"The performance is incomparable" - and now, so too is the sound quality
Furtwängler's finest Brahms 1 has never sounded as superb as this!
Review Symphony No. 1
Previously unpublished, this recording qualifies under house rules for consideration alongside some selected comparisons. If I append none it is because, so far as the current catalogue is concerned, the performance is incomparable. Such comparisons as can be made concern other Furtwangler recordings of the symphony: the 1947 VPO performance, a rather cool affair by Furtwangler's standards, recorded with no great immediacy, and transferred noisily to LP (EMI Electrola/Conifer mono IC 149 53420/6, 12/80), and a fine Berlin performance (DG mono 2535 162, 5/76—nla) recorded live in the Titania-Palast on February 10th, 1952. Interestingly, the present recording was made in Vienna just a fortnight before. As a reading it is very similar, contradicting those who would have us believe that most Furtwngler performances were spur-of-themoment, random affairs. What is different is the response of the two orchestras, with the VPO, their strings in particular, playing with a singing intensity which rather puts the Berliners in the shade. To some extent, they are helped by the EMI recording which, though rather rusty-sound ing in places, does provide a real sense of presence and (an over-prominent flute apart) perspective. But it is the performance as a whole which is the thing, a marvellous example of Furtwangler's combined skills: as a conductor capable of drawing glorious playing from the VPO, as an interpreter capable of understanding the indissoluble links between musical structure and communicable feeling, and as a performer capable of turning a concert into an event.
Take, for instance, the moment of recapitulation in the slow movement. We are already in alien territory. After the exhausted close of the tragic first movement we are shipped into the distant key of E major. The oboe's song, if it is anything at all, is a song of exile and, not surprisingly, it becomes increasingly troubled and yet more tonally bewildered, something stressed by Furtwangler who tends to underwrite the music's daemonic elements in a way which Brahmsians of a settled taste may find disturbing. The recapitulation, Furtwdngler already movingly implies, is bound to be a thing of great moment; and, indeed, we know as much since Brahms's preparation for it-the quiet drum roll (the drum's first appearance in the movement), the anticipatory silence and the addition of trumpets to the eventual quiet E major chord-all indicate as much. In Berlin the realization was to be perfunctory, the chording sloppy but in the Vienna performance Furtwangler's recognition and realization of the moment is utterly spell-binding, a superb piece of concert-hall theatre, as well as a moving realization of Brahms's mood.
The reading is full of such insights. Nothing is wasted, not even the Allegretto e grazioso third movement which Furtwangler treats as a microcosm of the symphony, a movement of great equanimity which becomes grand, tense, and troubled before dropping us down into the dark well of the finale's opening phrases. Above all, the difficult first movement is superbly shaped. The opening is magnificent and yet finely proportioned. True, the orchestra is not together at the start but before we begin our niggling we should note that Furtwangler belonged to a school which often liked to build chords strategically. There's nothing very strategic about the opening chord, but there are some strikingly successful examples later on in the movement. What is remarkable about the opening, apart from the glorious sostenuto sound of the high-lying violin line, the perfect, ominous flow of the rhythm and the judicious regulation of the drum, is that it is all, in retrospect, germane to what is to follow. You need no sleeve or text-book analysis to follow the organic nature of Brahms's arguments as Furtwangler unfolds them for us, whether we are thinking in terms of tonal structures, the canonic treatment of key motifs or, simply, the huge mass and disjunctive force of the development's end. No conductor today, except perhaps Giulini, seems able to exert so much downward pressure on chords, fully, amply sounded and yet sustain a singing line and a forward-moving rhythm. Certainly, it is tempting, faced with a performance like this, to write a jeremiad on the state of conducting in the postFurtwângler age. To do so would, however, be unproductive. Furtwàngler's is not the only way with Brahms's music, as Sir Adrian Boult, among others, has admirably demonstrated. For the moment, though, I confess I know no performance of this symphony which more strikingly illuminates those points where this symphony is palpably at its greatest.
R. O., Gramophone March 1985 [link]
Notes on the recordings:
If I could nominate whole of this album as a showcase not only for superlative historic performances but also for the astounding sound quality occasionally to be found lurking in the gloomy grooves of older recordings then I would. The tone of the Vienna Philharmonic both in the live 1952 concert recordings and the earlier studio recordings, after Pristine's 32-bit XR remastering, is finer than I could have believed possible when I started the project.
The live recordings do have the edge over the older Hungarian Dances, which retained a degree of 78rpm crackle that was tricky to remove. It's also interesting that most discographies and reissues have followed the error in the original release and titled one of them as Hungarian Dance No. 3 in F - it's not, it's No. 10 in F.
Analysis of the pitches and residual electrical hum in each of the recordings, from three separate sources, consistently pointed to a tuning used by the VPO at the time of around A4=446.4Hz. I have accurately pitched each recording to this to give the most accurate picture possible of both the sound and pace of these performances.
Biographical notes from Wikipedia
Wilhelm Furtwängler (January 25, 1886 – November 30, 1954) was a German conductor and composer. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest symphonic and operatic conductors of the 20th century.
