Early Furtwängler: A Different Perspective

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WILHELM FURTWÄNGLER Vol. 3: EARLY POLYDOR RECORDINGS / BACH: Suite No. 3: Air on the G string. Brandenburg Concerto No. 3: I & III. MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture. The Hebrides [Fingal’s Cave] Overture (performance and rehearsal). SCHUBERT: Rosamunde: Overture; Ballet Music No. 2; Entr’acte No. 3. WAGNER: Lohengrin: Act I Prelude. Tristan und Isolde: Prelude & Liebestod. Götterdämmerung: Siegfried’s Funeral March. STRAUSS: Till Eulenspiegel (complete performance & incomplete one). BERLIOZ: La damnation de Faust: Rakoczy March. ROSSINI: La Gazza Ladra: Overture. Il baribiere di Siviglia: Overture. BRAHMS: Hungarian Dances Nos. 1 & 10. DVOŘÁK: Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, No. 3 in Ab. WEBER: Invitation to the Dance (orch. Berlioz). Der Freischütz: Overture; Entr’acte. MOZART: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Le nozze di Figaro: Overture. Die Entführung aus dem Serail: Overture. BEETHOVEN: Egmont: Overture. J. STRAUSS II: Die Fledermaus: Overture / Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond / Deutsche Grammophon 00028948376278

It must gall Furtwängler fans that not only is he becoming more and more of an anachronism musically, but that more and more information about how he actually failed to protect Jewish musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic after 1936 yet continued to play footsie with the Nazis because he didn’t believe the “propaganda” about their death camps has devalued his currency, so to speak, in the classical world, yet the diehards continue to push the idea that somehow his screwball method of playing with tempi as if they were made of taffy remains valid in the 21st century.

It is my experience, at least among the few Furtwängler adherents I have known personally over the decades, that they don’t know a single thing about music. Not only do some of them not know how to read a score, they don’t care, and the majority have absolutely no concept of musical structure or what it means. They were the forerunners of today’s touchy-feely crowd. As long as Furtwängler’s performances “feel” good and warm and comfy to them, they’re more than willing to ignore his multiple musical sins. One of the great ironies of this is that it is the British, much more nowadays than the Germans or Austrians, who continue to place Furtwängler on a pedestal, yet all of the British “historically informed” conductors are children of Toscanini, no Furtwängler. They want to have it both ways, to have their cake and eat it, too.

But these particular recordings, made from the late 1920s through 1937 before Furtwängler moved over from Polydor to EMI, present a rather different picture of the conductor. Yes, some of these performances are slower and heavier in weight than we accept today—listen to the Midsummer Night’s Dream or Rosamunde overtures—but all in all, there is a steadier pulse in them, there are few if any moments of taffy-pulling, and at times these recordings sound remarkably like Toscanini performances rather than ones by the Furtwängler we are used to.

Several of these recordings have been previously issued on both LP and CD, but so far as I know this is the first time they’ve been collected in one set before. I had one such set years and years ago (the early 1990s, if you must know) and was not only captivated by the easy flow and warmth of this Lohengrin Act I Prelude, but astonished by the generally brisk and sometimes jolly tempi of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and the Rossini overtures. I was left scratching my head wondering about these performances. Was this “really” how Furtwängler conducted these works in the concert hall during this period of time, or did he tighten his reins due to the time restrictions of 78-rpm studio recordings? Perhaps we’ll never know for sure, yet I have a feeling it’s the former rather than the latter. You may have to play things a bit faster for recordings than you like to—Toscanini certainly did so in his 1929 recording of Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a performance he later rejected and distanced himself from because it was a full minute faster than his live performances—but I can’t imagine that Furtwängler would repeatedly and consistently conduct with a somewhat tauter, more linear style in 1926-33 than he did later just because of time restrictions. Certainly, Toscanini’s 1929 recordings of the Mozart “Haffner” Symphony and Haydn “Clock” Symphony, as well as his unissued 1933 recording of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, show a much closer affinity with THIS Wilhelm Furtwängler than at any other time in both conductors’ recording careers. And please remember, in the two seasons when Furtwängler guest-conducted the New York Philharmonic in the late 1920s, it was Toscanini and not Willem Mengelberg who admired him. By 1936, both conductors had changed their styles; Furtwängler became more loose in rhythm with further and more exaggerated unwritten tempo changes while Toscanini became less rhetorical in phrasing and more literal. Furtwängler, then, was looking backwards to the days of von Bülow while Toscanini was looking forward to the days of Scherchen, Michael Gielen and Carlos Kleiber.

Furtwangler c. 1925

Furtwängler, c. 1926

But to fully engage yourself in this complete set of his early Polydors is to enter a truly magical world. Whatever your interpretation for his playing more linear in this set, the emotion of these performances gets to you time and time again, even when, as in the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, his tempi—though not distorted—are somewhat slow and the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic rather heavy. One can also make an interesting comparison between this performance of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro overture and the one recorded during the acoustic era by Arthur Nikisch. The Nikisch performance is somewhat fleeter, the strings and winds skittering with a lightness and delicacy that uncannily sounds like Toscanini at his best, whereas even during this more literal period Furtwängler introduces some peculiar ritards while generally maintaining a good pace.

