About this Recording
8.112025 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Concerto No. 5 / Symphony No. 4 (Fischer, Furtwangler) (1950-1951)
English 

Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954)
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5, ‘Emperor’ • Symphony No. 4

 

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 also 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, and which is demonstrated here by two prime recorded examples of Furtwängler’s conducting Beethoven’s music are heard. One recording is of a world-famous piano concerto, in a classic version, and the other is a symphony, no less well-known save it is somewhat dwarfed by the side of other Beethoven symphonies, and which, in this particular account, is a rarity in Furtwängler’s discography. Although Furtwängler’s 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.

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, 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, however, and for all his close association with the Berlin Philharmonic, Furtwängler also had success with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra (London) and it is with these two august ensembles that Furtwängler is heard in this collection of two pieces by Beethoven.

First, and in collaboration with Edwin Fischer, is a London-made Philharmonia Orchestra recording of Beethoven’s so-called Emperor Piano Concerto. As so often with epithets, this royal nickname has nothing to do with the composer and, in this case, it grew out of a comment by Johann Baptist Cramer, the work’s London publisher who remarked that Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat is “the emperor among piano concertos”. However sweeping the statement, and however free the advertising, the resulting soubriquet is only really known to English-speaking music-lovers and yet does have a certain justification in terms of its musical style. Completed in Vienna in 1811, the piano concerto was dedicated to Archduke Rudolf, who was both Beethoven’s patron and pupil. There is certainly weight and trenchancy to this 1951 performance recorded in the famous Studio No.1 in Abbey Road, London (an iconic venue ever since The Beatles were photographed crossing the nearby zebra crossing in the 1960s), Edwin Fischer establishing a commanding rhetoric from the off, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Furtwängler ablaze in response. Not that this is an overtly dramatic performance, for inwardness and humanity also shine through, qualities that neither Fischer nor Furtwängler were short of.

Swiss-born Edwin Fischer (1886–1960) continues to be regarded as a distinctive pianist with a particular reputation in the Austro-German classics, an unvarnished but perceptive, spiritual even, interpreter particularly of Bach (there is a time-honoured recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier from the 1930s that continues to enjoy a considerable reputation), Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. As a teacher Fischer was very influential, not least on Daniel Barenboim and Alfred Brendel. Fischer was also a conductor, author (including a book on Beethoven’s piano sonatas) and a chamber music collaborator. And one senses a deeply meaningful collaboration with Furtwängler and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Although microphones were present and the red light was ‘on’, this was no inhibition to spontaneous and revealing music-making. This finds its heart in a spacious and rapt account of the slow movement, a transporting mediation that is rather denied to those preferring an ‘authentic’ view on the music, which is followed by an impishly flexible finale.

Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony was completed in 1806. It is, ostensibly, a lighter, more relaxed work than the preceding Eroica Symphony and poles apart from the titanic release that is the Fifth Symphony, yet both this latter work and the Fourth were written concurrently. If the Fourth is a more classical piece than the giant symphonic statements that surround it, it is no less searching and moving; atmospheric and witty, too. The recording of it here is Furtwängler’s 1950 Vienna Philharmonic version, which should not be confused with the conductor’s more widely circulated account of 1952. In this earlier traversal Furtwängler takes an expansive view, shadowy in the slow introduction, emphatic in the main Allegro. When we reach the development, Furtwängler characteristically treats the appoggiatura in the violins (and then woodwind) as a ‘long’ note, making it part of the expressive design rather than something ‘crushed’. He is not alone in this (Ernest Ansermet, for example), but most conductors take the ‘short’ option. Furtwängler’s handling of the passage that leads into the recapitulation may be thought of as too sectioned-off in terms of tempo, but he was a master of the transition and tension is maintained. The slow movement is very spaciously treated, and—with no repeat of the exposition in the first movement—this ‘heavenly length’ tends to ‘bulge’ the shape of the symphony as a whole; yet Furtwängler’s searching and emotionally outreaching conducting gives the music a dimension it can certainly take. With a Scherzo that is articulate and a Trio made communicative, and a finale (with exposition repeat) given time for its contours to be fully revealed (no ‘historically informed’ mad dash here), there remains strength and bubbling vitality; less of a ‘cheeky chappy’ than can be the case, but with a meaningful sense of purpose.

These recordings were made just a few years following the cessation of hostilities of World War II during which time Furtwängler’s situation had been real and immediate. Although Beethoven’s music is (for us)—and these pieces in particular—more than two centuries 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. (Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew, worked with Furtwängler in the conductor’s last years. Before the war, though, 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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