Furtwängler was born in Berlin into a prominent family. His father Adolf was an archaeologist, his mother a painter. Most of his childhood was spent in Munich, where his father taught at the university in that city. He was given a musical education from an early age, and developed an early love of Ludwig van Beethoven, a composer with whom he remained closely associated throughout his life. Though his chief posthumous fame rests on his work as a conductor, he was also a composer and regarded himself first and foremost as such, having in fact first taken up the baton in order to perform his own works.
By the time of Furtwängler's conducting debut at the age of twenty, he had written several pieces of music. However, they were not well received, and that - combined with the financial insecurity of a career as a composer - led him to concentrate on conducting. At his first concert, he led the Kaim Orchestra (now the Munich Philharmonic) in Anton Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. He subsequently held posts at Munich, Lübeck, Mannheim, Frankfurt, and Vienna, before securing a job at the Berlin Staatskapelle in 1920, and in 1922 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra where he succeeded Arthur Nikisch, and concurrently at the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Later he became music director of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Salzburg Festival and the Bayreuth Festival, which was regarded as the greatest post a conductor could hold in Germany at the time.
Furtwängler also made a number of appearances as a conductor abroad. He made his London debut in 1924, and continued to appear there as late as 1938 to conduct a cycle of Richard Wagner's Ring. In 1925 he appeared as guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and made return visits in the following two years.
Towards the end of the war, under extreme pressure from the Nazi Party, Furtwängler fled to Switzerland. It was during this troubled period that he composed what is largely considered his most significant work, the Symphony No. 2 in E minor. Work on the symphony was begun in 1944, and carried on into 1945. It was given its premiere in 1948 by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Furtwängler's direction. Furtwängler and the Philharmonic recorded the symphony for Deutsche Grammophon; the music was much in the tradition of Bruckner and Gustav Mahler, composed on a grand scale for very large orchestra with romantic, dramatic themes. Another important work is theSymphonic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, completed and premiered in 1937 and revised in 1954. Many themes from this work were also incorporated into Furtwängler's unfinished Symphony No. 3 in C sharp minor.
He resumed performing and recording following the war, and remained a popular conductor in Europe, although always under something of a shadow. He died in 1954 in Ebersteinburg, close to Baden-Baden. He is buried in the Heidelberg Bergfriedhof. The tenth anniversary of his death was marked by a concert in the Royal Albert Hall,London, conducted by his biographer Hans-Hubert Schönzeler.
Furtwängler is most famous for his performances of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Wagner. However, he was also a champion of modern music, notably the works ofPaul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg, and conducted the world premiere of Sergei Prokofiev's Fifth Piano Concerto (with the composer at the piano) on October 31, 1932 as well as performances of Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra.
"Third Reich" controversy
Furtwängler's relationship with — and attitude towards — Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party was a matter of much controversy. Because of his international renown, he was appointed as the first vice-president of the Reichsmusikkammer. In 1934 he was banned from conducting the premiere of Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler, and subsequently resigned from the RMK and the Berlin Opera. Some sources maintain that Furtwängler resigned from his posts at the Berlin Opera and Reichsmusikkammer in protest; Frederic Spotts states that he was forced to either resign all his positions or be dismissed. In 1936 it seemed possible that he might follow Erich Kleiber's footsteps into exile when he was offered the principal conductor's post at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, where he would have succeeded Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini's biographer Harvey Sachs wrote that Toscanini recommended Furtwängler for the position, one of the few times Toscanini expressed admiration for a fellow conductor. There is every possibility that Furtwängler would have accepted the post, but a report from the Berlin branch of the Associated Press, possibly ordered by Hermann Göring, said that he was willing to take up his post at the Berlin Opera once more. This caused the mood in New York to turn against him; from their point of view, it seemed that Furtwängler was now a full supporter of the Nazi Party.
However, Furtwängler never joined the Nazi Party nor did he really approve of them, much like the composer Richard Strauss, who made no secret of his dislike of the Nazis. Furtwängler always refused to give the Nazi salute, and there is even film footage of him turning away and wiping his hand with a handkerchief after shaking the hand of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.
Furtwängler was treated relatively well by the Nazis; he had a high profile, and was an important cultural figure, as evidenced by his inclusion in the Gottbegnadeten list ("God-gifted List") of September 1944. Furtwängler in turn conducted several concerts for the direct benefit of the Nazis: in February 1938 he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic at a concert held for the Hitler Youth, and that same year conducted a performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in celebration of Hitler's birthday. Further, contrary to the claims of some writers that he refused to conduct in occupied countries during the war, he conducted in Prague in May and November 1940, and again in March 1944 in a concert marking the fifth anniversary of the German occupation. His concerts were often broadcast to German troops to raise morale, though he was limited in what he was allowed to perform by the authorities. He later said he tried to protect German culture from the Nazis; it is now known that he used his influence to help Jewish musicians and non musicians escape the Third Reich. He managed, for example, to have Max Zweig, a nephew of conductor Fritz Zweig, released from Dachau concentration camp. Others, from an extensive list of Jews he helped, included Carl Flesch, Joseph Krips and the composer Arnold Schönberg. In spite of this, some sources claim his motives were not as pure as those of e.g. Oskar Schindler.
