Berlin. October 7, 1944. A typical day toward the end of the Third Reich. Soldiers die. Civilians suffer. Jews are murdered. Nothing special.
In the Beethovensaal a concert is about to begin, but the theater is empty, relieved of its usual audience studded with Nazi elite seeking a brief cultured respite from the stresses of war. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is on stage, awaiting its cue. Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler stands awkwardly on the podium. The vague meandering of his baton summons the first shadowy note of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. A Radio Berlin engineer starts his Magnetophon. The most extraordinary orchestral recording of the century has just begun.
Genuinely transcendent musical events are rare. Their advent is hard to foresee. They often arise in improbable places and at chance times. And so it was on a grim fall afternoon in wartime Berlin that a lone Nazi technician bore witness to one of the most impassioned performances ever put on record.
Like all truly great artistic achievements, the intensity and conviction of Furtwängler's wartime work was distilled from hard-earned experience. In our era of pampered socialite classical superstars, it seems hard to conceive of a famous conductor genuinely torn by anguish. And yet, Furtwängler endured such extreme torment and pain that he was able to fully identify with the profound suffering from which the greatest composers wrested their most heartfelt and enduring masterpieces. Under pressure designed to crush any sensitive artist, he transmuted his distress into a vision of unprecedented insight and power.
The saga of how Furtwängler's incomparable artistry arose within the appalling abyss of Nazi Germany forces us to confront the terrible collision of art, society and morality.
The first two-thirds of Furtwängler's life held few clues of what was to come. He was born in Berlin in 1886 into an enviably comfortable environment. His father was a famed archeologist and his mother a gifted painter. Educated at home, the youngster was nurtured in German culture by tutors and family friends who included philosophers and artists.
Furtwängler's musical talent surfaced early. His deepest love was Beethoven. By age 12, Furtwängler reportedly had memorized most of the master's works and could play them on the piano. But above all else, Furtwängler aspired to be a composer and by age 10 had written trios, quartets and six piano sonatas. Following his father's death, though, he turned to conducting, primarily to support the family but also with the hope of fostering performances of his own works. The gesture was characteristic, and was but the first of many instances when Furtwängler would temper his ideals with practicality.
Furtwängler followed the usual route of a musical journeyman by serving as assistant and ultimately conductor in increasingly prestigious German musical posts. His mentors included Felix Mottl, a close associate of Wagner who had led the world premieres of several of his operas, Hans Pfitzner, one of Germany's foremost composers, and especially Artur Nikish, the greatest orchestral conductor of the era, known for mesmerizing musicians and audiences alike with his galvanizing fervor, deeply personal inflections and a unique orchestral "sound."
Furtwängler's rise was meteoric, conquering Breslau, Zurich, Munich, Strasbourg, Lubeck, Mannheim and Frankfort. He was touted by the press as "Das Wunder Furtwängler." ("Wunder" means amazing or incredible.) In 1922 he succeeded Nikish both at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic, the most prestigious orchestra in Germany, and at the venerable Leipzig Gewandhaus, whose unmatched century-long tradition of excellence had begun with Mendelssohn. By 1928, Furtwängler also held the top spot in Vienna, the musical capitol of Europe. In 1930 he became Music Director of the Bayreuth Festival, established by Wagner and regarded as the crown of German culture.
Furtwängler's only setback had been in America at the helm of the New York Philharmonic, where he had dazzled audiences for three seasons but then was edged out by a furiously jealous Toscanini, who cruelly exploited Furtwängler's solemnity, social awkwardness and refusal to grovel to the society sponsors who controlled the pursestrings. But no matter: oblivious to the political storm that was gathering, by 1932 Furtwängler stood at the pinnacle of artistic success and his future, in Europe at least, seemed limitless.
Furtwängler's recording career began in 1926. Over the following decade, he recorded for Polydor mostly German/Austrian fare from Bach to Wagner, but with some uncharacteristic Rossini and Johann Strauss as well. The full series is available on Koch 3-7059-2 K2 and 3-7073-2 K2 (2 CDs each) and is highlighted on Symposium 1046. While evidencing little of the visionary insight of his later readings, each of the records displays the unified ensemble of a great orchestra under a leader solidly versed in Germanic musical culture. Thus, the Bach is heavy and committed, the Mozart weighty and severe, the Weber mystical and ecstatic, the Wagner dark and brooding and the Beethoven noble and solid.
