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8.110998 - BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 / Haydn Variations (Furtwangler, Commercial Recordings 1940-50, Vol. 5)
Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)
The fact that Wilhelm Furtwängler survived the Second World War to give the world nigh on another decade of music-making was nothing short of miraculous. The arguments regarding the motives behind his decision to stay in Nazi Germany will probably for ever divide opinion, but to consider his life from a full perspective, his education, writings and career, both as a conductor and within the context of his long held desire to be a composer, is to appreciate that his experiences during the Nazi period would have had the profoundest effect upon a man of such highly developed cultural and artistic sensibilities.
The awareness of his position as a guardian and perpetuator of the traditions of high German Art was the reason Furtwängler drew breath and he remained steadfast to what he perceived to be his true calling throughout, even though as one of his staunchest supporters, Yehudi Menuhin, remarked, his decision to brave out the war in his homeland was akin to opting for a kind of living suicide. That he became embroiled in the political situation, initially manifesting a degree of naivety and lack of perception of the realities going on around him, remains the moot point. As a liberal and cultured free-thinker, he was completely at odds with the draconian totalitarianism of the Third Reich, but had to play an increasingly cunning and devious game to resist the slow drip exploitation of his position that the Nazi propaganda machine subjected him to. An artist of his prestige and connection could certainly have got out of Germany far more easily than many others, but his sense of responsibility and idealism remains unquestionably at the root of his decision to stay.
Unfortunately, many people outside Germany viewed his choice as a sign of complicity with the regime. This was especially the case in the United States, where bad feeling surrounding the debacle over Furtwängler's cancelled 1936 succession to the principal conductorship of the New York Philharmonic and subsequent falling-out with Toscanini, the adopted God of Classical Music on Earth as far as Americans were concerned, intensified thanks to considerable fanning of the flames by the American media. To all intents and purposes, the German conductor was labelled a Nazi.
This is to overlook a wealth of courage and fortitude in the face of increasingly terrible adversity. Furtwängler always refused to give the Nazi salute at public concerts, regardless of Hitler's or other leading Nazi officials' attendance. He resisted attempts to persuade him to become an artistic ambassador by declining offers to conduct in Nazi-occupied territories and his commitment to helping many Jewish musicians and friends is well documented. Not surprisingly, the wily complexion of his dealings with the authorities meant that he was always viewed with suspicion; when he did finally decide to get out in January 1945 and escape to Switzerland, the Gestapo were about to implement the warrant for his arrest. After the cessation of hostilities, it took the confused American Military Government nearly two years fully to denazify Furtwängler. Although he was able to rebuild his career successfully in Europe, the United States remained difficult and the prospect of a music directorship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra foundered in 1948 owing to a threatened boycott by prestigious American-based musicians.
Listening to his performances that have survived from the war-time period is to participate in some of the most uncomfortably intense realisations of repertoire dearest to his heart. In particular, the idealism of Beethoven and the mysticism of Bruckner are painstakingly explored with a missionary zeal so patently counter to the prevailing social conditions in Germany and specifically with the attendant 'trapped' audience, that the works become rites of passage that mix evangelism and hyperbole to dangerously potent levels. Their extremity makes them difficult to listen to with any frequency.
Brahms, however, is a particularly interesting composer in relation to Furtwängler at this time. Both men shared a consuming interest in the roots of their German musical heritage going back to the Bach family, Handel, Schütz, Buxtehude and their predecessors. The perpetuation of a long-established craft, that which Wagner celebrates in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, pervades their musical lives to the extent that they also shared a preference for looking to the past for inspiration rather than the future, almost as if neither of them were, or even wanted to be, men of their times. Brahms was the composer whose feet were securely planted in the soil of the Fatherland and who most pertinently seized upon the contrapuntal and harmonic possibilities inherent in the vocal music of Bach and his precursors. For him, this was where the true drama of music development was to be found, not in the programmatic opportunities of reworking myth and legend for the stage.
It is, therefore, not surprising to find, both in his writing and interpretative stance, that one of Furtwängler's fast tracks to the heart of Brahms's idiom is through the imagery of its connections with nature. The introduction to the finale of the First Symphony is an obvious case in point, where having wound down the tempo of the preceding movement using the tonal possibilities of Brahms's instrumentation to reflect a decidedly autumnal sunset, the uncertainties of where next to take the music emerge as though from darkest night with the finale's horn-call resounding with all the warmth and reassurance of a shaft of morning sun breaking through the mists. The celebratory optimism of the coda to the finale is instigated by a succession of rolling waves of moving bass harmony that conjures up a mighty river's arrival at the sea. This is to over-romanticise the approach, but with Brahms in his most Beethovenian symphony, Furtwängler must surely have sensed the opportunity for re-establishment with the prime point of contact of the tradition that he had fought for by staying in Germany. It seems to inform every bar of the music and lends his post-war commercial and broadcast performances of the composer a special distinction and spontaneity.
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by J. Haydn, Op 56a ' St. Antoni Chorale'
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