About this Recording
8.110996 - MOZART: Symphony No. 40 / BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto (Furtwangler, Comm. Recordings 1940-50, Vol. 3)
English 

Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)
Commercial Recordings 1940-1950, Vol. 3

 

Wilhelm Furtwängler was born into a cultured middle-class 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 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 the distinguished theorist 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 Arthur Nikisch in 1922, he was appointed 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 forbidden 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 20th 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 puppet-like. 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.

The recording of Beethoven's Violin Concerto which Furtwängler made for EMI with Yehudi Menuhin and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra on 28 and 29 August 1947 was significant for two reasons. First, these were to be the conductor's first studio sessions for a commercial recording following his flight to Switzerland and the German defeat. They thus represented a significant step towards his rehabilitation at the centre of Europe's musical life. Secondly, joining him on this journey was the Jewish violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who, despite the horrors of the Holocaust, steadfastly maintained that reconciliation was the way forward, and demonstrated this by his consistent post-war collaboration with Furtwängler. A month after this recording was made the two performed the concerto together again in Berlin. Beethoven composed his Violin Concerto in 1806 for the 26-year-old violinist Franz Clement, a conductor at the Theater-an-der-Wien, for which Beethoven had begun work on his opera Fidelio. Beethoven completed the concerto in a rush and Clement not only sight-read the part, but between the first and second movements he also threw in a couple of compositions of his own, which he played with the violin turned upside-down. Such showmanship was typical of musical performances of the period. Though the audience appears to have enjoyed the event, critical response to the concerto was lukewarm. It was not until 1844, almost 20 years after Beethoven's death, that the work gained popularity when another young virtuoso, the 13-year-old Joseph Joachim, took the piece on a European tour with his friend Felix Mendelssohn conducting. Cast in the traditional three movements, the concerto possesses an unusual duality of dark and light sides, both of which conductor and soloist realised with great distinction on this occasion.

At the beginning of December 1948 Furtwängler continued the series of recordings for EMI with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra that he had begun during the winter of the previous year. The late 1948 repertoire consisted of Mendelssohn's Overture The Hebrides and Mozart's Symphony No. 40. The Overture was completely re-recorded on 15 February 1949, when the recording of the Mozart was completed. Mozart's Symphony No. 40, in the dark key of G minor, was one of three symphonies which Mozart composed in the short space of about nine weeks during the summer of 1788. They were probably intended for concerts to be given in Vienna during the following winter season, but Mozart did not in fact henceforth present any more concerts of his own music, as he had previously done in the Austrian capital. Both the opening and closing movements are in the minor key and possess an overwhelming mood of agitated melancholy. Between them are placed a serene slow movement, in the major key of E flat, and the traditional minuet and trio, both of which offer some respite, albeit with disturbing undertones, before the darkening close of the symphony.

David Patmore


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