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Wilhelm FURTWÄNGLER (1886-1954)
Symphony No 1 in B minor (1943) [88:14]
Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen/Fawzi Haimor
rec. 6-8 March and 1-4 October 2019, Studio der Württembergischen Philharmonie Reutlingen, Germany
CPO 555 377-2 [37:22 + 50:52]

Although Wilhelm Furtwängler regarded himself primarily as a composer, rather than a conductor, his hope that posterity would concur in that opinion has not been fulfilled.

After an early and productive burst of compositions, including an orchestral Adagio (1906) and a Te Deum (1911), his primary attention turned increasingly to conducting until, after falling out with the Nazi regime in 1934, he turned back to writing his own scores. In the last two decades of his life he produced, among others, the substantial first (1935) and second (1940) violin sonatas, a Symphonic concerto for piano (1936), and his first (1943) and second (1945) symphonies, as well as a third that awaited its final revision at the time of his death in 1954.

Furtwängler’s compositional style was a conservative one, well summed up by John Ardoin as: “an outpouring of music that is all within the central European harmonic and formal symphonic tradition and that through the years became more chromatic, dense and challenging. There is to the best of it a Brucknerian breadth, thickness, style, purpose and passion” (John Ardoin The Furtwängler record [Portland, Oregon, 1994], p. 278).

Of his three symphonies, Furtwängler set aside the first after a single rehearsal that he himself considered a failure; he never thereafter performed it again. His third never even saw a rehearsal in his lifetime and its score was left in such an unsatisfactory state that, for many years, his widow refused to allow a full four-movement performance.

Only the second symphony was performed publicly in its composer’s own lifetime and it remains one of his very few compositions that have maintained even a tenuous place in the consciousness of a few music lovers. It has occasionally appeared on disc in stand-alone performances. Eugen Jochum may be heard conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on BR Klassik 900702, while Daniel Barenboim’s more recent account with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was released on Teldec Classics 0927 43495 2. More importantly, there are also several recordings that allow us to hear Furtwängler himself conducting it. While the general consensus is that his studio account with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (DG 457 722-2) is surprisingly tentative and poorly recorded, a few other live tapings show the piece in a more flattering light. The most compelling and persuasive account that I’ve heard dates from a March 1954 concert given with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (Mediaphon JA 75.100 or Archipel ARPCD 0276-2). John Ardoin also considers that particular Furtwängler performance to be the best one currently available (“majestic… a totality that holds together superbly”), although others, including my colleagues Marc Bridle and Jonathan Woolf, have expressed a preference for an Orfeo release showcasing a February 1953 performance with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (C 375 941 B).

By contrast, Furtwängler’s first symphony has so far appeared on disc only as part of two complete cycles. In the late 1980s and early 1990s no less than six discs, all conducted by Alfred Walter, were released on the Marco Polo label. That invaluable overview of the composer’s output included not just the three numbered symphonies but also the overture in E-flat major, Op 3, a couple of early but aborted attempts at symphonic scores, the B minor piano concerto, the Te Deum and other choral works and a selection of songs. A decade or so later, George Alexander Albrecht could be heard in a cycle of the three symphonies released on the Arte Nova Classics label, although only his recording of the second seems to have been reviewed on this website. In the same way, I suspect that this newly released recording of the first symphony on the CPO label may perhaps presage later releases of its two successors.

How, then, does conductor Fawzi Haimor’s account with the Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen stand up against those of the Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic (Košice)/Alfred Walter and the Staatskapelle Weimar/George Alexander Albrecht? Perhaps, in advance of listening to the performances, we might suppose that the printed information accompanying each disc will offer useful pointers to each individual conductor’s approach? There appear, after all, to be one or two significant differences …

 

  Total I: Largo II: Scherzo III: Adagio IV: Finale
Walter, 1989 77:50 24:01 9:25 18:19 25:53
Albrecht, 2000 83:12 30:56 9:11 16:39 26:26
Haimor, 2019 88:14 27:15 10:04 21:05 29:45

Such timing comparison is, however, something of a simplistic and literal exercise and of limited usefulness. In reality - and particularly in the absence of a recording of his first symphony by the composer himself - our only guide to tempi and other interpretive issues remains the printed score. That, you might think, ought to be the end of the matter for that document ought surely to prove definitive. However, as we know from his many other recordings, Furtwängler was an extremely subjective conductor who did not view printed scores as entirely sacrosanct. It appears, moreover, that he applied that approach not only to other composers’ works but even to his own, for, as John Ardoin has pointed out, the four available accounts in which we can listen to him directing his second symphony differ markedly from each other, especially in regard to tempi (Ardoin op. cit., pp. 279-281). It seems therefore, entirely reasonable to conclude that Furtwängler the composer saw his directions on the printed page as essentially a departure point, after which deviations might be made from performance to performance in order to explore different ways of fulfilling the music’s full and proper purpose.

Just as Furtwängler himself approached his compositions with tremendous subjectivity, I’d like to think that he would be happy to find his listeners too judging individual performances with the same personal – even if occasionally inconsistent – degree of open mindedness. On that basis, having listened to all three performances, I find that two of them manage to successfully address the symphony’s main issue – its occasional tendency to judder to a near halt as the composer attempts to knit its disparate elements into a coherent whole – albeit by adopting rather different methods. I can imagine times when listening to one of these recordings might suit me better than listening to the other – or vice versa. You, too, may end up appreciating the virtues of either one – or, indeed, of both.

My first selection is the oldest studio recording – that by Alfred Walter and the Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic (Košice). As reference to the data given above will confirm, Walter’s is, in all but the second movement scherzo, the most brisk and direct of the three performances. As a result, he shaves more than five minutes off Albrecht’s overall timings and more than ten off Haimor’s. Walter’s way of dealing with the symphony’s occasional awkward moments of stasis is, essentially, to skate over them and hope that they won’t prove too noticeable. It’s certainly a solution that works in practice and, given the way in which the composer’s own successive recordings are characterised by increasing degrees of “headstrong directness” (Ardoin op. cit., p. 280), we may surely speculate that it might even have been the sort of solution that Furtwängler himself could eventually have adopted.

By contrast, my other choice, Haimor’s new recording, tackles the symphony’s structural weaknesses very differently. By adopting slower tempi throughout, he appears to be attempting to minimise the impact of those grinding transitional gear changes and to integrate them more homogenously into the work as a whole. That he largely succeeds in papering over the musical cracks is tribute both to the skilled Reutlingen musicians and to Haimor himself, an American who has been their chief conductor for the past four years and who clearly exhibits a finely honed and judiciously executed degree of control. He is greatly helped, moreover, by the fact that this is by far the best recorded of the three versions. CPO’s engineering team have taken full advantage of up-to-date recording equipment that delivers clear and finely detailed sound right across the symphony’s very wide dynamic range and, in so doing, exposes the inevitable sonic limitations of its aging rivals. In a densely-scored late-Romantic leviathan like this one, that proves a very considerable plus.

This new performance thus takes its place as – at least to my ears – probably the best account of this symphony that’s currently available. We must hope that it foreshadows a full cycle of Furtwängler’s symphonic oeuvre that will bring his frequently flawed but nonetheless fascinating – and most certainly enjoyable - music to a wider audience.

Rob Maynard



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