Furtwängler's early recordings clearly evidence an artist at the top of his professional world, a self-assured, solid exemplar of the rich German performing tradition. As the entry in the authoritative Grove's Dictionary of Music aptly put it at the time: "Control and balance are prominent characteristics of his conducting; his interpretations, though full of vitality, are not impulsive and his personal manner at the conductor's desk is usually restrained."
Then came Hitler.
The prolific German classical music scene soon became a vacuum. Among conductors alone, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber – Furtwängler's chief rivals – all left. Some fled as a matter of conscience, but others had no choice; as Jews, they were barred by the new racial laws from performing, teaching and, ultimately, living. Soon after Hitler's ascent, Furtwängler was the only notable conductor left. He clearly bore no malice toward the horde of emigrants, as he naively invited many to return and appear with him in future seasons and seemed genuinely hurt when they all declined. Nearly all Furtwängler's former associates begged him to take a stand and join them; when he refused to leave, they branded him a traitor to humanity and shunned further contact.
The crucial question which would plague Furtwängler for the rest of his life was why he stayed behind when all the other great artists fled. The standard explanation is that he lacked moral fortitude. But, as so often emerges with ethical issues, the full story is far more complex. If anything, the opposite is true: Furtwängler stayed primarily out of a sincere, albeit naive, conviction.
Out of the depths of his cultural and intellectual roots, Furtwängler regarded Hitler and Nazism as a passing phase in German politics. Indeed, many observers at the time found it hard to take seriously the short, dark, brown-eyed Austrian's ranting about tall, blond Aryan supremacy. From the very outset, Furtwängler saw two Germanies: the permanent, cultural one of which he remained a proud member, and an irrelevant, political one which was a temporary nuisance. To Furtwängler, there was no such thing as Nazi Germany, but rather a Germany raped by Nazis. Furtwängler truly believed that by maintaining his artistic convictions he would succeed in resisting Hitler and upholding the everlasting purity of great German culture. All of his wartime activities were bent upon achieving this goal.
Furtwängler believed to the depth of his soul that music was a force for moral good, a route out of chaos that would assist the cause of humanity. In 1943, he wrote: "The message Beethoven gave mankind in his works ... seems to me never to have been more urgent than it is today." He later told the Chicago Daily Tribune: "It would have been much easier to emigrate, but there had to be a spiritual center of integrity for all the good and real Germans who had to stay behind. I felt that a really great work of music was a stronger and more essential contradiction of the spirit of Buchenwald and Auschwitz than words could be." Richard Wolff, the first violinist of the Berlin Philharmonic (whose Jewish wife remained unharmed during the war through Furtwängler's protection) agreed: "Furtwängler could have enjoyed a secure and comfortable life abroad during the dreadful years of the Nazi regime, but he felt it his responsibility to stay behind and help educate the younger German generation and to keep alive spiritual values in Germany in her darkest hour."
But all of these noble thoughts can be dismissed as facile rationalization by a gutless pawn, and indeed there were more practical reasons why Furtwängler remained. The Nazis reportedly threatened to imprison his mother. They harassed and ultimately expelled his Jewish personal secretary. Knowing Furtwängler's attachment to the Berlin Philharmonic, they hinted that they would disband and conscript the group in favor of a more loyal ensemble. Above all, they exploited Furtwängler's fear that his art would not be understood outside Germany: when Furtwängler was offered conducting posts abroad the government readily agreed, but subject to a new emigration law that would forever bar his return to Germany – a condition they knew Furtwängler could never accept. Thus, Furtwängler found himself effectively imprisoned in his homeland.
And the Nazis intended to keep it that way by poisoning Furtwängler's image abroad. Thus, when Furtwängler refused to join the Nazi party, he was made a Staatsrat (State Councilor) for life, an official-sounding but purely honorary title he could not legally refuse and which Nazi news releases often invoked to brand him with a rank outside his choice. When he refused to salute Hitler at a concert, the crafty Führer leaped to the stage and warmly grasped Furtwängler's hand, a moment captured by photographers and circulated worldwide as alleged evidence of capitulation. And when faced with Furtwängler's public silence, the Nazis routinely generated false news items proclaiming his support, enhanced by fabricated quotations in praise of Nazi policies and leadership.
