About this Recording
8.111344 - SCHUBERT, F.: Symphonies Nos. 8, "Unfinished" and 9, "Great" (Furtwangler) (1950-1951)
English 

Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954)
SCHUBERT: Symphonies No. 8 ‘Unfinished’ and No. 9 ‘Great’

 

Gustav Heinrich Ernst Martin Wilhelm Furtwängler was born in Berlin on 25 January 1886 and died in Baden-Baden on 30 November 1954. His father was an archaeologist and his mother a painter; such exploratory and creative qualities might be perceived in Furtwängler’s distinctive and personal brand of musicianship. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s musical education began at an early age (with his instrument being the piano) and was fuelled in particular by a love of Beethoven’s music, which would develop into a lifetime’s engrossment for him. Although his posthumous reputation is as a conductor of the Austro-German classics, kept alive through a relatively small official discography now swelled by many releases of exhumed concert-performances, Furtwängler was also a composer (and not the only composer-conductor to put the act of creation above that of re-creation: Boulez is, and Klemperer was, of a similar mind). Furtwängler’s compositions include several pieces of expansive chamber music, a piano concerto, and three Bruckner-size symphonies.

Indeed, Bruckner’s music was also a very important part of Furtwängler’s repertoire (recordings, approved or otherwise, exist of Furtwängler conducting several of Bruckner’s symphonies). Indeed it was Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 that Furtwängler included in his first concert (in 1907), which was with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra (owing to his father’s teaching commitments, Wilhelm had spent his childhood in this city). Furtwängler then received engagements with various Austrian and German orchestras and opera houses until, in 1922, he was appointed to the celebrated Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, in succession to the legendary Arthur Nikisch, and also to the Berlin Philharmonic. For all that Furtwängler would have success with the Vienna Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestra (London), it is with the Berlin Philharmonic that he was and is most closely associated, and it is the Berliners that are heard on this celebrated recording of Schubert’s Great C major Symphony from 1951, the Vienna Philharmonic doing the honours for the universally popular Unfinished.

Not that Furtwängler’s repertoire was limited to the Austro-German classics, for he conducted the premières of, for example, Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler, in 1934, and Schoenberg’s (masterly if then ‘newly complex’) Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, in 1928. Nor was Furtwängler a stranger to Bartók’s music—in 1927 he had conducted the first performance of Piano Concerto No. 1 with the composer as the soloist, and over twenty years later recorded Violin Concerto No. 2 with Yehudi Menuhin (Naxos 8.111336)—and there are in circulation concert-recordings of Furtwängler conducting Ravel and Stravinsky, and also pieces by his German composer contemporaries such as Hans Pfitzner and Wolfgang Fortner. To this current release though, which couples Furtwängler’s recordings of Franz Schubert’s two best-known symphonies.

The Unfinished is perhaps music that we have become too familiar with and take for granted, and if its two-movement design seems the perfect equivalent of two sides of the same coin, then this was not Schubert’s intention given his sketches for a Scherzo and Finale (and, indeed, that the symphony can now be performed in complete form thanks to musicologist editors). Furtwängler’s approach to the first movement is to direct a straightforward and seamless exposition (not repeated) and to then take the listener close to the abyss come the development section; the music aches with intensity and the trombones are quite terrifying in their baleful interjections; not so much too loud as warning a dire summons. By the close of the first movement we are invited to share Schubert’s deep introspection, something continued into the second movement, which conjures sadness, resignation, rage and, finally solace; could anything follow such an outpouring? Furtwängler suggests not.

Such digging deep into music’s resources also distinguishes Furtwängler’s conducting of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (numbered as No. 8 in German-speaking countries, the Unfinished as No. 7—although, once again, owing to the work of others, a ‘Schubert Seventh’ is now performable). Schubert had indicated to friends that it was his ambition to write a “grand symphony” and that works such as the Octet and other chamber and instrumental pieces were signposts to his ultimate symphonic goal. With the Unfinished Symphony, Schubert had broken through barriers to a heightened sense of expression, and with the C major Symphony (nicknamed ‘Great’ to distinguish it from Symphony No. 6, which is also in C major), Schubert produced a symphony of power and weight with each movement being cast to a similar (large) dimension and with a rhythmic unity that propels the symphony to inexorable climaxes and ultimate resolution. The march-like slow movement (Andante con moto) contains some of the most wondrous and emotionally explosive music that Schubert ever composed, something that Furtwängler exploits to the full. Indeed, Furtwängler searches the music and asks questions of it.

In today’s concern for ‘authenticity’, this symphony can emerge as a study in rhythm, maybe rather wearing across the span of four extensive movements. Furtwängler’s approach is a flexible one and not the only way of course (at least one version conducted by Sir Adrian Boult is a mandatory part of a serious collection of this work)—but Furtwängler is not afraid of different pulses or investing emotion into music that can seem arid if, once set in motion, it is then presented as if cut from too similar cloth. Indeed Furtwängler’s response of power, passion and communicative expression, which inform this performance, are nothing less than innate, the slow movement burdened and searching for paradise, momentarily achieved, before letting out all of the composer’s pent-up frustration. This is the heart of the symphony and of this performance, opening up vistas that other accounts come nowhere near. If the Scherzo could be a more vital dance, again Furtwängler avoids metronomic insistence; and the finale is a tour de force of sustained momentum if not without changes of pulse.

Although this is music from two hundred or so years ago, its timeless quality and universal meaning are typical of great music that musicians and listeners spend their lives investigating. One senses with Furtwängler that music was indivisible with life. Leading up to the years of World War II, and during that conflict, Furtwängler, because he remained in Germany (other prominent musicians went into exile), was branded a Nazi (or certainly a member of the Nazi Party). Although, post-war, he was cleared of such associations, this stigma dogged his career for quite some time. The afore-mentioned Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew, worked with Furtwängler in the conductor’s last years, although before the war he had refused to do so. Furtwängler explained his actions thus: ‘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.’ Maybe, with these post-war recordings, these words are etched into the performances enshrined therein.


Colin Anderson


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