other versions as noted in the specific comments below, I come away very deeply impressed with Chibás' work, and if I were forced to keep only one version of these performances for future hearing, it would be his.
Eduardo Chibás is a Cuban-born advertising executive who lives in Venezuela, but whose passion through most of his life has been music, as you will see from an accompanying interview that I conducted with him. He has been an enthusiast of Furtwängler recordings for many, many years. Chibás has also taken up conducting himself, without any real professional training, and his Bruckner recordings have been well received (including in Fanfare). Full disclosure: I have known Eduardo for some years now he is also an admirer of Daniel Barenboim's conducting, and has often attended Barenboim performances that I was involved with when I managed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We have spent enjoyable evenings together listening to recordings. When he told me that he was making his own transfers of Furtwängler material, I was extremely skeptical, and told him so. I was so pleased with Pristine's work, as well as Obert-Thorn's on Naxos, that I did not see the need, nor did I feel that even a very gifted amateur, with no formal engineering or musical training, could equal those earlier results. I was wrong.
As you will see from the interview, he has some very definite and strong, ideas about music in general and about Furtwängler in particular. One can accept, reject, or debate some of those ideas. But to my ears, the results speak for themselves, and speak clearly. Because of the expense of mailing CDs from Venezuela, Chibás would recommend (and prefer) that you download what you want and thus I am simply going to review performances one by one, rather than worrying about CD couplings. His site gives instructions on how to burn your own CDs from his downloads. There are more recordings available than I have reviewed he keeps churning them out (he also tends to go back and improve his own work), and I did not have the time to hear everything with which I was provided. I did not want to review any recording which I did not compare to other, previously issued transfers. But I tried to make a wide sampling of repertoire and source material in order to provide a balanced judgment of Chibás' work.
I have written in Fanfare about Pristine's excellent transfers on Furtwängler recordings, and what I write here should in no way detract from their achievement. Pristine's work is excellent, and in most cases surpasses in naturalness previous reissues. But overall, I have to say that I find myself preferring Chibás' transfers even over Pristine's, although the margin is not great. As you will see from the interview, Chibás consciously goes for what he calls a bit more "crispness" in the sound he gets, particularly as it relates to timpani presence. He achieves it, and I find it convincing. Since he does this mainly through equalization, which clearly involves making choices of which frequencies to emphasize and which to downplay, there are always going to be tradeoffs. One could say that the string sound is a bit warmer in some of Pristine's work particularly notable in some slow movements. And different listeners might have a different preference perhaps overall, perhaps on specific recordings. For those who take Furtwängler's recordings seriously, I would recommend choosing one based on my comments below and downloading it and seeing how you react to it.
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 4 in B-Flat (Berlin P O; 6/27-30/1943). Like other wartime Furtwängler performances, this has all of his interpretive traits carried out in a more extreme manner. An important aspect of Chibás' transfer here is the dynamic range. Although others have tried to compensate for the dynamic compression of many of the conductor's recorded performances, particularly those from the 1940s, no one seems to have done it as successfully as Chibás.
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6, "Pastorale;" Symphony No. 5 in c (Berlin P O; 5/23/1954). These live performances, from the same concert at the Titania Palast in the last year of Furtwängler's life, have always been known as having some of the finest recorded sound of any of the conductor's recordings. Tahra and Audite have had fine transfers available, and I was very skeptical that Chibás could make a meaningful improvement. But, in fact, he has managed it. This sounds more like a good, monaural studio recording of an orchestra from the mid-1950s than it ever has. The timbres are perfectly blended and balanced, no part of the frequency spectrum sticks out, and, of course, once again there is the impact of timpani, basses and cellos that mark Chibás' work. As performances, these would be fine if they were the only examples of the conductor's way with these symphonies, but they do not compare well to earlier recorded performances. The May, 1947 versions reviewed below are essential, if overly dramatic for repeated listening, and other good alternatives are the 1943 Fifth from Berlin, the 1943 Sixth from Vienna, and 1944 Sixth from Berlin.