The perverse efficiency of the Nazi propaganda machine was displayed in 1935, when Furtwängler was offered the helm of the New York Philharmonic upon Toscanini's retirement. His candidacy came with a seemingly ironclad guarantee of success – the insistence of the Maestro himself, acknowledged by an adoring American public to be the world's greatest conductor, that only Furtwängler was worthy to succeed him. The timing of the offer was propitious, as Furtwängler was upset with the Nazi regime and this once was sorely tempted. But as the heir apparent savored his options, Prime Minister Göring announced that Furtwängler's rehabilitation was complete and that he would resume his duties at the Berlin State Opera. With that, the damage was done: despite Furtwängler's attempts to clarify his position, both the New York press and the Philharmonic subscribers now would have nothing to do with bringing an officially reconfirmed Nazi to their shores. Furtwängler tried to bow out graciously with a telegram "postponing" his US appearances "until the public realizes that music and politics have nothing to do with each other," but this was hardly a message apt to placate an isolationist America alarmed over reports of Nazi outrages.
As a final measure of insurance, the Nazis seized upon the most terrible and effective weapon of all. Herbert von Karajan was a brilliant and ambitious Austrian conductor who was everything Furtwängler was not: handsome, energetic, charismatic, young and utterly compliant and unprincipled. Throughout the war, the Nazis played the two against each other with diabolical brilliance, denying von Karajan the ultimate praise with which the state-controlled press kept showering Furtwängler while keeping the older man in perpetual fear that his rival might supplant him, even going so far as to tout him as "Das Wunder Karajan," a cruel echo of Furtwängler's own earlier moniker.
The fabricated rivalry with von Karajan hit Furtwängler at the very core of his being. Furtwängler lived and breathed music so thoroughly that he constantly conducted imaginary orchestras as he walked. Furtwängler had dedicated his entire life to perpetuating the traditions of German culture in which he had been immersed from his earliest youth and of which he had become the most visible champion. German music was the sole reason for his existence. Indeed, in 1938, after the annexation of Austria, the already overworked conductor doubled his duties by taking charge of all musical activity in Vienna, as he felt compelled to preserve that city's proud tradition and in particular the independence and excellence of its famed Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which was threatened with State control.
The Nazis needed Furtwängler as much as he needed Germany. Hitler deeply admired his artistry. The Party itself was keenly aware that Furtwängler was the foremost symbol of the past glory of German culture and that his loss would be a final blow to national prestige which would validate all the foreign criticism.
Throughout the era, Furtwängler took consistent advantage of the respect the Nazis were forced to accord him. When presented with contracts having "Aryan-only" clauses, he refused to sign and went on to tweak the promoters by spotlighting Jewish orchestra members as soloists. When ordered to replace his Jewish concertmaster, he threatened to cancel his concerts. When a ban was imposed on further performances by Jewish artists, Furtwängler demanded a meeting with Propaganda Minister Goebbels to get it rescinded. When the Berlin Philharmonic was to be "aryanized," he personally met with Hitler to reverse the decree. (Ultimately, of course, these measures of relief all were to be overturned, but that hardly diminishes their import at the time.)
Despite the appearances to the outside world, Furtwängler did not collaborate. Thus, he never gave the Nazi salute, even when Hitler was present at a concert. He generally refused to perform in halls in which swastikas were displayed. He avoided appearing at official government functions. He would not conduct orchestras in overrun countries. He never began concerts with the Nazi anthem. And he never played the fawning socialist-themed patriotic works that flooded other concert programs. That Furtwängler got away with such treasonous conduct attests to the esteem in which he was held by both the Party and the people.
Furtwängler's relationship to the Nazis was defined in 1934 when he programmed Paul Hindemith's new opera Mathis der Maler. The composer's wife was Jewish and therefore his music, as yet unheard, was automatically condemned as degenerate. The libretto (also by Hindemith) probably didn't help matters either. The title character is a visionary painter caught up in a civil war, desperately seeking a way to apply his talents to better mankind. Despite the opera's medieval setting, its central theme of an artist's duty to constructively embrace social issues was painfully modern, and the Nazis surely grasped its challenging parallels with current history – perhaps the very reason why Furtwängler resolved to champion a work that spoke so directly to his own gnawing concerns.
