About this Recording
8.110995 - BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 / Coriolan Overture (Furtwangler, Commercial Recordings 1940-50, Vol. 2)
English 

Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)
Commercial Recordings 1940-1950, Volume 2

Wilhelm Furtwängler was born into a cultured middleclass German family: his father was an archaeologist and his mother a painter. Music was his dominant interest: he soon learned to play the piano and was composing when he was seven years old. He was fascinated by Beethoven and is reputed to have memorised most of his works by the time he was twelve. By his late teens he had composed several substantial works including a symphony, a string sextet, and several string quartets. He made his conducting début in Munich in 1906: the programme included a symphonic movement by himself and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony.

Following the death of his father in 1907 Furtwängler decided to devote himself to conducting in order to support himself and his mother. He had already served as a repetiteur at Breslau during the 1905-06 season, and the following season had seen him at Zurich. This was followed by two years at the Munich Court Opera where Felix Mottl, who had been a close associate of Wagner, was chief conductor. Furtwängler then served as third conductor under Hans Pfitzner at Strasbourg for the 1910- 11 season before being appointed as chief conductor at Lübeck, succeeding Herman Abendroth, and conducting both opera and concerts. He moved to a similar position at Mannheim in 1915, this time succeeding Artur Bodansky, and remained there for five years.

By the end of the First World War Furtwängler was clearly one of the pre-eminent conductors in Germany. He was engaged to conduct the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra for two seasons from 1919, and would henceforth study musical structure while in Vienna with Heinrich Schenker. During 1920 he became conductor of the concerts given by the orchestras of the Frankfurt Opera and the Berlin State Opera, succeeding Wilhelm Mengelberg and Richard Strauss. Following the death of Artur Nikisch in 1922 he was appointed as the chief conductor of both the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras. He appeared in England for the first time in 1924, and in the United States in 1925, with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He began to make recordings, from 1926 onwards with the Berlin Philharmonic, and in 1928 he succeeded Felix Weingartner as the conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

The rise of the Nazi party in Germany and its assumption of power in 1933 had a decisive effect upon Furtwängler’s career. He quickly ran into trouble when in 1934, following the banning of Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler, which he was due to conduct at the Berlin State Opera, he resigned all his musical appointments. Despite many offers from abroad, he continued to work in Germany. Having made his début at the Bayreuth Festival in 1931 with Tristan und Isolde, he returned to conduct there in 1936 and 1937, when he also shared the conducting of the Coronation Season at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Sir Thomas Beecham, who greatly admired his musicianship.

Furtwängler’s desire to stay and work in Germany, despite the declining political situation and the onset of hostilities in Europe, necessarily curtailed his activities. He remained active in Berlin and Vienna, and returned to the Bayreuth Festival in 1943 and 1944. Eventually as the Third Reich crumbled and his life became threatened, he fled to Switzerland early in 1945. He was banned by the allies from conducting until the end of 1946, when he was cleared of all allegations of collaboration with the Nazi government.

From 1947 onwards, until his death at the end of 1954, Furtwängler was active in all the major European musical centres. He resumed the chief conductorship of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1947, and from the same year onwards appeared regularly at the Salzburg Festival. He suffered illness during 1952 and collapsed while conducting in Vienna in 1953. The drugs which were prescribed as treatment are believed to have affected his hearing detrimentally. By the middle of 1954 it was clear that he was becoming deaf to the point that he could not hear all the instruments of the orchestra clearly. Ironically this defect became obvious to him at a rehearsal of his own music. With his life’s purpose thus negated, he lost the will to live, and died shortly afterwards in a sanatorium.

Furtwängler was one the very greatest interpretive musicians of the twentieth century. He completely rejected the idea of the conductor as a virtuoso and possessed a highly personal technique. Film of him conducting shows his beat to have been frequently imprecise, and his gestures often appear strangely puppetlike. He favoured a very rich bass-line to his performances, with the music seeming to grow out of this. The insistence upon the multiple recreation of a single view of a work was anathema to him. Performances conducted by Furtwängler were frequently quite different, depending upon his immediate reaction to particular circumstances. His studies with Schenker gave him a powerful grasp of musical architecture, and he had an unrivalled capacity to reveal this in performance, as well as to create a sustained sense of mood. He possessed a mastery of tempo, phrasing, dynamics and transitions, all of which were geared to the realisation of his ideal of the moment. The results were frequently outstanding as well as unique, often creating a sense of intensity equalled by few and exceeded by none.

Furtwängler’s war-time studio recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra were very few in number. That of the Cavatina from Beethoven’s String Quartet No 13 in B flat major, Op. 130, was the first to be recorded, during October 1940 for the Telefunken label. The first performance of the quartet was given by the Schuppanzigh Quartet in March 1826. In its original form it consisted of six movements, with the Cavatina placed fifth. The final movement, the Grosse Fuge, was subsequently separated from the quartet by Beethoven to be performed on its own, and thus leaving the Cavatina to conclude the work, which it does with an almost unearthly effect.

The recordings presented on this disc of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and his Third Symphony, the ‘Eroica’, formed part of the extensive schedule of concerts and recordings which Furtwängler undertook with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra during November and December 1947. The recording of the ‘Eroica’ was concluded in February 1949. This was to be his only studio recording of the Overture: two other performances which have been published are taken from concerts given in Berlin in 1943, and in Munich in 1953. The Coriolan Overture was composed for the play of the same name by Beethoven’s friend, the German writer Heinrich Joseph von Collin. The plot of the play focuses upon the tensions generated by competing personal and political pressures. Beethoven seized upon the critical moments of conflict and decision in the plot and translated them into music of power and nobility. The overture was first performed in 1807; with its abrupt changes in dynamics and contrasting but related themes, it possesses great dramatic power, which Furtwängler powerfully revealed.

Furtwängler’s concert programmes regularly featured Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, and so recordings of several concert performances, as well as of an incandescent 1944 ‘Magnetophon’ concert (a concert recorded without an audience for deferred relay), have been published alongside his two studio recordings, both made with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, of 1947/49 and 1952. Ries, Beethoven’s contemporary, suggested that the symphony was inspired by Beethoven’s admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte as the First Consul of France, in whom he initially saw the champion of liberty, equal to the great consuls of Ancient Rome. However when Beethoven learned that Napoleon had proclaimed himself Emperor, he was enraged, declaring his hero to be ‘no better than other men’. He destroyed the manuscript’s title-page, which according to Ries, simply bore the inscription ‘Buonaparte – Luigi van Beethoven’. The printed inscription on the 1820 published score was to read ‘Sinfonia Eroica, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’. Although written in the traditional four movement form of the classical symphony, the ‘Eroica’ stands in revolutionary contrast to the world of Beethoven’s predecessors Mozart and Haydn. After an explosive first movement, the second is a sombre and deeply-felt funeral march. The energetic scherzo prepares the way for a driving finale, the cumulative power of which can be an overwhelming experience in the hands of a master-conductor such as Furtwängler.

David Patmore


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