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 It is currently unpublished,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
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.
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
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
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.