When Göring banned the work, Furtwängler scheduled an orchestral suite of the opera's music instead. The concert received enormous acclaim as a rallying point for anti-Nazi frustrations. Furtwängler then published a lengthy article in defense of Hindemith in which he insisted that ideology was irrelevant and that the only valid aesthetic criterion was the quality of the artistry itself. He was attacked by the state press, led by Goebbels, who insisted with equal vigor that only ardent Nazis could be true artists. Sickened over the regime's repressive ideology, Furtwängler resigned all his positions (except, of course, the permanent Staatsrat), devoted himself to composition and gazed wistfully overseas. (It was at this point that the opportune New York Philharmonic offer was made.)
During the following months the conductor was miserable, torn from the means of promoting great German music of which he considered himself the guardian. The government was upset as well: substitute concerts were sparsely attended, subscribers demanded refunds, the orchestra was plunged into deficit and the foreign press exploited the incident to denounce the oppression of a regime that apparently had to silence its foremost artist.
The standoff finally was resolved when Furtwängler agreed to publicly acknowledge Hitler's dominance of artistic policies (which could hardly be denied) in exchange for being allowed to work free-lance and never to have to accept a political position or perform at any state function. True to form, the state press reported the matter as Furtwängler's full capitulation and never mentioned the rest of the deal.
But Furtwängler did not simply retreat into himself or the sanctum of art. Rather, according to numerous testimonials, he displayed enormous moral courage, constantly placing his life and reputation in jeopardy. For the next decade, he spent much of his time intervening with party officials in nearly impossible tasks of protection and rescue for potential victims who sought his assistance, including strangers and even professional enemies. Although the evidence is often anecdotal, archivist Fred Prieberg claims that his research alone has documented over eighty people at risk who were saved by Furtwängler's efforts.
While Furtwängler's outward passivity (quashed beneath distorted Nazi news reports) was interpreted abroad as collaboration, we now know that his quiet heroism saved far more lives than abrasive ranting or symbolic emigration. As Paul Minchin, Chairman of the English Furtwängler Society, has aptly observed: "It takes far more courage to oppose a totalitarian regime from within." It is clear that Furtwängler had at least as much courage as the self-proclaimed champions of humanity who branded him a coward but who lobbed all their verbal grenades from the safe harbor of the free world.
So was Furtwängler a neglected saint? Not quite. There is, unfortunately, a less laudable side to his wartime activities.
Notwithstanding his courage, Furtwängler did not act out of pure altruism. Nearly everything he did was intended to preserve the integrity of German music. But since Furtwängler considered himself the foremost exemplar of that art, his activity served to solidify his status and gratify his ego. Furtwängler can hardly be compared to Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler and other heroes who had nothing to gain and acted purely as a matter of conscience, ultimately sacrificing all they had in order to oppose Nazi genocide. Focussed solely on art, Furtwängler simply did not concern himself with the larger social context.
This narrow focus produced mixed results. Inextricably tied to each of Furtwängler's laudable goals and achievements was an unintended drawback. Despite his valid cultural intentions, he unwittingly bolstered the German war effort.
For example, Furtwängler accepted the Vice Presidency of the mandatory performers' union and served on a commission that approved the programs of all public concerts. He assumed these positions of leadership in order to maximize his impact upon preserving cultural integrity and assuring exposure to composers and artists of quality. But his constant visibility also served to legitimize and lend credibility to the Nazi regime, not only in the eyes of foreign observers, but to the citizenry as well: after all, how could the Nazis be thoroughly depraved barbarians if someone like Furtwängler could coexist with them?
Similarly, after the War many asserted that Furtwängler concerts had served to rally Resistance members. These events succeeded in assembling a core group of cultural leaders for a post-war Germany who would vaunt humanism over militarism. Even outside Germany, many emigrants were inspired by Furtwängler as a symbol of their dissent. Thus, Furtwängler's wartime activities may have produced lasting humanitarian benefits. In the short run, though, they had the opposite effect.
As biographer Sam Shirakawa aptly notes, Furtwängler may have offered his art for the sake of "true Germans," but he had no control over its dissemination. Thus, his concerts were broadcast to bolster troop morale. Worse, Hitler and his top henchmen often attended Furtwängler concerts to bask in his musical balm. That same balm may have lulled the frustrations of intellectuals and artists into indifference and diverted their energies from actively opposing the ongoing war and genocide. Furtwängler only saw music as a force for moral redemption. He once told Toscanini: "Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works." But the hearts of Nazi soldiers did not melt and the souls of their leaders proved impervious to aesthetic redemption. Were those responsible for (or at best indifferent toward) the liquidation of innocent millions really entitled to have their consciences set free by the liberating glory of music?
