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8.223333 - FURTWANGLER: Piano Concerto in B Minor
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Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954)
Symphonisches Konzert I • Symphonic Concerto in B Minor for Piano and Orchestra (1954 version)


As a composer Wilhelm Furtwängler was only too well aware of the probable prejudices he would encounter. The “world”, he wrote in his Notebooks, would not take “seriously” the compositions of one known for 35 years as a conductor. He adds his own view of himself as, from the outset of his career, a conducting composer rather than a composing conductor. Another problem arose from criticism that accused him of rejecting wholesale contemporary music, a charge he indignantly rejects, while insisting that the future lay with tonality and consistent atonality, rather than with the eclectic individualism that he certainly found unsatisfactory.
Wilhelm Furtwängler was born in 1886 in Berlin, the son of the archaeologist Adolf Furtwängler and his wife, the painter Adelheid Wendt. The family later moved to Munich, where his father became a professor in 1894, and there he was educated privately under the tutelage of the archaeologist Ludwig Curtius and the sculptor Adolf Hildebrand. His early musical education was with the art historian and musicologist Walter Riezler, continued with Joseph Rheinberger and Max von Schillings.

As an adolescent Furtwängler wrote a great deal of music. By the age of twelve he had completed a choral setting of Die erste Walpurgisnacht from Goethe’s Faust in addition to other compositions of various degrees of complexity. The failure of his Symphony in D, performed in Breslau in the winter of 1903, may have deflected him from a career as a composer and turned his practical attention towards conducting, whatever his private creative ambitions. His early experience as a conductor took him from Breslau to Zurich and to the opera-houses of Munich and Strasbourg, before his appointment to Lubeck, where he remained for four years from 1911 to 1915. There followed a period of five years at the Opera in Mannheim and after the war engagements in Vienna and a chance to study with the influential theorist Heinrich Schenker.

The death of Nikisch in 1922 brought Furtwängler to the position that he was to retain for the rest of his life as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, coupled, for some six years, with direction of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and a continuing association with the Vienna Philharmonic. A brief association with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra from 1925 earned him the respect of musicians and audiences, but the enmity of influential critics, who compared him unfavourably with Toscanini and the latter’s allegedly objective approach to interpretation.

As a conductor Furtwängler had his own idiosyncrasies. He approached his task with the imagination and creative power of a composer, so that some critics castigated his magisterial performances as a distortion of the original composer’s intentions. He himself regarded a slavish adherence to the text as a sign of artistic insecurity, analysing the problem as one of excessive reaction to the subjective and arbitrary individualism of the previous generation of interpreters.

During the years of National Socialism in Germany, Furtwängler occupied a position of some outward ambiguity. While firmly opposed to the new regime, he decided that he should remain in Germany, rather than seek exile, as so many of his colleagues did. The condemnation of Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler in 1934 led him to resign his official positions at the Berlin State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic and in the Reichsmusikkammer, in what threatened to be a cause célèbre particularly damaging to the National Socialist Party, although he was later induced to reach a compromise. Furtwängler himself deeply resented the intrusion of politics into artistic matters. His international reputation at first ensured him a measure of personal safety and he was able to exert some influence in favour of musicians of Jewish extraction, persecuted by the regime. This did not save him, however, from hostility abroad after the war. In January 1945 he escaped imminent arrest in Germany by taking refuge in Switzerland. On his return he was detained by the occupying powers in Innsbruck, before being exonerated in December 1946. Nevertheless ill-informed prejudice against him remained in certain quarters, although this was generally overcome in Europe by the time of his death in 1954.

Keith Anderson

The twentieth century has seen a number of performing musicians who feel the urge to make use of their knowledge of music by composing. Among them musicians such as Yves Nat, Artur Schnabel or Otto Klemperer seem primarily performers. With Wilhelm Furtwängler the situation is very different. Rejecting the description interpreter-composer, he claimed throughout his life the right to the title composer-interpreter. In his own words he declared himself not a conductor who composed but a composer who conducted.

Outstanding among the compositions that witness to Furtwängler’s creative ability is the Symphonic Concerto in B minor for piano and orchestra. Although it is difficult to give any precise date for the origin of the work, Furtwängler was certainly occupied with it in 1925. In a letter of 27th July 1930 to John Knittel he remarked that it was imperative that the Concerto, work on which had already lasted several years, should soon reach an end. In fact it was only completed in 1936, in Egypt, and first performed on 26th October 1937 by the pianist Edwin Fischer with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of the composer. Revised by Furtwängler, the work was finally published in 1954. These changes affect the structure rather than the musical argument. It is, in any case, the final, 1954 version that David Lively and Alfred Walter have used for the purposes of the present recording.

The Symphonic Concerto exemplifies clearly the style of Furtwängler, a style that has an intellectual as much as a musical basis. Fundamental to his work is the conjoining of the organic, the duality and the tragic. This symbiosis has for corollary three ideas which the creator invests with a symbolic dimension: form, tonality and symphonic function. These are the three keystones of Furtwängler’s aesthetic.

The concept of a symphonic concerto is not foreign to this way of thinking. If the work is not to be identified as a symphonie concertante, one may rather find its origin in the thematic duality inherent in sonata-form, as Beethoven envisaged it. In Furtwängler’s Symphonic Concerto the opposing principles are not exclusively thematic, but seem essential to the conveyance of the musical message. In this way the orchestra and the piano become two separate symphonic entities, struggling against one another, uniting, loving and hating. Furtwängler himself told Ludwig Curtius that his concerto could be compared to a vast tragedy of Titans.