BEETHOVEN: Egmont: Ov; Symphony No. 6, "Pastorale;" Symphony No. 5 in c (Berlin P O; 5/25, 27/1947). There are two performances here, and Chibás has done both of them. The set of concerts of May 25, 26, 27, and 29, 1947 are unique in the fullest sense of that word. In January, 1945, Furtwängler learned from Albert Speer that he was targeted for assassination by the Nazis, and he fled to Switzerland after conducting final concerts in Berlin and Vienna (and without being able to tell the musicians of either orchestra that he was going out of the country and might never see them again). He then remained in Switzerland, without conducting, until he was de-Nazified. These concerts were his return to his Berlin Philharmonic. You can imagine the intensity. The program was, in this order, Egmont Overture, Symphony No. 6, intermission, Symphony No. 5. The Fifth was recorded (and survives) on May 25 and 27. Egmont only from May 27, and the Sixth only from May 25. So to put the whole concert together one needs to mix-and match, and one only has a choice with the Fifth. Despite the special emotion that must have been present on May 25, or perhaps because of it, I would choose May 27th for the Fifth. There is too much nervousness, too many imprecisions of ensemble and playing, in the May 25 Fifth.
All of this material has been out on various labels; Audite has what was the best transfer of the Fifth and Sixth from May 25, but they don't have May 27. DG had the best transfer of Egmont and the fifth from May 27. But now, I believe Chibás has the best of all for both dates. You can read in his interview the special relationship he had with this Fifth (he doesn't say, but I would imagine it was the DG LPs of the Fifth from May 27 that he was referring to). This is conducting and playing with an overlay of emotions that is understandable, and that if applied to some other music might be wildly out of place. But here, it is relevant, powerful, and deeply moving. Audite's is a bit harsher than Chibás' for the May 25 material. DG's of the May 27 performances represented some of that company's best work on historic material, but there is a wider dynamic range here, and thus the once-in-a-lifetime power of these performances comes through with even more impact. These are not performances for the faint-of-heart, particularly the Fifth. The tempo shifts are dramatic, there are imprecise attacks, contrasts are extreme. But everything about it says "I'm back."
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A (Berlin P O; 10/31-11/3/1943). This is an extremely successful transfer, with the orchestra sounding more like an orchestra, more musical, than any prior version. Both Pristine and Chibás minimize flutter that can be heard on earlier transfers, particularly during sustained woodwind notes. But Chibás' equalization is just a bit less muddy sounding, and once again he has come up with a more natural sounding dynamic range. There is a sense of rhythmic snap because of the presence of timpani and double basses, which have more impact here.
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, "Choral" (Tilla Briem [s]; Elisabeth Höngen [ms]; Peter Anders [t]; Rudolf Watzke [bs]; Bruno Kittel Choir, Berlin P O; 3/21-24/1942). This is one of Furtwängler's most famous performances, known to collectors as "the wartime Ninth." It has about it a degree of intensity, even ferocity that no other performance in my experience has ever matched. Listening to it is both a moving and exhausting experience. Every release beginning with Vox/Turnabout LPs, has demonstrated the limitations of the original source: dynamic compression, some distortion and congestion, limited frequency response, and a rather dry, close-in orchestral sound. Over time, as transferring techniques have improved, the performance has become easier to listen to. Reissues by Music & Arts, Tahra, Opus Kura, Japanese EMI, and finally Pristine have improved what we heard significantly. Chibás has managed further meaningful improvement. One area is dynamic range he has painstakingly compensated for the compression on the original source, and given us a fuller dynamic range than anything before. He has also achieved his aim of a more present timpani sound and a sense of rhythmic crispness that exceeds prior versions, without losing the beauty of orchestral sound that is a hallmark of the conductor's work. The timpani at the outset of the finale, and the remarkable presence of the double basses, make significantly more dramatic impact than I have encountered on any prior version. This may be one of the most significant of his transfers, and Furtwängler collectors might start here to determine how they will react to his work.
BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat (Edwin Fischer, pn; Berlin P O; 11/8/1942). This has never been a favorite of mine, and Chibás' transfer doesn't change that. There is nothing he can do about the metallic, hollow piano tone, the congestion and distortion on the original source, Despite the obvious unity of purpose between conductor and pianist, I don't find this an easy listen, nor do I hear a particularly strong difference between Chibás' transfer and Testament's.