Nor was Furtwängler's personal outlook free of paradox. Indeed, even his attitude toward Jews was inconsistent. One of the axioms of Nazi social engineering was that Jews were incapable of being true spiritual Germans and therefore were less than fully human and a social pollution. Nowhere was the absurdity of this assumption more apparent than in classical music, as many of Germany's finest performers were Jews. Indeed, the pianist Artur Schnabel, a Jew, was universally hailed as the preeminent exponent of Mozart, Schubert and especially Beethoven, the quintessential German musicians. And yet, although he was ideally equipped to reject the Nazi racist view, Furtwängler often drew distinctions between two classes of Jews.
On the one hand, he ardently supported Jews who had arrived at the top of their musical, artistic, scientific or academic professions. Furtwängler vehemently opposed Nazi efforts to oust such individuals, as they had become an integral part of, and significant contributors to, German culture. The vast majority of Jews whom Furtwängler assisted were professionals (or their families or acquaintances).
On the other hand, though, Furtwängler apparently felt that Jews outside these exalted ranks were potentially subversive and therefore expendable. He endorsed attacks upon alleged Jewish domination of newspapers because, in his view, this supplanted the development of a truly "German" press. Similarly, he seemed to indulge boycotts of Jewish commerce, protesting only the resultant adverse foreign publicity and the threat of a spill-over that could deplete the arts.
Even as late as May 1945, Furtwängler did not seem to fully grasp the consequence of Nazi racism. From the geographic and historical perspective of sanctuary in Switzerland, he had ample time to reflect upon the prior decade. His principal concern, though, became a fear that in the aftermath of defeat the now-publicized atrocities would be blamed upon the entire German people, thus unfairly ignoring their cultural greatness and inner nobility. Despite all he had witnessed, Furtwängler simply could not accept that the culture which once had produced Goethe and Beethoven had now rotted into a mire of jackboots and crematoria. Fred Prieberg calls this a protective mythology which Furtwängler created to shield himself from accountability in a real world in which civilizations do fail, in which people are held responsible for their leaders, and in which art cannot be so conveniently isolated from politics. Furtwängler's tragedy was that he had to believe this illusion of permanent German cultural merit in order to justify his life's work. Concludes Prieberg: "Furtwängler sacrificed himself to his own fiction."
In recent years, we have been regaled by a pathetic parade of aged German artists claiming dewy-eyed ignorance of the Holocaust. Would Furtwängler have been one of these? Other than a few post-war expressions of shame, there is no evidence that he ever took a stand against the awful culmination of his casual tolerance of antisemitism. Indeed, it seems inconceivable that a man who spent so much of his time closely studying political leaders and social trends and successfully manipulating them to his professional benefit could have been genuinely ignorant of this cornerstone of Nazi activity and policy. Or, knowing, did he view the world through artistic blinders and simply not care?
Speculation as to Furtwängler's state of mind is confusing and inconclusive. Fortunately, though, there is a far more reliable index to his conscience. When we listen to wartime performances by Strauss, Böhm, von Karajan, Krauss, Mengelberg and other Axis amoralists, we hear conductors utterly at peace with themselves, blissfully oblivious to the horrors around them, comfortably nestled in their insular worlds of abstract artistic contentment.
But Furtwängler's output of the time is of a wholly different dimension, ranging far beyond the bounds of accepted classical tradition, distended by brutally twisted structures, outrageous tempos, jagged phrasing, bizarre balances and violent dynamics. This is simply not the expression of a cold-hearted Nazi. Rather, it clearly and irrefutably signifies a sensitive but deeply troubled man torn by inner conflict and soul-wrenching doubt, constantly on the verge of exploding with torment.
Debate over Furtwängler's wartime politics may continue to swirl among academics, historians and social philosophers, but his artistry confers the ultimate proof of his humanity. There is no room for subtlety or doubt. No one sensitive to the interpretation of music can possibly mistake it.
The degradation of Furtwängler's reputation stands in shameful contrast to the glorious career of Herbert von Karajan, whose authorized biographies tend to make only passing mention of his war years, and with very good reason. While von Karajan's apologists cloak his activities in the heady mantles of artistry and at worst opportunism, the facts decree otherwise.
