The Flying Inkpot – Wilhelm Furtwangler Live Recordings 1944-53
Ludwig van Beethoven Overture Leonore no. 3, op. 72a; Symphony no. 7 in A
Franz Schubert Symphony no. 8 in B Minor Unfinished
Robert Schumann Overture Manfred, op. 115
Johannes Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op. 56a; Symphony no. 2 in D major
Anton Bruckner Symphony no. 8 in C minor
Richard Strauss Don Juan, op. 20
Pyotr Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 6 in B minor Pathetique
Paul Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis after Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Cesar Franck Symphony in D minor
Maurice Ravel Rapsodie Espagnole Richard Wagner Prelude to Act I, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg; Overture, Tannhauser; Prelude and Isoldes Liebestod, Tristan und Isolde; Siegfrieds Trauermarsch, Gotterdammerung; Karfreitagszauber, Parsifal
Deutsche Grammophon 474 030-2
by Geoff Woods
Although the appearance of Furtwänglerreissues invariably generates encomiastic orgies in the musical press, there is no danger of that happening in these pages. Furtwänglerbeing Furtwängler, there isn’t much one can say about these performances in a spirit of approbationbut, strangely enough, there isn’t much one feels like saying in a spirit of praise, either. This, I suspect, is less Furtwänglers fault than it is of his repackagers. There is no demographic recording companies dote on quite so much as those fanatics whose blind adulation of their chosen artist leads them to snap up everything that artist has ever done, usually against their better aesthetic judgment. The celebrity mania of pop culture is at once the most hideous and the most obvious manifestation of such idolatrous tendencies; Im sad to say that the classical music world isn’t immune from it eitheras the spate of Celibidache box sets that flooded the market after that charlatans death made amply clear. Our generation of listeners seems to have settled on Furtwängleras its sacred cow, and Deutsche Grammophon is happily capitalizing on this.
At the very least one is able to derive from this release a clear picture of Furtwänglers incontestable performing abilities: of the extraordinarily high level of inspiration he maintained from performance to performance, and of the consistency with which he managed to elicit overwhelming responses from his orchestras. That said, none of these performances would be a first recommendation for buyers new either to the work or to Furtwängler. The sound quality is uniformly terrible, and most of the performances have been bettered by Furtwänglerhimself on other occasions.
The Brahms 2 with the Vienna Philharmonic is a case in point. It is clearly of the same mind as Furtwänglers (picture) earlier recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, but the German recording puts this one completely in the shade. The essentially Apollonian leanings of the Vienna Philharmonic make a strange bedfellow for the conductors Dionysian approach, and in any case the greater muscularity and precision of the Berlin orchestra far outweigh any claims the Austrian band may have to tonal finesse. The Viennese strings, as sweet-toothed as usual, sound distinctly overmatched by the brass in the finales climactic moments, where the frenzy of Furtwänglers interpretation would otherwise be breathtaking. Furtwänglers approach is clearly not as immune to orchestral differences as the liner notes would like us to believe, and all one needs to do to figure this out is to compare the fortissimo statements of the finales main theme between the two recordings: the Berlin Philharmonic is overwhelming, while the Vienna Philharmonic, with its comparatively lackluster articulation and shallowness of sonority, is merely impressive.
The Tchaikovsky, more so than the Brahms, strikes one as an utterly unnecessary release. It replicates Furtwänglers 1938 studio recording in every key detail, but suffers from poorer orchestral playing and truly execrable recorded soundas the liner notes barefacedly point out. There are some truly awful lapses in intonation and ensemble, of which the consistently sour brass in the third movement is the most egregious example. That said, Furtwänglers interpretation is itself of stunning originality. Its certainly a more humane approach than the violent histrionics to which weve become accustomed under modern interpretersbut one could say that it is more humane than the work merits. Certainly Mravinskys quicksilver, take-no-prisoners scherzo is closer to Tchaikovskys intent than Furtwänglers portentous march to the scaffold, overwhelming as the latter may be. On the other hand, Furtwänglers ability to spin long lines of ineffable rapture reaps rewards in the second and fourth movements, which emerge as compositions far less bathetic than they are popularly made out to be.
