About this Recording
8.110997 - WAGNER: Overtures (Furtwangler, Commercial Recordings 1940-50, Vol. 4)

Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)
Commercial Recordings 1940-1950, Volume 4

Wilhelm Furtwängler was born into a cultured middle-class German family: his father was an archaeologist and his mother a painter. Music was his dominant interest: he soon learned to play the piano and was composing when he was seven years old. He was fascinated by Beethoven and is reputed to have memorised most of his works by the time he was twelve. By his late teens he had composed several substantial works including a symphony, a string sextet, and several string quartets. He made his conducting début in Munich in 1906: the programme included a symphonic movement by himself and Bruckner's Ninth Symphony.

Following the death of his father in 1907 Furtwängler decided to devote himself to conducting in order to support himself and his mother. He had already served as a repetiteur at Breslau during the 1905-06 season, and the following season had seen him at Zürich. This was followed by two years at the Munich Court Opera where Felix Mottl, who had been a close associate of Wagner, was chief conductor. Furtwängler then served as third conductor under Hans Pfitzner at Strasbourg for the 1910-11 season before being appointed chief conductor at Lübeck, succeeding Herman Abendroth, and conducting both opera and concerts. He moved to a similar position at Mannheim in 1915, this time succeeding Artur Bodansky, and remained there for five years.

By the end of the First World War Furtwängler was clearly one of the pre-eminent conductors in Germany. He was engaged to conduct the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra for two seasons from 1919, and would henceforth study musical structure, while in Vienna, with the distinguished theorist Heinrich Schenker. During 1920 he became conductor of the concerts given by the orchestras of the Frankfurt Opera and the Berlin State Opera, succeeding Wilhelm Mengelberg and Richard Strauss. Following the death of Arthur Nikisch in 1922, he was appointed chief conductor of both the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras. He appeared in England for the first time in 1924, and in the United States in 1925 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He began to make recordings from 1926 onwards with the Berlin Philharmonic, and in 1928 he succeeded Felix Weingartner as the conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

The rise of the Nazi party in Germany and its assumption of power in 1933 had a decisive effect upon Furtwängler's career. He quickly ran into trouble when in 1934, following the banning of Hindemith's opera, Mathis der Maler, which he was due to conduct at the Berlin State Opera, he resigned all his musical appointments. Despite many offers from abroad, he continued to work in Germany. Having made his debut at the Bayreuth Festival in 1931, with Tristan und Isolde, he returned to conduct there in 1936 and 1937, when he also shared the conducting of the Coronation Season at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Sir Thomas Beecham, who greatly admired his musicianship.

Furtwängler's desire to stay and work in Germany, despite the declining political situation and the onset of hostilities in Europe, necessarily curtailed his activities. He remained active in Berlin and Vienna, and returned to the Bayreuth Festival in 1943 and 1944. Eventually as the Third Reich crumbled and his life became threatened, he fled to Switzerland early in 1945. He was forbidden by the allies from conducting until the end of 1946, when he was cleared of all allegations of collaboration with the Nazi government.

From 1947 onwards, until his death at the end of 1954, Furtwängler was active in all the major European musical centres. He resumed the chief conductorship of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1947, and from the same year onwards appeared regularly at the Salzburg Festival. He suffered illness during 1952 and collapsed while conducting in Vienna in 1953. The drugs which were prescribed as treatment are believed to have affected his hearing detrimentally. By the middle of 1954 it was clear that he was becoming deaf to the point that he could not hear all the instruments of the orchestra clearly. Ironically this defect became obvious to him at a rehearsal of his own music. With his life's purpose thus negated, he lost the will to live, and died shortly afterwards in a sanitorium.

