C1091. WILHELM FURTWÄNGLER Cond. Vienna Phil.: Variations on a Theme by Haydn; Hungarian Dances Nos.3 & 10 (all Brahms), recorded 1949; Symphony #4 in B-flat (Beethoven), recorded 1950. (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL 33-050. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
"Wilhelm Furtwängler is remembered as one of the 20th century's most important, most argued-about conductors….his performances abounded with unexpected but illuminating touches that generated moment-to-moment thrills while clarifying the music's grand architectural scheme….and his recordings are now widely recognized as bracing alternatives to the precise, respectful, but largely interchangeable performances of symphonic music common today.
The death of conductor Arthur Nikisch in 1922 left two important posts open: the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. Furtwängler inherited them both. He remained with the Leipzig Orchestra for six seasons, but would maintain ties with the Berlin Philharmonic to the end of his life. At about this same time he also began an equally long and close association with the Vienna Philharmonic.
When Furtwängler made his debut with the New York Philharmonic -Toscanini's orchestra - in 1925, New York critics who were then forming the ‘cult of objectivity’ around Toscanini decried Furtwängler's wayward performances. Still, the concerts were a popular success, and Furtwängler was re-engaged for further guest appearances. The New York relationship ended in 1927, however, because of critical caviling and Furtwängler's refusal - or awkward inability - to curry favor with the Philharmonic board. In 1936, Toscanini himself would suggest that Furtwängler succeed him as the Philharmonic's music director, but protesters intervened and Furtwängler never conducted in the United States after those initial seasons in the '20s.
By 1936, New York's anti-Furtwängler camp had more to complain about than the composer's subjective performances. Furtwängler had failed to understand the menace of Nazism, and while other leading musicians were fleeing Germany either as a matter of conscience or to save their lives, Furtwängler naively believed he could do more good by remaining at his Berlin post. He maintained that art was a matter entirely separate from politics, and that his nation needed someone like him to maintain the great German artistic traditions during this period of upheaval.
Furtwängler tried to separate himself from the Nazi regime while still ensuring his ability to make music. With three exceptions, he refused to conduct in occupied countries; he protested beginning a concert in Vienna until the swastika banners – ‘those rags’ - were removed; and he adopted the habit of coming on-stage with baton in hand so he wouldn't be able to give the required Nazi salute. (A notorious photo of Furtwängler reaching down from the podium to shake Hitler's hand was a carefully set-up entrapment by the Nazis in response to the conductor's intransigence.) Furtwängler's acts of independence may seem feeble to us, so many decades removed from the rise of the Third Reich, but we must remember that in those days, people were arrested and murdered for less than this….His unrealistic high-mindedness would protect him through much of the Nazi era, but would also taint him as a collaborator and damage his career outside of Germany during the last 20 years of his life.
In February of 1945, Furtwängler joined his family in Switzerland for a scheduled engagement and remained there through the end of the war. But as soon as peace came to Europe, Furtwängler was caught in a flurry of Allied charges of Nazi sympathizing. It took until the middle of 1947 for Furtwängler to clear his name and be allowed to conduct again, even though the card-carrying Nazi Herbert von Karajan was allowed to return to the podium much sooner, thanks to the machinations of English record producer Walter Legge.
Despite his official denazification, Furtwängler was hounded by charges of collaborationism for the rest of his life, especially in the United States. In 1949 he was offered the directorship of the Chicago Symphony, but vilification and protest - much of it from leading musicians - caused the offer to be withdrawn. Similarly, an opportunity to become the Metropolitan Opera's musical head was quashed in 1951. Furtwän gler's sole high-profile supporter in America was violinist Yehudi Menuhin who, as a Jewish musician, had made a careful inquiry into Furtwängler's wartime activities and concluded that the conductor had behaved honorably.
Furtwängler's political rehabilitation came almost immediately in Europe. He resumed his regular appearances with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, enjoyed annual engagements at the Lucerne Festival, reopened the once Nazi-tainted Bayreuth Festival in 1951 with a performance of Beethoven's Symphony #9, and even made a series of studio recordings - a process he disliked almost as much as he detested his EMI producer, Legge.
The current international standard for orchestral sound stresses brilliance, and is generally weighted toward the treble. Furtwängler's sound, in contrast, featured rich strings and full-bodied brass and woodwinds, all blossoming out of a rich bass. This gave his performances not only a particular sonic weight, but also a balance that allowed the bassline a revelatory prominence. In that famous 1951 Bayreuth Festival recording of Beethoven's ‘Ninth’, for example, there are moments in the first movement in which the cellos and double basses are allowed to come forward and snarl which are usually just chugging accompanimental figures….So Furtwängler logically brought out the bass, which is where the harmony generally lies.
To generalize Furtwängler's case a bit more accurately, he tended toward extremes; his slow passages were, indeed, unusually expansive, but his fast passages rocketed off the page. Turning again to that Bayreuth Beethoven ‘Ninth’, the slow movement is drawn out to nearly 20 minutes in a deeply meditative reading that remains unfortunately earthbound, while the last movement's finale shoots out of the orchestra as fast as the excellent musicians can play. Of course, a number of tempo gradations lie between these extremes in every Furtwängler performance, but the shifts can be surprising. Furtwängler intended this moment-to-moment particularity of expression to convey the work's overall meaning. His approach was simultaneously improvisatory and spiritual, impulsive and searching. The tensions between a work's structure and its emotional content propelled his finest readings.
The wartime performances, most of which are readily available on CD, throb with heightened drama, urgency, and tragic intensity. Perhaps the most breathtaking Brahms performance ever recorded is that of Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic on January 23, 1945. From that concert, only the finale of Brahms' Symphony #1 survives on tape, but it is feverish and thrillingly impetuous enough for an entire evening. Significantly, this music ended Furtwängler's final Berlin concert before he left Germany under threat of arrest.
In a 1948 BBC interview, Furtwängler declared that ‘The conductor has one arch-enemy to fight: routine. Routine is very human, very understandable, it is the line of least resistance and there is no denying that in daily life it has its advantages. But all the more must we insist that it plays the most deadly role in music, especially in the performance of old and familiar works. In fact routine with its loveless mediocrity and its treacherous perfection lies like hoar-frost on the performance of the most beautiful and best-known works’.
Today, with rehearsal time at a premium, clarity and efficiency reign supreme, and so routine lurks as the power behind the throne. Most people realize that bringing out the true nature of the score is not just a matter of playing the notes with perfect accuracy, but we have pragmatically learned to settle for precision in lieu of insight. Furtwängler's performances, as wrong-headed as they may occasionally seem, are even more important now than they were in the second quarter of the 20th century. Furtwängler challenges us to engage in a lively, sometimes infuriating musical argument. He is not for people who listen to music for relaxation."
- James Reel
“Each of these disks, from Canadian engineer Yves St Laurent… [feature] St Laurent's natural transfer – made without filtering, like all his dubbings – it is easy to listen to, despite the surface noise.”
- Tully Potter, CLASSICAL RECORD QUARTERLY, Summer, 2011