Wilhelm Furtwängler

The Radio Recordings 1939-1945

Berliner Philharmoniker


8x LP (plus additional material on download) or 22x SACD

By Roy Gregory

There are some things that simply transcend the mundane issues of quality or quantity. The Berliner Philharmoniker’s own label releases are all beautifully presented in packaging that puts the rest of the record industry to shame, but even by their exalted standards, this latest issue is remarkable. The material is obviously historical, drawn from the orchestra’s famous wartime concert performances with the legendary Furtwängler wielding the baton. As such, sound quality is typical of the era. If you are expecting thunderous bass, a capacious soundstage (these recordings are mono) or silky highs, you are going to be disappointed. But what you are going to get is performances that have a poise and vitality, articulation, musical integrity and authority that is positively captivating.

The LPs are pressed from high-res digital transfers of curated copies of the original tapes, replayed on a specially reconditioned Telefunken reel-to-reel machine. Those surviving, original tapes had to be recovered from Russia, where they were sent at the end of the war. The fact that so many did survive and in such remarkable condition is itself remarkable.With such an extensive library of recordings, decisions had to be made about what to include. As such, they are available in two different forms/formats. You can buy the entire library on 22 hybrid SACDs. I haven’t been able to get a complete track listing for the SACD set, but how much running time do you think you could fit on 22 SACDs when it comes to mono recordings?! Alternatively, you can buy selected highlights on these eight LPs, with additional material (although not all of it by any means) included as a free 24bit – 44.1/48k download. The set consists of the eight 180g LPs packed in classy, matte grey sleeves, typical of the BPR releases. You also get a DVD containing interview material with the renowned German musicologist Friedrich Schnapp and surviving members of the BPO. But the pièce de résistance is the fabulous book that accompanies the set. I’ve always been a sucker for the 12” square format and this is one of the nicest examples I’ve ever experienced with its edge-cut, heavy board covers and box-cut pages. It’s beautifully laid out with text in German and English that covers both the history and recollections of the period, copious photographs and details of the set’s provenance and production. It’s all contained in an equally beautiful box with artwork drawn from the archive tape cartons. It really is an object lesson in just how to do a project like this. Indeed, it’s so beautiful – and musically it is so compelling – that I’m sorely tempted to splash out on the SACDs too!

So I guess it’s time to talk about the music…

Including downloads, the music here represents the programme (or part programme) of some 21 different concerts, with 11 of those making it onto vinyl. Given the period from which these recordings are derived, the repertoire is fairly predictable. There’s the core Beethoven symphonies, along with Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, Mozart and Richard Strauss. The two Sibelius pieces are to be expected, as too is the obligatory Wagner (although this is refreshingly sparse). More surprising are the Ravel Daphnis et Chloé suites 1 and 2 and Furtwängler’s own Symphonic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. For me, the two violin Concertos (the Sibelius with Georg Kulenkampff and the Beethoven with Conrad Hansen) are particular highlights, while the Symphonies in general display Furtwängler’s characteristically fluid, organic and evolutionary style, eschewing dramatic dynamic contrasts in favour of a more holistic sense of growth. Combine with the temporal integrity and presence I associate with all good mono recordings, this makes for captivating listening, the music pulling you in and drawing you with it.