About this Recording
8.223436 - FURTWANGLER: Symphony No. 2

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)

Symphony No. 2 in E Minor


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 contemporary music wholesale, a charge he indignantly rejects, while insisting that the future lay with tonality, rather than with the eclectic individualism that he certainly found unsatisfactory. Universal things, he wrote in 1940, can only be said in a universal language.


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 Josef 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 varying 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 Lübeck, where he remained for four years, from 1911 until 1915. There followed a period of five years at the Opera in Mannheim and after the war there were engagements in Vienna and a chance to study with the influential theorist Heinrich Schenker.


The death of Nikisch in 1922 brought Furtwängler to an association he was to retain in one way or another 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 spell 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 distortions of the original intentions of the composer. He himself regarded 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 apparent ambiguity. While firmly opposed to the new régime, he decided that he should remain in Germany, rather than seek exile, as so many of his colleagues had done, voluntarily or as a matter of necessity. The condemnation in 1934 of Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler, a work that might have appealed to the new Germany, led Furtwängler to resign his official positions at the Berlin State Opera, with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and as vice-president of the Reichsmusikkammer, in what threatened to become a cause célèbre particularly damaging to the National Socialist Party, although he was later induced to consider 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 origin, persecuted by the régime. He continued, however, to work as a conductor in Germany, although only exceptionally in occupied Europe, and encountered considerable hostility from some groups abroad after the war, particularly in America. In January 1945, acting on information from Albert Speer, 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 before a tribunal 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, two years after he had accepted a contract for life with his old orchestra in Berlin.


The second of Furtwängler's three completed symphonies was written in 1944 and 1945 and first performed under his direction at a concert given by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in February 1948. The closing years of the war and its aftermath had brought many difficulties and Furtwängler had only been allowed to resume his career as a conductor in 1947. The new symphony, which he conducted on a number of occasions in the following years, justifies clearly enough his view of himself as before all else a composer, compelled initially to turn to conducting as a way of earning a living. The work reflects his own views of the symphony, expressed in his notebook for 1948, and the essential nature of tonality in a form that he saw as the German contribution to music.


The Symphony No. 2 in E minor, published by Brucknerverlag in 1952, described by Furtwängler as his spiritual testament, is in four movements. The first of these, offering music of dense complexity that is powerfully moving, opens with a sinuous figure from the bassoons, joined by clarinets before the poignant entry of the strings, with music mounting in intensity and animation, as thematic strands are developed. The second movement offers an apparent immediate respite from struggle, although the contemplative mood of the music conceals inner tensions. The opening melody offered by the clarinets is taken up by flutes and oboes, the cellos subsequently leading to a second thematic element of more dramatic intensity. The music reaches a great climax, after which the strings, and in particular a solo cello, usher in a quietly meditative conclusion, dying away to a whisper. The scherzo begins at once, introduced by a bassoon, followed by flute and French horn, before the entry of the strings, leading to an Allegro started by the lower strings, the viola theme taken up by instruments of higher register, with all the insistency of Sibelius, in a movement that contains further thematic allusions to what has gone before. A dynamic climax is followed by a solo flute playing the opening figure, followed by the French horn and the violas. There is a pause before the Allegro resumes, at first entrusted to cellos and double basses only. A lyrical contrast is provided in a central passage that brings its own element of conflict, before the bassoon hints again the scherzo theme, now taken up again by the rest of the orchestra. The last movement is one of considerable substance. It is introduced by the bassoon over a double bass and cello pedal in a slow preface of now familiar contour. A positive E major mode appears, although it is in the final pages that the dénouement takes place, to end in triumphant resolution.


Alfred Walter


Alfred Walter was born in Southern Bohemia in 1929 of Austrian parents. He studied at the University of Graz and in 1948 was appointed assistant conductor to the Opera of Ravensburg. At the age of 22 he became conductor of the Graz Opera, where he continued until 1965, while serving at Bayreuth as assistant to Hans Knappertsbusch and Karl Böhm. From 1966 until 1969 he was Principal Conductor of the Durban Symphony Orchestra in South Africa, followed by a period of fifteen years as General Director of Music in Münster. In Vienna he has worked as guest conductor at the State Opera and in 1986 was given the title of Professor by the Austrian Government. In 1980 he was awarded the Golden Medal of the International Gustav Mahler Society. For Marco Polo, Alfred Walter has recorded more than 15 volumes of the label's Johann Strauss II Edition, works by von Schillings, von Einem, de Bériot, Reinecke and all symphonic works of Furtwängler. He is currently engaged in recording the complete symphonies of Spohr.


BBC Symphony Orchestra


The BBC Symphony Orchestra was founded by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1930, with Adrian Boult as permanent conductor. Early in its existence the orchestra worked with the most distinguished international conductors, as well as with contemporary composers of the greatest renown, among the former Toscanini, Weingartner, Bruno Walter, Koussevitzky and Scherchen, while composers who conducted the orchestra included Stravinsky, Bartók, Prokofiev and Richard Strauss. The tradition has continued to the present day, with the orchestra maintaining its long-standing reputation as an exponent both of new music and of large-scale Romantic works. Recent Chief Conductors have included Pierre Boulez, Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Sir John Pritchard, the last succeeded in 1989 by the present Chief Conductor, Andrew Davis. The orchestra does not confine its work to the broadcasting studio but is active in the concert-hall both at home and on tour and continues to take a leading place in the London summer Promenade Concerts. Commercial recording has brought a new British music series, including the work of contemporary British composers, and the present first recording of the Second Symphony of Furtwängler.

Close the window