Albert Speer claimed that in December 1944 Furtwängler asked whether Germany had any chance of winning the war. Speer replied in the negative, and advised the conductor to flee to Switzerland from possible Nazi retribution. Furtwängler did in fact escape to Switzerland shortly after a concert in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic on January 28, 1945. At that concert he conducted an account of Brahms's Second Symphony that was caught on tape and is considered one of his greatest recordings.
At his denazification trial, Furtwängler was charged with supporting Nazism by remaining in Germany, performing at Nazi party functions and with making an anti-semitic remark against the part-Jewish conductor Victor de Sabata. However, he was eventually cleared on all these counts.
As part of his closing remarks at his denazification trial, Furtwängler said,
"I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like.
"Does Thomas Mann [who was critical of Furtwängler's actions] really believe that in 'the Germany of Himmler' one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realize that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror? I do not regret having stayed with them."
(quoted from John Ardoin's The Furtwängler Record)
The violinist Yehudi Menuhin was among the few musicians in the Jewish community and the United States who had a positive view of Furtwängler. In 1933 he had refused to play with him, but in the late 1940s after a personal investigation of Furtwängler, he became supportive of him, and performed and recorded alongside him.
British playwright Ronald Harwood's play Taking Sides (1995), set in 1946 in the American zone of occupied Berlin, is about U.S. accusations against Furtwängler of having served the Nazi regime. In 2001 the play was made into a motion picture directed by István Szabó and starring Harvey Keitel and featuring Stellan Skarsgård in the role of Furtwängler.
In 1949 Furtwängler accepted the position of principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. However the orchestra was forced to rescind the offer under the threat of a boycott from several prominent musicians including Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Alexander Brailowsky. According to a New York Times report, Horowitz said that he "was prepared to forgive the small fry who had no alternative but to remain and work in Germany." But Furtwängler "was out of the country on several occasions and could have elected to keep out". Rubinstein likewise wrote in a telegram, "Had Furtwängler been firm in his democratic convictions he would have left Germany".
Furtwängler had a unique conducting technique. He saw symphonic music as creations of nature that could only be realised subjectively into sound. This is why composers such as Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner were so central to Furtwängler's repertoire, because he identified them as great forces of nature. He disliked Toscanini's approach to the German repertoire. He walked out of a Toscanini concert once, calling him "a mere time-beater!".
Neville Cardus wrote in the Manchester Guardian in 1954 of Furtwängler's conducting style:
"He did not regard the printed notes of the score as a final statement, but rather as so many symbols of an imaginative conception, ever changing and always to be felt and realised subjectively...Not since Nikisch, of whom he was a disciple, has a greater personal interpreter of orchestral and opera music than Furtwängler been heard."
Many commentators and critics regard him as the greatest conductor in history. However, on the website Classics Today, critic David Hurwitz sharply criticizes what he terms "the Furtwangler wackos" who "will forgive him virtually any lapse, no matter how severe", and characterizes the conductor himself as "occasionally incandescent but criminally sloppy".
Conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach has said of Furtwängler that he was a "formidable magician, a man capable of setting an entire ensemble of musicians on fire, sending them into a state of ecstasy".
Furtwängler was famous for his exceptional inarticulacy. His pupil Sergiu Celibidache remembered that the best he could say was, "Well, just listen" (to the music). Carl Brinitzer from the German BBC service tried to interview him, and thought he had an imbecile before him. A live recording of a rehearsal with a Stockholm orchestra documents hardly anything intelligible, only hums and mumbling. On the other hand, a collection of his essays, On Music, reveals deep thought. Still, Furtwängler remained highly respected amongst musicians. Even Arturo Toscanini, usually regarded as Furtwängler's complete antithesis (and sharply critical of Furtwängler on political grounds), once said – when asked to name the world's greatest conductor apart from himself – "Furtwängler!"
One of Furtwängler's protegés was pianist Karlrobert Kreiten. He was also an important influence on the pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim, of whom Furtwängler's widow, Elisabeth Furtwängler, said, "Er furtwänglert" ("He furtwänglers"). Barenboim recently recorded Furtwängler's 2nd Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Other conductors known to speak of Furtwangler in reverent tones include Valery Gergiev, Claudio Abbado, Sergiu Celibidache, Christoph Eschenbach, Alexander Frey, Eugen Jochum, Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur and Christian Thielemann. George Szell, whose precise and martinet-like musicianship was in many ways antithetical to Furtwangler's, always kept a picture of his older colleague in his dressing room. Herbert von Karajan, who was Furtwangler's most detested rival during his early career, maintained throughout his life that Furtwangler was one of the great influences on his music making.
Furtwängler's performances of Beethoven, Bruckner, Brahms and Wagner remain important reference-points today. His performances are grounded in the spontaneous flexibility which Wagner referred to as the 'elastic phrase.'