The influence on Furtwängler of the two piano concertos of Brahms was as definitive as on the concertos of Reger or Pfitzner. There are the massive architectural proportions and the symphonic character of the piano part that demand a very physical involvement from the soloist. At the same time there are a number of similarities in structure and in musical language. These include the important agogic part played by the transitions, the writing in thirds and sixths and the use of the rhythmic hemiola. The cyclic basis of the work and the use of counterpoint in a tradition stemming from Bach are all part of the legacy of Brahms. In spite of the traces of the Austro-German aesthetic of the end of the nineteenth century that characterise it, the Concerto in B minor is not untypical or impersonal. Drawing on his perfect mastery of orchestral technique, Furtwängler succeeds in creating a singular fusion of sound and harmonic language. In these circumstances the varied timbres of specific harmonic colours coming from this mysterious musical alchemy are always justified by expression. Furtwängler’s concerto has no element in it that is without its purpose.

One of the modern characteristics that emerges from the concerto is the elaborate development of harmonic series, which, subject to analysis, reveal various ambiguities. It must be added that the Symphonic Concerto is extremely difficult and the piano writing in the virtuoso solo part is less naturally pianistic than that of Brahms.

Of the three movements of the concerto, the first is the most considerable. The direction Schwer - Pesante indicates the intense seriousness and inexorably tragic character of the music. In structure the movement is in the three sections of sonata-form. Four themes emerge from the various motifs of the exposition. At first the sombre B minor ascending motif of the introduction appears, recalling the opening of the Second Symphony of the same composer, and the mournful singing phrase in F-sharp minor in the violins, accompanied by pizzicato violas and cellos. Then, after the orchestral repetition of a modified version of the introductory motif, the piano announces the third theme, in F-sharp minor, opening the second section of the exposition. With its repeated notes, this phrase recalls the first piano theme of the First Piano Concerto of Brahms. Later, after a repetition of the second motif, the violins tenderly introduce the fourth theme in A major, gently lyrical in feeling, to be repeated passionately by the piano. The introductory motif ends the exposition in a wild outburst of orchestral sound.

The development is marked by an important contrapuntal element and introduces a new theme, sadly resigned in mood, and based initially on the arpeggio of D minor. Later the tension reaches its height with angrily hammered chords at the extremes of the keyboard, leading to the return of the introductory motif which now triumphs in the orchestra, before sinking into an abyss of terror. This apocalyptic vision is the climax of the first movement.

The recapitulation that follows consists of three episodes. The first brings back the four principal themes, in the piano and the orchestra. The second, which follows the repetition of the introductory motif, is a piano cadenza, in which only the fourth theme is omitted. A coda leads to a short presto, its motoric impulse in contrast with the general aesthetic of the movement.

The second movement, in D major, marked Adagio solenne, is in ternary form and is among the most inspired creations of Furtwängler. Leaving the tumult of what has gone before, the first bars have an air of meditative serenity. The orchestra, dreamy and contemplative, murmurs in radiantly translucent textures, then, in a plaintive voice, the piano announces the second motif, peaceful and sadly resigned, and the third, based on a descending figure. This last precedes the return of the orchestra. Finally, after a short episode of fuller sonority, the first motif reappears in the orchestra, ending the first section of the movement. The central section starts with the piano and the answer of the second motif transposed into B-flat major. Later on the musical argument grows darker and the tormented third motif raises the dynamic level to quadruple forte. The third section brings back the first motif, proclaiming its triumph over the dark turmoil that has passed. Finally the orchestra takes over the second motif from the piano and gradually takes on an air of sad resignation, as the movement ends in a mood that is meditative and questioning. The third movement follows immediately, without a break, restoring the original key of B minor. In free form, it is structurally a form of rondo, with two themes serving the purpose of refrains. The movement is in four episodes, followed by a short concluding epilogue.

In the first part, after the woodwind announcement of the first disturbing and mysterious theme, the piano introduces the first refrain, charming if hesitant. An orchestral transition follows, victorious and sonorous in character, leading to a third theme in F-sharp minor. This tragic theme, with its aura of suffering, is at first entrusted to the French horns, then taken up by the violins, treating it with gentle resignation. The fourth theme in C-sharp minor then appears in the piano. This is the second refrain, the repeated notes of which recall the third theme of the first movement. The subsequent transition, resilient and almost happy is derived from the preceding refrain. It leads to the return of the first theme, entrusted to the trumpet and trombones, followed by the close of the section. The second part of the movement is perceptibly analogous to the first. It is dominated by the presence of the first refrain, allowing no reappearance of the second. The third section follows a violent outburst of sound. There is the unexpected reappearance of the ethereal first motif of the Adagio, then, after a discreet reminiscence of the first refrain, the second finishes by taking a dominant position both in the piano and the orchestra. The fourth section follows a stormy and impatient declaration from orchestra and piano, butonce again the motif of the Adagio brings a calm resolution of conflict, leading in a grandiose progress to victory. The Presto that follows brings back virtually all the themes, treated in various ways and leading to the edge of the abyss of Dante’s Inferno. At this moment the whole edifice of sound seems to part under the effect of the invincible powers of the earth, symbolised by the continuous roll of drums and cymbals, darkening into a Titanic void. The first refrain, defeated, reappears in the piano, by way of epilogue, but is obliged to give way to the orchestra, a reason for describing Furtwängler’s work as an anti-concerto. The passionate peroration that ends the traditional grand concerto is here replaced by a sober and discreet humility. This final meditative conclusion is surely a product of the wisdom with which Furtwängler regards eternity.

Bruno d’Heudieres
Translation by Keith Anderson

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