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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)
Symphony No. 2
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim
Recorded 12-15 December 2001, Orchestra Hall, Chicago
Teldec 0927 43495 2, 2 discs priced as one (51’52 & 30’15)


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Wilhelm Furtwängler, like his contemporaries Otto Klemperer and Victor de Sabata, considered himself a composer first – and a conductor second. Like both, he is best remembered for his work on the podium, although Furtwängler tried hard to meld the two. Rather neatly, both his very first public concert in Munich on 19th February 1906 and his very last public concert in Berlin on 20th September 1954 programmed his own works – the former his Adagio in B minor, the latter the very symphony recorded here by Daniel Barenboim in Chicago. That partnership itself is striking for its coincidences – Barenboim met the ailing conductor in 1954 when he was 11 years old, and Furtwängler himself would have become chief conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1948, in succession to Rodzinski, had prejudice not won the day.

Barenboim’s recording of this symphony pays homage to his musical father in a special way – and it is by some margin the finest performance of the symphony to have appeared on disc, outshining even the conductor’s own recordings - a single commercial recording of the symphony (with the Berlin Philharmonic), and various live performances which have been made available over the years. Finest amongst these live recordings is a superb Vienna Philharmonic recording made in the Musikverein in February 1953 (ORFEO C 375 941 B), although a Stuttgart performance with the SDR Orchestra (MEDIAPHON JA 75.100) displays similar virtues of discipline and intensity, both of which are somewhat lacking in his studio recording of the work with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 457 722-2), a recording which Furtwängler somewhat distanced himself from in his last year.

Barenboim’s is by no means the first non-Furtwängler recording of this monumental work. A radio broadcast confirms that he conducted the work as long ago as May 1982 – although, on that occasion only the Scherzo, and as part of the Berlin Philharmonic’s centenary year concerts. It is currently unpublished, although given the short running time of the second disc in this set it might have been worth reproducing it. The great Japanese conductor, Asahina, another Furtwängler disciple, made a recording with the Osaka Philharmonic in 1984 (VICTOR VDC 5007-5008) and the BBC SO made a recording, as part of a complete cycle(*), under Alfred Walter (MARCO POLO B0000045YA), although neither match in concept or precision the new recording under review here. In fact, the Walter does the symphony a disservice so inhibited is the music making and I recommend avoiding it at all costs. Unpublished radio broadcasts by Joseph Keilberth and Eugene Jochum conducting the symphony are rumoured to exist, although neither has yet been released in any format.

So much for the background; what of the symphony itself? Furtwängler began the work in 1944 but it is a creature of another time – a somewhat tragic work, with inner musical conflicts and harmonies, different in mood to the elegiac, almost diaphanous beauties of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, but equally compelling, although perhaps not as searing or terrifying in mood as Furtwängler’s First Symphony. Whereas Strauss had defined his own late style, Furtwängler looked back to the late Romantic tradition – and notably Bruckner. The length of the symphony (81 minutes on this recording) is reflective of its Brucknerian dimensions, and the work concludes with a noble Adagio spanning half an hour, recalling both the Eighth and Ninth symphonies of Bruckner in its formality. Its melodies are long-lined and its textures are complex but it could be a work written at any time in the nineteenth century not one which emanates from the darkest days of the Second World War. It is an unanswered conundrum that Furtwängler conducted some of the most intense performances of his career during the war (from a devastating Beethoven Ninth in 1942 to an unparalleled Bruckner Ninth, notable for its naked intensity, in 1944) yet produced a symphony that displays none of these characteristics. Completed partly in exile, and partly under the cloud of a war crimes tribunal, which subsequently exonerated Furtwängler of complicity with the Nazis, the work does little to suggest the torment of a composer living through one of the most difficult periods of his life. True, there are moments of defiance – such as the closing pages of both the assai moderato and the adagio but these are isolated moments in a work which is largely a personal spiritual testimony.

Whilst Barenboim has clearly listened to the composer’s own recordings of the E minor symphony, this is very much a personal interpretation. It is clearly not a remake of earlier Furtwängler recordings (in contrast to Barenboim’s conducting on the soundtrack of Taking Sides – The Fall of Furtwängler where he recreates exactly the tempi, though not the inner meaning, of the first movement of a 1943 Beethoven Fifth). It is almost identical in timing to Furtwängler’s studio recording, but is immeasurably more dramatic making the odd numbered movements more searing than Furtwängler did. Barenboim makes much of the work’s symphonic arguments and the orchestration is richly layered in his hands, notably the spacious adagio which Barenboim takes over 30 minutes to complete but holds together with a vice-like grip. He succeeds in making the coda come nearer in temperament to the close of Mahler’s Third than any other conductor of this work.

