, October 2006
Naxos’s programme for transferring all of Furtwängler’s commercial recordings from the decade 1940-1950 has now reached his first post-war studio visit. The 1947 Beethoven concerto with Menuhin is about Beethoven, but it is also about reconciliation. The Lucerne venue tells us that Furtwängler’s post-war rehabilitation process was nearly but not quite complete. A leading figure in that process was the American-Jewish violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who had every reason to despise those artists who had stayed on in Nazi Germany. Indeed, together with two other Jewish soloists, Artur Schnabel and Bronislaw Huberman, he had refused an invitation from Furtwängler to perform in Berlin in 1933. However, Menuhin had subsequently learnt of Furtwängler’s efforts to protect Jewish musicians in Nazi Germany and of his refusal to undertake a propaganda tour of occupied France with the Berlin Philharmonic. The idea of a collaboration between the two musicians therefore took on a profoundly symbolic value for Menuhin.
Both Menuhin and Furtwängler were deeply instinctive artists with a leaning towards the philosophical and the spiritual. It follows, then, that their performances were coloured by the events around them. In the case of a more objective, classical performer such as Jascha Heifetz, perhaps with Reiner or Szell conducting, the performance would probably not reflect any external event, however much the artists may have been moved personally. While reactions to specific events could many years later draw Bernstein into excessive sentimentalism, there is no trace of that here. Furtwängler leads off simply and serenely, without any attempt at manipulating the music, which seems from both artists to assume the character of a humble prayer. Perhaps it reflects gratitude to music itself for having provided that road to reconciliation which might otherwise have been far harder and longer.
In 1953 the same artists, now regular collaborators, set down the concerto again in London with the Philharmonia. It is of course another great performance, but that word “another” maybe gives the game away. There is a sense that things are being taken for granted that were not in 1947. The first movement appears to aim more deliberately at grandeur, while the orchestral variation in the slow movement does not attain the fervour of the Lucerne version. Moreover, the balance is slightly less good, with a more conventionally forward placement of the soloist, to the detriment of his dialogue with the clarinet and then the bassoon in the “larghetto”. The 1953 recording naturally has a greater dynamic and frequency range, yet there is a stridency to Menuhin’s violin, at least in EMI’s own GROC transfer (5 66975 2), which does no justice to his golden timbre. The Lucerne recording, as transferred by Ward Marston, is warm and natural, even though nobody could mistake it for a modern recording. If I had to choose just one of Menuhin’s recordings of the Beethoven – later commercial recordings were made with Silvestri, Klemperer and Masur – it would be this from 1947. Indeed, while I should hate to be without the insights that so many other violinists have brought to the concerto, if forced to limit myself to only one recording, I would have to make it this.
Furtwängler greatly loved Mozart yet his surviving recordings are limited to a handful of works. Of the symphonies there is only this 40th and a 39th on DG. The 40th raised eyebrows in its day for its faster-than-Toscanini first movement. Nearly sixty years later its lean, biting attack will shock no-one used to Harnoncourt or Norrington. Furtwängler makes a tiny pause before the second subject, as did Bruno Walter, but unlike Walter he then takes the theme up to tempo. It is noticeable that, though the full VPO strings are presumably used, he does not bring into play the rugged, bass-weighted sonorities so typical of his Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner, preferring a tense, muscular sound. Indeed, one of the valuable lessons to be learnt from this recording is that Furtwängler was more of an orchestral stylist than is commonly supposed. Most of his recordings are of the Austro-German romantic repertoire and it is easy to imagine that he applied these saturated sonorities to everything he did. In reality he could transform the orchestral sound, for Haydn and Mozart at one end of the spectrum as for Ravel at the other.
The Andante is grave but without excess weight or fat. He draws from his players luminous sound, infused with humanity, reminding us that he was a notable interpreter of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”. The Minuet is trenchant and striding while the Trio again recalls Gluck in his Elysian Fields mood. This is a trio which, in most performances, has no character at all. I am grateful to Furtwängler for proving that it is not an uncharacteristic lapse in Mozart’s inspiration. We come back to tense, lean driving for a Finale which completes an interpretation as rewarding as any in the catalogue. The recording falls easily on the ear and I quickly adjusted to it and concentrated only on the music.
Incidentally, those who imagine that the tenser modern readings of Mozart had to come as an antidote to the affectionate and comfortable interpretations of, respectively, Bruno Walter and Karl Böhm, should make a point of listening to this. They may even have to admit that there is nothing new under the sun.
These performances have frequently been reissued over the years, but if you don’t already have them, don’t miss them now.