The remaining items are far less offensive in sound quality than the Tchaikovsky and certainly far more desirable as acquisitions. Of the filler items the Schumann Manfred Overture is probably the most impressive: the sheer depth of sonority Furtwänglerattains in the opening bars is wondrous, and the psychological depths of the piece are probed with unparalleled sensitivitythe loneliness of the closing section is particularly poignant. The Strauss Don Juan receives an utterly incendiary reading that easily blows away Furtwänglers lackluster postwar remake (on the EMI Great Artists of the Century label). Along with the combustible Leonore no. 3 overture, this performance best showcases Furtwänglers ability to vacillate between wild tempo extremes while retaining an organic sense of structure. The Brahms Haydn Variations is comparatively disappointing: despite some lovely woodwind phrasing in the third and fourth variations the performance is strangely marmoreal, igniting only at the peroration of the concluding passacaglia, when the chorale theme returns. Furtwänglerseems uncharacteristically disinterested throughout, and the quality of ensemble certainly suffers from itespecially in the faster variations, in which the horns sound flabby.
The Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis receives an endearing though not entirely convincing interpretation. It shows Furtwänglerin a more relaxed light than that to which weve become accustomedbut I am at a loss as to whether that is a good thing. One could not exactly call this performance goofy, but one is disinclined to believe that Furtwänglerconducted it with a straight face. The Ravel Rapsodie Espagnole, too, is unclassifiable: one couldnt call it bad, but one couldnt call it French either. It is somewhat like a mutt whose very grotesquery compels ones affection. The Franck Symphony, on the other hand, is a revelation: Furtwängleremphasizes its Teutonic qualities (that is to say, those of rigorous architectonic construction) while reveling in its French ones (that is to say, overt concern with surface sonority). The performance moves with an inevitability that almost convinces you that the Franck Symphony is the masterpiece the French make it out to be. Monteux is preferable for those who want good sound, but Furtwnaglers is an indispensable document.
The Beethoven Seventh Symphony receives an uneven performance, but this is admittedly a piece that does not play to Furtwänglers virtues. A work such as this wants more rhythmic precision and clarity of texture than Furtwänglers monumental, essentially harmony-centric approach allows. Though the results might not be as satisfying as we would like, the performance is nonetheless hewn from inspiring materials. The poco sostenuto introduction is of a magnificent portentousness and if the succeeding vivace is less vivacious than, say, Carlos Kleibers, it compensates with a granitic weight of sound that makes the codas final gallop especially exhilarating. The allegretto is saturated in Furtwänglerian pathos, but here one wants a brisker view of a movement that has been sentimentalized into oblivion by thousands of lesser interpreters. The scherzo receives a sturdier performance than is usual, but the superannuated grandiosity of the trio does not sound well to modern ears. The orchestral playing in the finale is tremendous, but this movement in particular fares far better at the hands of a literalist such as Toscanini or Carlos Kleiber. In Furtwänglers hands it sounds furious, even apocalyptic, but entirely destitute of that litheness which makes for the extraordinary performance.
Equally controversial, though far more successful, is the Bruckner Eight Symphony recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1944. Furtwänglers supreme status as Brucknerian has never been questioned, but listeners accustomed to the coolness of a Karajan may find his incandescent approach unsettling: his reading of the symphony in the Haas edition clocks in at 77.00, over five minutes faster than Karajans 82.49. This is a thrusting, Manichean reading of Bruckners greatest work, thrillingly declamatory at climactic points, but capable also of the most melting melodic effusionsthe liquid sonority achieved in the third movement, in particular, is headily affecting. The reading as a whole is extraordinarily coherent, the works component parts falling into each other in a manner so organic that all other performances immediately seem artificial. This, I am convinced, has much to do with the speed at which the faster movements are taken. Those used to Karajans slow canter in the scherzo will be overwhelmed by the propulsion of Furtwänglers reading: here, as elsewhere, the sheer fervor of the interpretation and of the orchestral playing beggar belief. There are caveats, however. Bruckners heaven-storming last movement coda proves to be something of a disappointmentit strikes me as too rushed and missing in that concentrated weight of sonority which defines most of Furtwänglers work. For all the excitement that Furtwänglergenerates, too, the inner serenity of Karajans lauded VPO recording ultimately proves elusive. Furtwänglers Bruckner quakes and quivers as one before the throne of judgment, but it has not the beatific smile of those already in heaven. And yet who can blame him, considering the barbarous wartime conditions under which the concert was no doubt given?
