About this Recording
8.111004 - WEBER, C.M. von: Freischutz (Der) (excerpts) / MENDELSSOHN, Felix: Midsummer Night's Dream (Furtwangler, Early Recordings, Vol. 3) (1929-1935)

Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954)
The Early Recordings, Vol. 3 • Weber • Mendelssohn • Berlioz


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 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. Although his 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 Brucknersize 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). It was Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 that Furtwängler included in 1907 in his first concert, 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. For all that Furtwängler would have success with the Vienna Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestra (London), it is with the Berlin Philharmonic that Furtwängler was and is most closely associated, and it is the Berliners that are heard on all the recordings on this release.

How closely we associate Furtwängler with the music presented here, by Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Weber, is a moot point. Certainly it is not an obvious brotherhood, although this is, of course, the music that he recorded during this period and is indicative of commercial edicts as well as his musical sympathies. Furtwängler’s repertoire, however, was broader than might be supposed and includes him conducting the premières of, for example, Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler, in 1934, and Schoenberg’s masterly if ‘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 exist concert-recordings of Furtwängler conducting Ravel and Stravinsky.

Beginning this selection of recordings made by Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic between 1929 and 1935 is the overture to Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, the composer’s ‘magic’ opera completed in 1821 and first heard in Berlin that year and quickly followed by productions in London (1824) and New York (1825). Furtwängler had previously recorded this overture in 1926 (Naxos 8.111003). The remake smoulders with anticipation, a real theatrical prelude, and the quartet of horns heard during the slow introduction are both expressive and carefully graded. The main Allegro is feisty and restless (with Furtwängler, however carefully the route-map was calculated the end result could be compelling in its seeming spontaneity) and with a sense of purpose and yearning romanticism (enough to sustain the long, suitably dramatic, pause before the coda) and which transcends the years since the recording was made. As a Freischütz ‘bonus’ is the Entr’acte that is rarely heard outside of a complete performance of the opera. Horns (in imitation of the hunting variety) are to the fore, the whole an agreeably buoyant interlude given here with stealth, wit and enjoyment.

For the next track we stay with Weber, but not as he christened the music. Invitation to the Dance is a piano original and is more usually heard in the orchestration by Hector Berlioz, as here, save that Berlioz’s use of a cello solo to begin and end the piece is supplemented by cellos as a section. Maybe this was a nod on Furtwängler’s part to the recording process of the day to ensure that the microphones properly captured the cello-represented suitor’s entrée and envoi. Yet anyone familiar with Berlioz’s scoring will do an aural doubletake and wonder (initially) if Furtwängler had opted for Felix Weingartner’s version. Furtwängler’s conducting of Invitation is lovingly turned at the opening and close; in between, the dance measures are perhaps a little stiff and kept on something of a leash (although there is certainly appreciation of Berlioz’s inimitable orchestration), yet when the excitement gets headier, Furtwängler and his responsive Berliners are capable of pressing all the right buttons.

From Berlioz the arranger to Berlioz the original (and he was certainly the latter) and the Hungarian (Rakoczy) March (track 6), which makes an early and striking appearance in his Dramatic Legend, La damnation de Faust (which Furtwängler did conduct complete), one of those stirring pieces that has long been used as encore fodder. This Berlin account is nimble and athletic, remarkably ‘straight’ but thrilling in its own right.

Beforehand (tracks 4 and 5) are two masterly examples of Felix Mendelssohn’s ability to paint pictures in sound, whether the remarkable portraiture to be found in the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (a teenage example of Mendelssohn’s precocity, he was but seventeen), here given with translucence, delicacy and nobility, and a seeking of its inner qualities, and one of his Scottish pieces, The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), the composer capturing with first-hand experience the mists, mysteriousness and tempest of the location, conjured in this Berlin account from 1930 through vivid, even wild contrasts. 2009 marks the bicentenary of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth (and also that of Joseph Haydn’s death). More properly it is Mendelssohn Bartholdy—his father, Abraham, added Bartholdy to the family’s surname when he became a Protestant Christian. Felix was a virtuoso pianist and organist born in Hamburg who became conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He was also a fine violinist and, in addition, embraced painting and literature—hence his interest in Shakespeare—with brilliance.

This release does not end here, for there is some more of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be welcomed, recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic in the same year as Furtwängler had set down the Overture. The conductor though is different and also very significant: Erich Kleiber. Before a few words on Kleiber’s contribution to this collection, a short round-up of Furtwängler’s later years would include reference to the time of World War II and beyond 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, such a stigma dogged his career for quite some time. (As mentioned earlier, Yehudi Menuhin—a Jew—worked with Furtwängler in the conductor’s last years. Pre-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.’

The Viennese-born Erich Kleiber (1890–1956), father of the extraordinary if enigmatic conductor Carlos Kleiber (1930–2004), although mention should be made of suggestions that Alban Berg was actually Carlos’s father, also had Berlin connections; he was music director of the Berlin State Opera from 1923 to 1934, the year when he resigned following artistic interference by the Nazi Party. One of his most famous engagements was for the première of Berg’s opera Wozzeck. Kleiber senior was noted for his meticulous rehearsals (legend has it that he scheduled 137 for Wozzeck). To complete the ‘usual’ Suite from Mendelssohn’s Shakespeare-inspired music are Kleiber’s versions of the Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March. Here one can appreciate how influential a conductor can be—particularly revealing when the orchestra is the same and just a short time after Furtwängler had recorded Mendelssohn’s Overture. The Scherzo is neat and unanimous, Kleiber demanding of precision and detail if no curtailment of esprit, whereas the Nocturne lingers and enjoys quite personal rubato that was surely troublesome for the horn soloist to follow (but the musician in question certainly shows mettle), and, finally, the celebrated Wedding March, here rather stately (if sonorous) but beautifully integrated across the whole.

Colin Anderson


Producer’s Note

The sources for the current transfers were a set of “Full-Range”-era, American Columbia-pressed Brunswick-Polydors for the Freischütz items; a mixture of a German Grammophon and a laminated American Brunswick for the Weber Invitation; a French Polydor for Kleiber’s Mendelssohn Nocturne and German Grammophon or Polydor pressings for the remaining sides. Multiple copies were drawn upon to ensure the best reproduction, but some inevitable flaws remain (including a dropout in the original master at 2:37 in Track 4). In order to fill out the short programme, I chose to include some additional music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, recorded shortly after the Overture was taken down, by Furtwängler’s contemporary (and fellow Grammophon/Polydor recording artist), Erich Kleiber, using the same ensemble.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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