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8.111348 - WAGNER, R.: Tannhauser / Lohengrin / Götterdämmerung (orchestral highlights) (Furtwangler) (1952, 1954)
Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954)
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 Bruckner-size 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). Indeed it was Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 that Furtwängler included in his first concert (in 1907)—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 his close association with the Berlin Philharmonic, Furtwängler also had success with the Vienna Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestra (London) and it is with these two orchestras that Furtwängler is heard in a collection of pieces by Richard Wagner (1813–1883), maybe the epitome of a composer enshrining Germany and its real and folkloric history in music.
Not that Furtwängler’s repertoire was limited to the Austro-German classics, for he conducted the premières of, for example, Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler, in 1934, and Schoenberg’s (masterly if then ‘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 (Naxos 8.111336)—and there are in circulation concert-recordings of Furtwängler conducting Ravel and Stravinsky, and also pieces by his German composer contemporaries such as Hans Pfitzner and Wolfgang Fortner. This current release though, a collection of music by Wagner, was very much a staple of Furtwängler’s repertoire, heard here in recordings that would be amongst the conductor’s last.
Tannhäuser, to a libretto by the composer, was first heard in Dresden in 1845. The Overture begins in solemn grandeur, but Furtwängler is canny to keep the music on the move and avoid a sense of stasis, so that the faster music is allowed to be a natural out-flowing from it; indeed, this is a nicely integrated performance, one full of ceremony, energy and beautiful entreaties, the return to the opening passages made inevitable and gloriously noble. The Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin (once again to the composer’s own text, and first heard at Weimar in 1850) here exudes radiant spirituality to a gleaming and burnished climax, Furtwängler ensuring maximum expression while keeping a pulse that allows the music to move forward in an organic way.
The two orchestral excerpts from Götterdammerung, the final part of the tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring), first heard complete in Wagner’s custom-built Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1876, include Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey (from Act I), which opens in exploratory fashion and climaxes with the gung-ho Siegfried exultant in his adventuring. But, in Act III, while hunting, Siegfried meets the sword of Hagen and is murdered; the Funeral March, beginning with ominous strokes on the timpani, rises to an intense lament, heroic yet despairing. Brünnhilde, having believed that Siegfried had betrayed her, now realises that he had not; she takes the ring from Siegfried’s corpse and immolates herself on his funeral pyre; the Rhine now floods and the stolen gold ring is reclaimed by the Rhinemaidens and Valhalla combusts to signal the end of the reign of the gods, the music itself telling of destruction as well as redemption through love.
In Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, the soloist is the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895–1962), her singing distinguished by beauty of tone, unforced strength, accurate intonation and the ability to spin a long and precise vocal line. Flagstad was born into a musical family, her father being a conductor and her mother a singing coach and a pianist. Although initially appearing exclusively in Scandinavia, Flagstad made it to Bayreuth early in the 1930s and to the Metropolitan Opera House in 1935, where she established herself as a leading exponent of the rôles of Isolde and Brünnhilde, also singing them (and Senta, The Flying Dutchman) at Covent Garden (London) conducted by Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner and, indeed, Furtwängler. Flagstad also included Alceste (Gluck), Dido (Purcell) and Leonore (in Beethoven’s Fidelio) in her repertoire, and she gave the première of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs in May 1950 in London (Royal Albert Hall)—the conductor was Furtwängler and she is also his Isolde on the famous complete recording of Tristan und Isolde made in London in 1952. Her final operatic appearance was in London’s Mermaid Theatre in 1953 when she sang Dido. She did, though, continue to give concerts and make recordings, and between 1958 and 1960 she was director of Norwegian National Opera.
Quite obviously, Flagstad and Furtwängler were close as musicians over an extended period of time; and they also shared unfortunate experiences during or related to World War II. In Flagstad’s case, she returned in 1941 to Nazi-occupied Norway to join her second husband; during this period he collaborated with the Nazis and was arrested at the end of hostilities. (It must be said that Flagstad’s own wartime record was blemish free.)
Furtwängler’s situation was real and immediate. Although Wagner’s music is (for us) from more than a century ago, its timeless quality and universal meaning are typical of great music that musicians and listeners spend their lives investigating. One senses with Furtwängler that music was indivisible with life. Leading up to the years of World War II, and during 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, this stigma dogged his career for quite some time. Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew, worked with Furtwängler in the conductor’s last years. Before the 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.’ Maybe, with these post-war recordings, these words are etched into the performances enshrined therein.
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