But what really makes this recording so indispensable is the brilliance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Playing what must have been a very unfamiliar score the intensity and passion of their playing is awe-inspiring. They sound spontaneous, not mannered as Furtwängler’s Berlin Philharmonic did; and the security of the playing, notably in the brass, the plangent string tone and refined, characterised woodwind exceed that of the Vienna Philharmonic for Furtwängler. Although recorded live (but you would be hard pressed to guess that, so silent is the audience) the performance is staggeringly precise orchestrally. The recording is everything one could wish for – transparent, allowing textures to bloom naturally and extremely focused.

Teldec should be congratulated for releasing an important recording of an important and too infrequently heard symphony (this was, unbelievably, recorded during its US premiere). This is now the recording of the work to own so buy it before it is hastily deleted. Highly recommended.

EDITOR’S NOTE: (*) There are three symphonies dating from 1903, 1947, 1954 as well as a Symphonic Concerto for piano and orchestra.

Marc Bridle

 

Rob Barnett has also been listening to this disc

Furtwängler wrote his Second Symphony in 1947 so it is broadly coeval with Korngold's Symphony with which it shares a confidence in late nineteenth century romanticism if not the same surface brilliance. The work must have been condemned as anachronistic when first produced. Now that such issues hardly concern us we can, in terms of its worth, focus back on the music itself rather than its forebears and credentials.

The first movement breathes a serene highly oxygenated air. Bruckner and Dvořák are the accents and shadings; not Mahler; not Richard Strauss. The Bruckner approach can usually be heard in the toweringly imposing climactic statements (try also the last bars of the finale) and even shows in the occasional luftpause (e.g. at 6.20 tr 1). The big first movement becomes increasingly meditative and sorrowing as it proceeds. That same 22 minute movement ends with a rushing climax which seems grafted on as do the final bars of the third movement. The second movement opens in close echo of the first, sharing the same familial atmosphere as the tenderest moments in Schubert. The Poco Moderato is agitated and energetic and even Iberian. Some lovely playing is on show as in the little chugging string figures at 5.13 (almost Sibelius - a composer whose music had quite a currency in Germany during the period 1930 to 1945). Sibelius returns as a, from time to time, influential voice in the half hour finale (try 9.53). The composer's articulate way, with long paragraphs of music swelling and rising and falling in loving reflective expression, makes you want to return to this work.

I would refer you to Marc Bridle's outstanding and highly detailed review for a fuller exposition of the music and context.

The movements are:-

I Assai moderato [23.07]

II Andante semplice [12.58]

III Un poco moderato [15.47]

IV Langsam - allmälich vorwärts - allegro molto [30.15]

I detect that this project (brought to the shops very rapidly) was a labour of love for all concerned, and the Chicagoans, who surely cannot have tackled this before, seem to make hay with this clearly laid out and affecting work. A slight cough or two (very few!) and a shifting creak here and there betray the origins in several live performances (tr1 3.08) although there is no applause at the end.

If the Symphony does not quite attain the melodic inventiveness of the similarly lengthy chamber works recorded on Timpani it is nevertheless an imposing and lovable structure.

The eleven year old Barenboim was introduced to Furtwängler in 1954. In the 1970s he played Furtwängler's Symphonic-Concerto with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta (it was even issued on LP). I wonder if Barenboim, now as conductor, will be tempted to seek out a suitable young pianist and record that work. I hope so.

Rather as with the piano quintet and the two violin sonatas there is much to enjoy in this Symphony. In time perhaps the musical world will, as the store of interpretations of 'standard' works, builds and spills out and grows, come to hear the creative Furtwängler as primarily a composer - which was the way he saw himself.

While having no obvious connection with the music (except that it was taken in 1945) I liked the choice of a monochrome aerial photograph of the Chicago riverside as the cover illustration.

Recorded music societies might think of playing this work as an 'Innocent Ear' experiment and then ask the audience to guess the identity of the composer. In the process the listeners will, in a completely unprejudiced way, experience one of the grandest and most confidently ambitious of twentieth century symphonies.

Rob Barnett

 

 


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