Furtwänglers greatness is most palpable in the Schubert Unfinished and the Wagner selections. The former receives a desperately moving performance, by turns poignant and volatile, the coda of the last movement, to paraphrase Theodor Adorno, opening up into an undefined vastness. The performance as a whole is an eloquent encapsulation of those psychic powers that, in the central Austro-German repertoire, had Furtwänglertowering over all his competitors: nobody, not Karajan, not Carlos Kleiber, certainly not Toscanini, could have elicited such poignant, terrifying sounds in the transition between exposition and development in the first movement.
The visionary intensity of the Schubert is, if anything, surpassed in the Wagner disc. The sound here is almost as bad as on the Tchaikovsky disc, but this time the interpretations are so transcendent as to preclude sonic considerations altogether. The tortuous melodic convulsions of the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod soar with unforgettable erotic fervor, and the Parsifal Karfreitagszaubersmusik has a luminousness about it that is altogether sublime. In contrast, there is a tantalizing E-major dirtiness about the Tannhauser overture, especially in the thrilling shimmers of string tone that decorate the Venusberg theme after the slow introduction has passedthis is one of the few performances of the work that doesn’t leave you feeling that Wagner should have written it in E flat major. The Meistersinger overture captures perfectly the bourgeois pomp of the tradesmens guilds that Wagner sought to parody, and its culminating contrapuntal display is rendered with glorious verve. Most transcendent of all is the Gotterdammerung funeral march, one of those rare, all-consuming performances which leave the imagination spent and the mind reeling. Even the odd lapse in ensemble seems only to heighten the pathos of the performance. Unlike Solti and his numerous imitators Furtwängleris properly funereal at the outset; only at the appearance of the sword motif does he shift into declamatory mode, and the results are spectacularcertainly more impressive than those borne of the Solti-esque approach, which is violent from the very outset. I would not go so far as to agree with the liner notes in reading into Furtwänglers performance all the pain and suffering of a bruised and battered Europebut I must agree that the pain and pathos of Wagners conception are made more palpable here than in any other performance of my knowledge. It is a terrifying, cataclysmic reading, by any standard one of the great orchestral documents of the past century.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the inclusion of the excellent Bruckner and Franck and of the transcendent Schubert and Wagner justify purchasing what is undoubtedly a money-grabbing release on Deutsche Grammophons part. None of these performances would be a first recommendation, largely due to their very rudimentary mono sound; for those for whom clarity of sound is not a top priority, most of these interpretations have nonetheless been surpassed by Furtwänglerhimself on various occasions. The Berlin Philharmonic account of the Brahms Second Symphony and Haydn Variations (with the rest of the Brahms Symphonies, from Music and Arts) is preferable to the present one; the studio recording of the Tchaikovsky Pathetique with the Berlin Philharmonic is superior to the present performance in all regards. Furtwänglers view of the Beethoven Seventh is arguably better savored on another live recording, with the Berlin Philharmonic, from 1943 (on the Deutsche Grammophon Dokumente label). It is difficult to say who will be best served by this release. Furtwänglermay be Furtwängler, and his very name on the cover of the box may be enough to justify a purchase by some of his more fervent fansbut for those who don’t allow their musical judgment to be submerged under effusions of adulation, he is best encountered on other recordings.