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Furtwangler is entitled to bravos Good and bad: Conductor's recordings of Brahms excel, but his performance of Bach disappoints.


Brahms, Symphonies Nos. 1-4, Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 3 and 10 and Haydn Variations, and Beethoven, "Coriolan Overture" and "Leonore No. 2" overture, performed by Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, EMI Classics 5 65513 2; Bach, "St. Matthew Passion," performed by Furtwangler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with soloists Anton Dermota (Evangelist), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Jesus), Elisabeth Grummer (soprano soloist), Marga Hoffgen (contralto soloist) and Otto Edelmann (bass soloist), EMI Classics 5 65509 2.

In the last three decades, the reputation of Furtwangler (1886-1954) has steadily grown, and he is now usually considered, along with Arturo Toscanini, one of the two most important conductors of the 20th century.

One does not have to agree with that evaluation to acknowledge Furtwangler's uncanny knack of digging beneath the notes in the works of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner. At his best, his performances of these composers' works became sacramental occasions.

Even at full price EMI's mid-priced set of Furtwangler's Brahms would be a bargain. He makes the tempestuous final movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 irresistible in its force and grandeur; the final movement of the Symphony No. 2 is zestful and features a sense of humor not always associated with Furtwangler; in the wistful third movement of the Symphony No. 3, few conductors have ever caressed the cello melody as tenderly as Furtwangler; and the Symphony No. 4 exhibits a sense of coherence and tragic nobility matched on records only by Toscanini and Klemperer.

The sound on these discs, recorded between 1947 and 1954, ranges from adequate to good.

Like contemporaries such as Mengelberg and Klemperer, Furtwangler loved to perform the great works of Bach. Unlike them, however, he did not perform them well. His performance of the "St. Matthew Passion" -- a primitive-sounding transcript of a radio broadcast from 1954 -- sounds like the musical equivalent of week-old clam chowder. This is only for the most blindly devoted Furtwangler fans.

Hear the music

To hear excerpts of Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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