Sunday, February 17, 2008

Now what gives here?

Orfeo, as part of its series of releases from the Bayreuther Festspiele (including Knappertsbusch's monumental 1956 Ring and Lovro von Matačić's 1959 Lohengrin - which might be the best on record), is coming out with Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1951 Beethoven 9th from the Festspiele.

Ah, my perceptive reader, you've no doubt said, "But, Smith, wait. Hasn't EMI had that 1951 9th on the books forever?" Yes, they have. I could understand if this were some other, heretofore unheard, performance, but it says - on the Orfeo cover, "Live Recording / 29. Juli 1951." The EMI release, in its Great Recordings of the Century incarnation, gives, "29.VII.1951, Festspielhaus, Bayreuth," as its recording information. In other words, EMI says that its record was done on 29 July 1951 - the same date as the Orfeo disc.

At first blush, something is wrong here. Orfeo, as part of its Bayreuther Festspiele releases, has covered familiar ground, like Knappertsbusch's '56 Ring and 1964 Parsifal, the Von Karajan Tristan from 1951, and that Lohengrin, but they have, more or less, been doing 'official' releases of material captured by the 'historical' labels. Indeed, it seems, that they have been getting Bayreuth's imprimatur and better Bayerischer Rundfunk tapes for stuff put out, mostly, by Golden Melodram. In this case, though, they are duplicating a famous EMI recording that has seen itself liveried in several different series. In my estimation, anyone who wants Furtwängler's 1951 Bayreuth 9th already has it.

As a brief aside, the 1951 9th is generally the third-ranked Furtwängler 9th. His 1942 Berlin performance and his final 1954 Lucerne 9th generally get higher marks. Of the postwar 9ths, I generally gravitate to his 1954 Bayreuth performance, out on Music and Arts, as it has - in my book - the better soloists: Gré Brouwenstijn, Ira Malaniuk, Wolfgang Windgassen, and Ludwig Weber. The sound is not what I would call good, worse even than the Berlin performance, but the performance and the singers are first-rate. So, I'll revise my statement, anyone who wants the 1951 9th already has it, and most people interested in Furtwängler already have a 9th, usually '42 or '54-Lucerne, that they like.

The EMI liner notes shed some light on the matter, though how much is a matter of interpretation,
One of the soloists, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, later recalled the atmosphere as being 'incredibly moving'. She remembered that there was a rehearsal in the morning, and a 'run-through' just before the performance. (p. 6)
That's the thing, as far as I can tell. If that run-through was a complete performance, as its definition of 'an uninterrupted rehearsal' seems to imply, then EMI could have snagged it and the performance, inter-cutting the two as necessary. The recording date would be accurate, and there would be a performance under near-studio conditions whence to draw any patches. (There has been some discussion on RMCR about this issue.) This would not be unheard-of with Bayreuth performances. When the Keilberth Siegfried from 1955 dropped, there was talk that the Forging Scene had been patched, as Windgassen's anvil-strokes were off the beat. I don't know if Decca or Testament ever made a definitive yes-or-no statement, but it wouldn't surprise me. What would surprise me even less is if Walter Legge did some magic at the mixing board in 1951 for Furtwängler.

I don't have the Orfeo release, and I would like a little more certainty as to what precisely is going on with the recording. I agree with the RMCR poster who raised the point that a sense of outrage or the need for a special release because a recording was drawn from multiple performances is a complicated issue. It raises all sorts of questions about all manner of recordings. There are several Ring sets, from Bayreuth, that were drawn from several recordings over a period of time: does that mean we need a rerelease of one-off, single-night recordings? I don't know.

If a one-off Bayreuth 9th is your order, Karl Böhm has a great one from 1963. It has Jess Thomas in the tenor role in good sound. That's enough to recommend it to me.


At 12:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cannot speak about any of these recordings, other than smiling when I remember reading somewhere that old Wilhelm (this is paraphrasing) talked of having to open the car windows to get rid of what he thought was the stench of that 1951 Bayreuth performance. Maybe he was correct, and we've been mainly hearing the rehearsal all along!

This game - what is and is not live - has gone on forever with record companies. It is one reason why I am not passionate about debating live vs. studio recordings, because it seems many if not most 'live' releases are either patched or made from several performances..

This applies to video too. At Bayreuth they do not disguise that they video-record performances outside actual Festival events. On the other hand, there is the Met. Take their Parsifal. No way those Act I and III preludes - with a long camera tracking shot going from one end of the orchestra, weaving behind Levine, winding up on the other side - were done at a 'live' performance. No sign of post-Act I applauders, and there always are some (and some 'shush'ers). Yet there are audience noises, and curtain calls. So who knows. It is good to be curious, but not get too worked up over it.

At 7:53 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

I generally don't care about the live/not-live debate, but it sticks in my craw when it looks like, absent some sort of clarification, record-buyers can get dinged for both the EMI set and now the Orfeo release.

As to the performance, I somewhat prefer Furtwängler's Berlin recording from '42 or Bayreuth '54, despite the execrable sound. My favorite Ninth, though, after long consideration, is more and more Bruno Walter's 1955 set from the reopening of the Wiener Staatsoper.

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