Symphony No. 9 Choral (1824)
Schwarzkopf (soprano); Elisabeth Höngen (alto); Hans Hopf
Otto Edelmann (bass)
Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. Bayreuth, 29 July 1951. ADD NAXOS HISTORICAL
Why review one of the most famous recordings of
one of the most important works in the entire classical repertoire?
In theory, this should be self recommending – Furtwängler
is one of the great Beethoven specialists and this is a work
that meant a great deal to him as an artist and as a human
being. I’m also assuming that anyone reading this has at
least a vague idea what the symphony sounds like and won’t
need a description. This is basic repertoire after all, and
needs to be listened to. Instead, I’m writing because I want
to share what this music means and why this recording in
particular is worth listening to.
Note the date and place it was originally made. It marked
the re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. The festival
had been tainted with Nazi associations because Hitler had
enjoyed Wagner’s music, and Winifred Wagner had admired him.
There’s plenty of serious scholarly research into this so
here’s no place to pass snap judgements. Beethoven existed
before the Nazis and represented a much deeper tradition.
Choosing the Ninth with its theme of universal brotherhood
was thus an act of hope. All the performers here, and the
audience, too, would have been intimately aware of what had
happened, and why the Ninth mattered. I think this accounts
for the fervent intensity of the performance.
Furtwängler himself had been condemned for not escaping
into exile, but again, research has shown that nothing is
simple black and white. Some years ago, I worked in the archives
and found handwritten letters from ordinary people who’d
regarded his concerts as an oasis of sanity in a mad world,
music symbolising an alternative to the soulless regime.
The March 1942 recording of the Ninth Symphony and the filmed
concert made some weeks before capture something of the period
in which they were made. The film, naturally, shows Party
bigwigs, but ordinary people knew very well that Beethoven
opposed dictatorships and oppression. They were also far
more aware of Schiller’s libertarian philosophy than people
are today. So the stony-faced Party goons sit in denial,
pretending that Beethoven meant nothing and that Furtwängler
was just playing “sounds”. But irony wasn’t lost on people
who really understood.
When this recording was made, Hitler was dead. Bayreuth
was revived, but under Wieland Wagner, who knew there was
more to the composer than his mother - and indeed grandmother
- did. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra may not be as precise
and sophisticated as the Berlin Philharmonic, but they’re
enthusiastic. I particularly like the way they play, truly molto
vivace, the references to themes that will expand into
the final Ode. Furtwängler lets the Adagio unfold
in a leisurely way. Since this is Bayreuth, the performance
reaches its pinnacle in the final movement. Very quietly,
Furtwängler introduces the main theme, gradually building
up towards the entry of the bass, Otto Edelmann, who’d been
a prisoner of war, captured by the Russians. The pure freshness
of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s voice soars above the ensemble,
her ringing tones expressing the spiritual quality of the
symphony. Furtwängler emphasises the symphony’s warmth and
humanity, and its powerful sense of triumph. He was artist
enough to know that music lies not in the notes but in interpretations
that bring out its spirit. “Sondern lasst uns ungenehmere
anstimmen und freudenvollere”, goes the text, the music
to which infuses the whole symphony. The music is so universal
that it’s been adopted as the European Anthem. Of course
this is all anathema if music has no context and meaning.
Luckily for us, Furtwängler didn’t think so – and neither
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