About this Recording
8.111060 - BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 (Furtwangler) (1951)
English 

Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9, 'Choral'

 

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 Hermann 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 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 sanitorium.

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 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 equaled by few and exceeded by none.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, known as the 'Choral', possessed an especial significance for Furtwängler: according to his secretary, Berta Geissmar, a performance of this work was always 'a sacred occasion for Furtwängler since his earliest days'. He did not allow this work onto his programmes during the First World War when he was conducting at Mannheim, and only conducted it on special occasions afterwards, treating it always 'as a holy ritual'. He never sought to make a studio recording of the work, perhaps reflecting his view of it as a communal experience. In addition he saw it as one of the most perfect pieces of music ever created, writing for instance of the final movement: '…in the entire history of music I cannot cite an example showing more clearly the formal autonomy of pure music.'

The symbolic importance of the re-opening in 1951 of the Bayreuth Festival, devoted to the operas of Richard Wagner, cannot be over-emphasized. Following the 'colonisation' of the Festival by Adolf Hitler, Bayreuth and Wagner's music had become international emblems of Nazi cultural policies in action. The Festival's rebirth after the Second World War thus represented an opportunity for German culture itself to reappear on the international stage, freed from the earlier taint of Nazism. As the leading German musician of his generation Furtwängler was the obvious choice to lead the opening performance of the Festival, traditionally devoted to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The performance given on 29 July 1951 in the Festival Theatre therefore represented far more than just a performance of this great work: it signified the redemption of German culture, which the conductor himself had tried to defend during the Third Reich.

Supporting Furtwängler on this historic occasion were the Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra, whose members are drawn from the front ranks of the opera houses of Germany, and a team of outstanding soloists led by the soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and the bass Otto Edelmann, both on the verge of major international careers. The recording of this concert was first released commercially at the behest of Furtwängler's widow in 1955 after his death. Not only is this performance considered to be one of the very finest of the several conducted by Furtwängler on record, it also stands as one of the most profound interpretations of the work ever to have been committed to disc.

David Patmore

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9, in D Minor Op. 125 'Choral'
Recorded during the performance of 29 July 1951 at the Festspielhaus, Bayreuth
Matrix nos.: 2XRA 16 through 19, First issued on HMV ALP 1286 and 1287

 


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