, February 2007
Why review one of the most famous recordings of one of the most important works in the entire classical repertoire? In theory, this should be self recommending – Furtwängler is one of the great Beethoven specialists and this is a work that meant a great deal to him as an artist and as a human being. I’m also assuming that anyone reading this has at least a vague idea what the symphony sounds like and won’t need a description. This is basic repertoire after all, and needs to be listened to. Instead, I’m writing because I want to share what this music means and why this recording in particular is worth listening to.
Note the date and place it was originally made. It marked the re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. The festival had been tainted with Nazi associations because Hitler had enjoyed Wagner’s music, and Winifred Wagner had admired him. There’s plenty of serious scholarly research into this so here’s no place to pass snap judgements. Beethoven existed before the Nazis and represented a much deeper tradition. Choosing the Ninth with its theme of universal brotherhood was thus an act of hope. All the performers here, and the audience, too, would have been intimately aware of what had happened, and why the Ninth mattered. I think this accounts for the fervent intensity of the performance.
Furtwängler himself had been condemned for not escaping into exile, but again, research has shown that nothing is simple black and white. Some years ago, I worked in the archives and found handwritten letters from ordinary people who’d regarded his concerts as an oasis of sanity in a mad world, music symbolising an alternative to the soulless regime. The March 1942 recording of the Ninth Symphony and the filmed concert made some weeks before capture something of the period in which they were made. The film, naturally, shows Party bigwigs, but ordinary people knew very well that Beethoven opposed dictatorships and oppression. They were also far more aware of Schiller’s libertarian philosophy than people are today. So the stony-faced Party goons sit in denial, pretending that Beethoven meant nothing and that Furtwängler was just playing “sounds”. But irony wasn’t lost on people who really understood.
When this recording was made, Hitler was dead. Bayreuth was revived, but under Wieland Wagner, who knew there was more to the composer than his mother - and indeed grandmother - did. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra may not be as precise and sophisticated as the Berlin Philharmonic, but they’re enthusiastic. I particularly like the way they play, truly molto vivace, the references to themes that will expand into the final Ode. Furtwängler lets the Adagio unfold in a leisurely way. Since this is Bayreuth, the performance reaches its pinnacle in the final movement. Very quietly, Furtwängler introduces the main theme, gradually building up towards the entry of the bass, Otto Edelmann, who’d been a prisoner of war, captured by the Russians. The pure freshness of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s voice soars above the ensemble, her ringing tones expressing the spiritual quality of the symphony. Furtwängler emphasises the symphony’s warmth and humanity, and its powerful sense of triumph. He was artist enough to know that music lies not in the notes but in interpretations that bring out its spirit. “Sondern lasst uns ungenehmere anstimmen und freudenvollere”, goes the text, the music to which infuses the whole symphony. The music is so universal that it’s been adopted as the European Anthem. Of course this is all anathema if music has no context and meaning. Luckily for us, Furtwängler didn’t think so – and neither did Beethoven.