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D (Vienna P O; 1/28/1945). This is the second half of an important Furtwängler concert that opened with Franck's D Minor Symphony. See my remarks below, under that work they apply equally here.
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat (Berlin P O; 10/25-28/1942). There is more interesting competition here, in the form of a Testament release that purports to be the first (and, so far, only) edition taken from the original German Radio master tape. Presumably the source for all others is an off-the-air tape. Interestingly, this recording has always been noted for better sound than virtually all other wartime Furtwängler broadcasts, so the Testament advantage is less significant than one might anticipate. Then there is the issue of Testament's decision to assume that the Berlin Philharmonic participated in or agreed to the decision of a 1939 international pitch standardizing conference held in London, which established a pitch of A = 440Hz. It is hard to imagine the Berlin Philharmonic, given their quite extraordinary (and justified) institutional self confidence, permitting anyone to tell them what correct pitch should be. Although it is not a major difference (others have assumed the Berlin Philharmonic's A = 444Hz), the result of Testament's decision is a slight dulling of the orchestral sound. (For the curious, the difference in performance duration is 67:45 for the Chibás transfer and 69:00 for Testament's). Because I think this is one of Furtwängler's finest Bruckner performances (along with the 1944 Eighth), I spent time listening to Chibás' transfer, and comparing whole movements with both Testament and Pristine. All three provide a satisfactory picture of the majesty and breadth of this remarkable reading but once again if I had to live with one, it would be Chibás'. For one thing, Chibás' concentration on timpani presence is particularly valuable in the finale. Overall, the naturalness of the orchestral sonority, the beauty and focus of the string sound in the slow movement, the presence of mid-bass throughout, all combine to make one forget that one is listening to a broadcast from the early 1940s.
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8 in c (Vienna P O; 10/17/1944). If I had to choose one Furtwängler Bruckner performance to live with, it would be this one a masterpiece of structural shaping, and of marrying moment-to-moment intensity with a sense of overall architecture. Earlier climaxes are powerful, but something is held in reserve for the final coda, so there is a feeling of having arrived at a destination at the end. I first heard this performance on a set of Unicorn LPs, and then on LP and CD releases by DG, Dante, and Music & Arts. All were plagued by flutter, and by pitching that was sharp. Then Toshiba, a Japanese EMI division, released a 2-CD set that was properly pitched and eliminated most of the flutter, and that was the standard for many years, until Pristine's recent issue, which was a slight, but meaningful, improvement. Now along comes Chibás' work, and we have another advance. The difference between this and Pristine's is evident mainly in matters of orchestral timbre and dynamic range. Some, who really favor warmth over everything, might find themselves preferring the Pristine version, and I wouldn't criticize that preference. But neither would I share it. Describing orchestral sound and color with words is tricky but when I made an A-B comparison of Pristine's and Chibás' issues, words like "mushy" or "unfocussed" came to mind regarding Pristine's work. The problem is that sounds more definitive and serious than it is. We're talking a matter of degrees here and not that many degrees. But after hearing both through from beginning to end, one after the other, I do find Chibás' firmer focus, and stronger timpani, bass, and cello presence, along with the somewhat wider dynamic range, to be the preferred version. Chibás also minimizes the flutter better than the others (though he can't eliminate it entirely listen to the Wagner tuben at the end of the slow movement).
FRANCK: Symphony in d (Vienna P O; 1/28/1945). This is the first half of an extraordinarily important concert in Furtwängler's career the last concert he conducted before fleeing to Switzerland. He had learned from Albert Speer that he was on Goebbels "hit list" because of his assistance to too many Jews, and so, without being able to tell anyone (he had sent his family earlier) he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in a scheduled concert, then went to Vienna for this scheduled concert, and the next day snuck off to Switzerland. He was not to conduct again in Berlin or Vienna for sixteen months. (The other half of this program was Brahms Second Symphony, see above). I have heard this performance on DG, Japanese DG, Japanese Seven Seas, and French Furtwängler Society transfers, and Chibás' work is better than all of them. The recording is still extremely congested, lacking in any space, and lacking both high and low frequency response. For those seriously interested in the conductor, this is a performance worth knowing because of the clear extra emotion behind it (Furtwängler knew he would be leaving this orchestra, and he knew he couldn't tell them). The same is true with the Brahms Second. But for those who might be new to the conductor, there are better places to start, because even with Chibás' good work, the recording still sounds dated. There is a difference between Chibás' transfer and others, but it is not a huge difference, given the limitations of the original source.
RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloé: Suite No. 2. (Berlin P O; 3/20-22/1944). DG, Dante, and the French Furtwängler Society have all released this performance, but once again Chibás' transfer is in another league. Unfortunately, it does not really help the performance. As well as the German conductor managed to capture the sound world of Sibelius, he rather misses with Ravel. It is partly a matter of odd balances and colors; often the orchestra just sounds too thick for this music. There is more textural clarity here than in prior transfers, but it is still insufficient. The opening woodwind ripple lacks atmosphere the music is played too marcato.
SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C, "Great" (Berlin P O; 12/6-8/1942). This wartime Schubert Ninth may have the same interpretive outlines as his famous and widely respected 1951 studio recording, but it is as if that studio recording were on steroids. The tempo and dynamic extremes are significantly wider, and there is a wild energy about this reading that some will love and others will recoil from. I love it, but only on the condition I don't hear it too often. I compared Chibás' transfer with those on Pristine, DG, and Tahra. Chibás scores in two areas. One is, once again, dynamic range, which, given the extremes of the performance, is a crucial element. The other is, as he refers to in the interview, his feeling about timpani presence. There is of course no way to be certain of how Furtwängler wanted this, but I do find the impact of the timpani here to be convincing and satisfying in a way that isn't the case in all other transfers. Listen to the timpani stroke at 15:30 of the second movement (on the Chibás transfer timings differ by a few seconds on different transfers), and compare with others, all of which sound undernourished by comparison.
SIBELIUS: Violin Concerto in d (Georg Kulenkampff, v; Berlin P O; 2/7-8/1943. One of only two Sibelius works in the Furtwängler discography, this splendid performance has not been as well treated in prior transfers, and Chibás opens it up marvelously. Pristine and Naxos have not yet gotten around to it, and Chibás' version far surpasses the Music & Arts and Archipel editions. There is a wider palette of color for both Kulenkampff's violin and the Berlin Philharmonic. What this improved sound makes clear is that this is a very special reading worthy of standing on its own terms with the best offerings of Heifetz and Oistrakh. The approach from Kulenkampff seems to me to combine the best elements of those two Heifetz' lean, firm intensity and Oistrakh's lusher romanticism. Furtwängler and Kulenkampff seem absolutely attuned to each other, producing a rapt but taut slow movement, a controlled rhapsodic quality to the first and a very strong underlying rhythmic pulse to the finale.
SIBELIUS: En saga. (Berlin P O; 2/7-8/1943). En Saga is from the same concert as the Sibelius Violin Concerto (Brahms Second Symphony rounded out the program), and reveals a deep sympathy on Furtwängler's part for Sibelius' music. He one said that Sibelius was "the last survivor of the great impressionists, of the Strausses, the Debussys, the Regers, the Ravels," and the conductor explores the music's colors with a keener ear and more variety than most. Chibás' achievement here, when compared to DG and Music & Arts transfers, is to give full reign to the performance's wide dynamic range. This is a crucial element in this music, and it makes this a significant contribution from Chibás. There is an amazing range and variety of soft dynamics in this performance, and they have never been as evident before.
STRAUSS: Four Songs (Peter Anders, ten; Berlin P O; 2/15-17/1942). These four songs, Waldseligkeit, Liebeshymnus, Verführung, and Winterliebe, are among Strauss' loveliest, and these are splendid performances. Anders' warm tenor, founded on an even legato, and Furtwängler's long-breathed phrases, go hand-in-glove in this music. The sound quality has never been one of the strengths of these recordings, with what sounds like artificial ambience added on the original source. Chibás has provided a bit of extra clarity and focus, but if you own it on Tahra or Music & Arts I don't know that the difference is strong enough to justify replacing those. On the other hand, if you don't know these recordings, this is a wonderful way to become familiar with them.