Furtwängler was one of the very greatest interpretive musicians of the twentieth century. He completely rejected the idea of the conductor as a virtuoso and possessed a highly personal technique. Film of him conducting shows his beat to have been frequently imprecise, and his gestures often appear strangely puppet-like. He favoured a very rich bass line to his performances, with the music seeming to grow out of this. The insistence upon the multiple recreation of a single view of a work was anathema to him. Performances conducted by Furtwängler were frequently quite different, depending upon his immediate reaction to particular circumstances. His studies with Schenker gave him a powerful grasp of musical architecture, and he had an unrivalled capacity to reveal this in performance, as well as to create a sustained sense of mood. He possessed a mastery of tempo, phrasing, dynamics and transitions, all of which were geared to the realisation of his ideal of the moment. The results were frequently outstanding as well as unique, often creating a sense of intensity equalled by few and exceeded by none.

The numerous orchestral excerpts from Wagner's operas provided much valuable repertoire for the 78-rpm era of recording, with its short playing time of four to five minutes per side. Given Furtwängler's mastery and renown in this repertoire, it figured largely in his post-war commercial recording plans. The first of his two commercial recordings with Kirsten Flagstad of 'Brünnhilde's Immolation', the final climactic scene both to Götterdämmerung and the whole of The Ring cycle, was made on 26 March 1948. This proved to be the first of his post-war studio recordings of music by Wagner to be published, as well as his first encounter with Walter Legge's Philharmonia Orchestra (with which he was later to record an unparalleled complete account of Tristan und Isolde, with Flagstad an incomparable Isolde). A year later, between 15 February and 4 April 1949, Furtwängler recorded an extensive repertoire with the Vienna Philharmonic for EMI in Vienna, in which excerpts from the Wagner operas featured significantly. The Funeral March from Götterdämmerung was included within these sessions but the result was not published and a further, more satisfactory, recording was made a year later during further sessions with the Vienna Philharmonic held between 23 January and 3 February 1950.

The music of Richard Wagner was absolutely central to Furtwängler's work as a conductor, standing second only to that of Beethoven in importance. Born only four years after Wagner's death, Furtwängler possessed through both instinct and study a complete grasp of how to realise to the full the unique character of Wagner's compositions. In particular he was a master at expressing in performance Wagner's idea of 'unending melody', writing: 'the final and highest goal a conductor can attain is to conduct a legato melody… in such a way that it is really received as legato, something living and breathing that really flows'. Furtwängler realised that if the Wagnerian melody was expressed appropriately, then the other musical elements fell easily into place. He observed acutely that 'Wagner was an absolute realist in every aspect of instrumentation, especially during his middle period. It sounds fabulous! If Die Walküre and Tristan are really played in accordance with the markings, everything that is in the orchestra will come out entirely of its own accord'. Working with two superb orchestras, the Philharmonia and the Vienna Philharmonic, in the studio recordings of excerpts from the operas of Wagner contained on this disc Furtwängler demonstrated his own personal mastery of this music to the full.

David Patmore


Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer: Overture
Recorded at the Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 30, 31 March and 4 April 1949
Matrices: 2VH 7128-30; cat. HMV DB6975-76

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Overture
Recorded at the Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 1, 4 April 1949
Matrices: 2VH 7163, 7169-70; cat. HMV DB 6942-43

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude to Act III
Recorded at the Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 1 February 1950
Matrices: 0VH475-76; cat. RCA Victor LHMV 1049 (unissued on 78 rpm)

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Dance of the Apprentices (Act III)
Recorded at the Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 4 April 1949
Matrix: 2VH 7171; cat. HMV DB 6943

Wagner: Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries (Act III)
Recorded at the Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 31 March 1949
Matrix: 2VH 7131; cat. HMV DB 6950

Wagner: Götterdämmerung: Siegfried's Rhine Journey (Act I)
Recorded at the Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 23 February 1949
Matrices: 2VH 7135-37; cat. HMV DB 6949-50

Wagner: Götterdämmerung: Siegfried's Funeral March (Act III)
Recorded at the Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 31 January 1950
Matrices: 2VH 7133-34; cat. HMV DB 6946

Wagner: Götterdämmerung: Brünnhilde's Immolation (Act III)
Recorded at Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, 26 March 1948
Matrices: 2EA 12850-54; cat HMV DB 6792-94S

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