eXtensions - Monday 3 October 2016

Pristine Classical 1944 Recording of Beethoven's Third Symphony: Wilhelm Furtwängler

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By Graham K. Rogers

Pristine Classical

Over time my sources for music have changed. Long gone are the vinyl records of years past: crackly singles, LPs and even a few 78s from before. These were followed by the hissy sounds of cassette tapes and the excellent Sony Walkman that served me for years. I delighted in the move to the CDROM and still have most of those I bought from the mid 1980s onwards.

I was slow to move to downloaded music, mainly because of availability. Based in Thailand since the late 1980s, there were no legal ways to buy online music (even buying software was difficult here) and the iTunes Music Store is a relatively recent arrival. I am currently revelling in the wide choices available to me with my Apple Music subscription, especially Radio.

There were few decent sources for classical music. One was Classics Online, but following an organization change that ceased to be an acceptable source for me. One valuable source that remains is Pristine Classical which has a unique catalogue of remastered recordings, with some stunning output.

One of my favourite purchases from Pristine is the Mozart Violin Concerto number 7, recorded in 1932, with the Paris Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Georges Enesco and a 16 year-old Yehudi Menuhin as soloist. The passion indicates the greatness of the young violinist even at this early age.

Every week, Pristine sends out an email of its latest offering and this Friday's was a recording of Eroica, Beethoven's Third Symphony, "Eroica". The download also includes a 1943 recording of the Coriolan Overture. The recording in Berlin of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler was made in 1944: not long before the end of World War Two. The performance is moving in the extreme.

I have other recordings of Eroica, most notably one put out by Deutsche Grammophon of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: a workmanlike rendition of the Symphony to the sort of standard one expects from the composer and orchestra.

Pristine Classical
Furtwängler's wartime Beethoven - Pristine Classical Cover art

The version from Pristine Classical, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler reaches new heights and as soon as I had finished playing each movement I wanted to go back and play it again. The emotional force that the orchestra brings to bear on the session is draining for the listener as well.

Whether it is the excellent remastering job of Andrew Rose or the original arrangement, I was especially moved whenever the horns were featured. An example is the change in tempo in the First Movement (5' 30") where the slower push of the performance is indicative of a destruction waiting in the wings. The horns that signal an end to this section are strong yet desparate.

Towards the end of the first Movement (14' 45"), the horns again add far more to the musical sensation than I had experienced from other recordings of this Symphony. Another notable horn section is near the middle of Movement Two (6' 50") when the slow Wagner-like power of the output (albeit brief) pins listeners to their seats.

The strings are clean and clear as are pizzicato sections. There is no evidence of hiss or clicks from the original recording, which surprised Andrew Rose by its high quality. He had to check the recording in case he had inadvertently used a later version. Although the stirring nature of the music is impressive, so too are the quieter sections - such as an early cello section in the Second Movement (2' 00") - when the quality of the recording is so noticeable. According to Pristine notes Furtwängler tried to suppress this recording, post-War, because its excellence put his later output in the shade.

After the shorter Scherzo Allegro vivace Third Movement, where the music expresses feelings of hope, tempered with occasional rumblings like thunder, the almost 13 minutes of the Finale are stunning. John Ardoin, commenting on the recording, writes: "along with the end of the Mahler Ninth Symphony, [the coda] comes as close as music can to capturing the sensation of death and dying."

Particularly from 9' 00" on the music has a tremendous depth and is most disturbing particularly in the context of when (and where) this recording was made. The last 30 seconds were exhausting. I only wish a live audience could have been heard too.

For those who are aware that the latest is not always the best, this highly recommended. There are three download versions available: 24-bit FLACS, for €15.00; 16-bit FLACS, €9.00; and 320kbps MPS, €7.00. These prices include VAT which was deducted from my purchase. I chose the MP3 (€5.25 or 213 baht) because most of my listening is on an iPhone, but I also have the Music Converter app for dealing with FLAC-only recordings that sometimes appear on Pristine.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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