Incidentally, the time range given for these recordings, 1920s and ‘30s, is somewhat misleading. Only five recordings were made in the 1920s: the Freischütz Overture in 1926 and the Bach “Air on a G String,” Mendelssohn MND Overture, and Schubert’s Rosamunde Ballet Music and Entr’acte in 1929, although if you consider the year 1930 to actually be the end of the ‘20s you can add the Bach Brandenburg No. 3 as well as the Berlioz, Brahms, Dvořak, Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture, Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel and the Wagner Lohengrin Prelude and Tristan excerpts. Quite a few of them date from 1935-37, just before Furtwängler switched over to EMI for the remainder of his career. Yet even some of those recordings show a tighter sense of structure in his conducting.

In a fascinating interview he gave later in life with someone named Jaton, Furtwängler made his aesthetic principles very clear, stating that “technical problems play a very minor role in the case of great orchestras. The conductor’s primary task is to give the orchestra a spiritual outline…One might add that it is even more difficult to give such a spiritual outline to a great orchestra than to a minor orchestra, which is less contaminated by routine, the true flaw in music making today [bold print words emphasized by me].” He added, “That I conduct quite unintelligibly in a rational way, as often has been said, I find hard to believe. In fact, it is my experience that, whether in concert or in opera, all orchestras always understand me spontaneously and follow the intentions that I express with my gestures with the same ease and eagerness. And they do this even if at first they seem quite difficult to understand from the point of view of expression. For this reason, I do not feel the need to change my own conducting technique and to adapt it to the different orchestras.”

Please bear in mind that Furtwängler did not just hate Toscanini. He hated ALL conductors who did not play music as he did, a list which included Fritz Steinbach (Brahms’ favorite interpreter), Nikisch, Weingartner, Krauss, Böhm, Karajan, Beecham, Rodziński, Szell, Reiner, Walter, Klemperer (who was quite an exciting conductor in his pre-1955 years), Reiner, Fournet, Munch, Ansermet, Mitropoulos, Boult—the list goes on and on and on. The only conductor he is known to have approved of was Sergiu Celibidache, a real headcase whose sluggish, musically pointless performances were even looser in rhythm and less structured than his own.

When this set was issued in August 2019 (I only recently gained access to it on the Naxos Music Library), Rob Cowan in Gramophone wrote, “what is different, at least on the commercial records, is a keener attack and generally smoother contours. The Wagner items flow seamlessly, with perfect pacing in the Götterdämmerung Funeral Music…and a fine sense of mounting emotion in the Lohengrin Prelude and Tristan Prelude and Liebestod…But perhaps the most unusual items, ‘Furtwängler-wise,’ are of lighter fare, the Fledermaus Overture, clearly a carefully calculated production but wonderfully dapper and brilliantly played.” I completely agree, and was glad to see that Cowan, whether a committed Furtwängler-ite or not, does seem to understand musical structure.

Despite its slight tempo fluctuations, this performance of the Berlioz Rakokzy March, as well as the Rossini overtures, Brahms’ Hungarian Dances Nos. 1 & 10, the Weber-Berlioz Invitation to the Dance and even Siegfried’s Funeral March, come very close to the Toscanini of 1926-33, thus I infer that this is, for the most part, how he probably conducted in person at that time. The biggest difference is in the sound quality of the orchestra. Since Toscanini had a real fetish for orchestral clarity, his sonorities were lean for the most part whereas Furtwängler stressed a rich, warm sound, built from the basses on up, and stressed homogeneity of orchestral sound. The result is that, even considering Polydor’s excessively dry sound, he managed to get the sonority of the Berlin Philharmonic captured surprisingly well on these old 78s. You can even hear the triangle in the Dvořák Slavonic Dance.  My guess is that, in some cases, he insisted on being recorded at the Hochschule für Musik, which had good sound, and listened to the playback of some of them to judge the proper microphone placement, something that Toscanini had no concept of but left up to the engineers, some of whom served him well and many of whom did not. Yet side-by-side comparisons of those works he later re-recorded from the late 1930s through the early 1950s clearly show a more structured approach. The Entr’acte No. 3 from Schubert’s Rosamunde, for instance, takes only 5:09 here whereas, in 1944, the same work took 7:34 to get through.

The Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (since the second movement is just a series of chords over which the continuo player is asked to improvise, he omitted it) is a peculiar performance, in places a bit sluggish and heavy, in other moments surprisingly fleet and light (particularly the last movement). One must remember, however, that Furtwängler did not consider J.S. Bach a Baroque composer in the strict sense of the word but, rather, as the first Romantic. In some of his works I agree, and my readers know that I’ve consistently railed against Bach performances that are too fast, glib and lacking feeling—Bach must be played with feeling to be understood—but as usual, Furtwängler took this idea to extremes. Thus this Brandenburg No. 3 sounds archaic in its heavy, full-orchestra sound whereas the recording made in 1928 for Brunswick by a group of British musicians conducted by Anthony Bernard sounds surprisingly modern (except for the sonics, of course). It’s available on YouTube if you’d like to hear it.

Lohengrin labelAs for the transfers, they are quite good, even better than that earlier 2-CD issue I heard more than a quarter-century ago. DG left some of the surface noise in, sometimes a bit more than I would have liked, but never so much that it’s distracting, and they used the proper width styli to play these old records—all of which appear to be in immaculate condition—in order to get the maximum sound out of them. Whether or not it is true that Furtwängler hated these recordings, I think you’ll love them for the most part. They have plenty of feeling, the sound is surprisingly good for its day (I owned the Lohengrin Act I Prelude on the original Polydor 78 and know how difficult it was to get a good tone out of it), and the set as a whole will give you an entirely different perspective on Furtwängler’s conducting. Highly recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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