About this Recording
8.110879 - BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 / WAGNER: Parsifal Prelude (Furtwangler) (1937-1939)

Great Conductors • Wilhelm Furtwängler
Beethoven • Furtwängler • Wagner

Some works exert a seemingly limitless fascination that compels a performing artist to return to them repeatedly throughout their career. Mengelberg paid annual homage to Bach’s St Matthew Passion for over forty years from 1899 at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Knappertsbusch could not leave Parsifal alone at the end of his career, Sir Adrian Boult never tired of sharing new exploration to beguile his listeners with Schubert’s Ninth Symphony and Karajan consistently trounced naysayers of the work and his art with constantly evolving and surprisingly intimate revelations of the glories of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. For Wilhelm Furtwängler it was the music of Beethoven, the symphonies in general and the Fifth and Ninth in particular that became special, almost evangelical missions. There are at least eleven performances of the Fifth documented in live, broadcast or commercial recordings and even more of the Ninth. In the case of the last symphony, perhaps owing to the sentiments of the text and boundarypushing late style, especially the deaf composer’s new mind’s ear orchestral language that leapt ahead of anything he or indeed anyone else had previously composed, Furtwängler’s fascination remains more consistently developmental in approach, working from within in a way that shadows the organic growth so fundamental to the work itself.

From the earliest commercial recording of the Fifth Symphony for Polydor in 1926, Furtwängler seems to be working more from top down rather than from within in terms of overview and control. More single-minded and sharply focused than the Ninth, the essence of this symphony resides in its formidable contrapuntal and rhythmic processes, which he presents with greater variety and broader range across the available performances. The fabric of the work is grappled with in the most thorough search for solutions, but the same answer inevitably emerges. The revelation is in the different ways nuts and bolts are turned and tightened to forge the complete structure with such inescapable logic and conviction. Furtwängler attends to this like no other conductor. Expressive nuance and flexibility are used with such shrewdness and precision of deployment rather than articulation, so that the struggle remains spontaneous, the final victory hard-won. No stone is left unturned at the end of a Furtwängler Beethoven Fifth, whereas in the Ninth the stones are ground to shifting sands, even in the face of the supposed certainties of the finale.

This 1937 pre-Second World War recording for EMI was his second with the Berlin Philharmonic and recorded a year before the equally famous Tchaikovsky Pathétique Symphony with the same orchestra (Naxos 8.110865). Both recordings remained landmarks of the catalogue for many years, admired as much for sound quality as interpretative prowess. Furtwängler went on to re-record the Fifth commercially for EMI with the Vienna Philharmonic after the war in early 1954. Possibly inhibited by the recording process itself and the mellower, less emphatic Viennese style, this throws into sharp focus the greater trenchancy of both the interpretation and Berlin response in the earlier version. Significant too that both the uncomfortably intense wartime recording from 1943 and his last-documented Berlin performance from the Titania-Palast in May 1954 bear witness to the searing, almost obsessive quality of his relationship to the work.

1937 also saw Furtwängler working in earnest on the composition of his Symphonic Concerto for piano and orchestra, begun as far back as 1924 and the first of his larger-scale works to be performed in public. Although a radio archive tape of a complete performance given on 19th January 1939, also with Edwin Fischer as soloist, was discovered as recently as 1989, the only commercially released recording Furtwängler made was of the Adagio solemne, the work’s central movement. A long-drawn threnody of uneasy repose between the passion and triumph of the first and third movements that frame it, the dialogue and development of thematic ideas between piano and orchestra generate considerable tension leading to a cathartic central climax. The style is probingly philosophical and epic in scale, built upon the bed-rock of Brahmsian and Brucknerian experience rather than swimming with contemporary atonal or neo-classical developments. The music enshrines old-world values with sincerity, even if the attempted reconciliation of form and freedom can appear prolix. After initial public and press success following performances in several German cities in 1939, the work faded from view during the war and was not revived until 1964, when Daniel Barenboim and Zubin Mehta met with a positive response in Berlin and Los Angeles.

Work was also started on his first symphony before the composition of the Symphonic Concerto was complete. This in turn was not finished until 1943 and he immediately set to work on a second, which was completed surprisingly quickly not long after the end of hostilities. A third symphony was begun in 1947, but remained incomplete when Furtwängler died in 1954. Many of his great contemporary peers of the podium were not composers and his achievements in this area are often overlooked. Although undeniably out of kilter with the age, they make a significant contribution to a more complete understanding of his artistry and humanity, remaining powerful personal testaments, as can be heard in his recording of the Second Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic made in 1952. Nothing speaks more tellingly of the trauma and profound moral dilemma inflicted upon Furtwängler by the Nazi regime than his own music.

Of all Wagner’s mature music dramas, Parsifal is the most under-represented in the Furtwängler discography. Nothing has ever surfaced from the run at La Scala in 1951 and these two excerpts, together with a live Good Friday Spell from Alexandria in 1951, remain the only tantalising glimpses of what must have been a revelatory realisation of a work, which in many respects most suited the conductor’s temperament and philosophical predisposition. The mystical rapture of the Prelude is luminously mobile, while the voices absent from the Spell are amply replaced by the visionary, life-enhancing phrasing of the Berlin Philharmonic string section.

With consummate irony, Furtwängler’s uniquely organic and transcendent approach to the way God moves in the music of Wagner as well as Bruckner removes it to higher levels completely alien to the ringfenced National Socialist zone to which Hitler and Goebbels wanted him to highjack it. Even more delicious is the double bluff implicit in the conductor’s reminiscence about one of his earliest engagements in Zurich, when he claimed he could only conduct The Merry Widow as though it were Götterdämmerung; Lehár being Hitler’s true favourite amongst composers.

Ian Julier

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