Von Karajan later insisted he was apolitical, and claimed to have had no enthusiasm for the Nazis. And yet, while no other musician of note ever bothered to join the National Socialist Party (not even Richard Strauss, Hitler's favorite living composer), von Karajan joined not just once but twice! The dates were of particular significance. Von Karajan first registered on April 8, 1933 – one day after enactment of a new civil service law that removed Jews from state organizations. He reenlisted on May 1, 1933 – the very day before a freeze on new party members. As Norman Lebrecht observed in The Maestro Myth: "For ambitious and unprincipled musicians, party affiliation in 1933 offered a rapid route to the plum jobs suddenly vacated by Jewish outcasts."
Von Karajan soon catapulted himself to prominence. He was appointed music director at Aaschen and stepped up to the Berlin State Opera following Furtwängler's resignation over the Hindemith episode. He ingratiated himself with orchestras in Berlin and Vienna and was trotted out to conduct in occupied countries when Furtwängler refused to do so. He proudly led oratorios in praise of Hitler, scheduled special performances for Nazi brass to commemorate military victories and routinely opened his concerts with the "Horst Wessel" Nazi anthem, which included in its rousing lyrics the boast that "Jewish blood spurts from our knives." (To give his claim of political indifference some credence, though, von Karajan wilfully destroyed his reputation in 1942 by marrying a woman of quarter-Jewish ancestry – the Nazis were so precise about such calculations – and was then relieved of his posts and relegated to occasional free-lance jobs until the end of the war.)
But beyond everything else, while claiming to embody the highest ideals of an artist, von Karajan consistently lied about his Nazi party membership after the war. That worked until 1957, when his membership certificates belatedly surfaced from wartime archives. Even when confronted with this seemingly undeniable evidence, von Karajan insisted that the documents must have been forged, since they lacked his signature. Fatal to that stand, though, was the fact that the cards never required the signature of the member, but only of the registering party official.
While Furtwängler was vilified as an unrepentant old Nazi to the end of his days, von Karajan successfully buried his far more sensitive past to become the most prosperous musician in history, leaving an estate estimated at a half billion dollars.
Several critics have explained Furtwängler's art as melding two often conflicting principles. The first, a structural logic, sense of proportion and intellectual probing, was derived from Furtwängler's upbringing and is clearly evident in his early Polydors. The second – unbridled emotion and improvisation – was forged in the hideous caldron of Nazi Germany.
Great music never emerges from comfort, well-being and privilege. Rather, throughout the history of music, the finest work arises from the most trying of circumstances. All of the great artists – composers and performers – were tortured souls. Even Beethoven was a gifted but largely derivative composer until driven to the brink of suicide by deafness, the cruellest blow of all for a budding musician. Like his idol, Furtwängler's art was fueled by the loss of his own most treasured possession: the stability of an absolute artist, sheltered from sordid social and political reality.
All conductors take their music seriously, but Furtwängler was driven by a deeper urge: he saw music as a moral force which had the power to impel listeners toward the good. He believed that music was a biological index that reinforced the ideals of humanity, its sonic struggles between tension and relaxation moving the listener toward an objective understanding of one's position in the universe. Music to Furtwängler was nothing less than a search for the meaning of existence.
Furtwängler's spirituality lent a deeply religious aura to his concerts. Some reportedly ended in meditative silence, the audience quietly leaving without daring to break the rarified mood with applause. This phenomenon is suggested by a recording of a 1950 Stockholm concert (on Music & Arts CD-799) in which a smattering of hesitant clapping begins a full 20 seconds after the final sustained note of Sibelius's En Saga evaporates.
Furtwängler's method was the antithesis of the typical autocratic conductor who forces himself upon an orchestra. Henry Holst, who played under both leaders, recalled that Toscanini demanded, whereas Furtwängler persuaded. Rather than imposing a rigid frame on his musicians, Furtwängler wanted to cultivate an organic performance by nurturing his orchestra's inspiration. Furtwängler explained the conductor's role as "the outpouring of spiritual energy into a body of instrumentalists [which] creates the material quality of the sound produced, together with its rhythmical, harmonic and tonal life."
To achieve this partnership, Furtwängler used the most unconventional baton technique ever known. He refused to give the types of precise cues upon which musicians rely for cohesion and ensemble. Rather, as Holst observed, "Furtwängler wanted a precision that grew out of the players' own initiative, as in chamber music." Hans Peter Schmitz, a flutist in the Berlin Philharmonic, recalled that Furtwängler never beat time as such, but rather drew melodic shapes in an effort to depict the organic cohesion of a piece. Karl Schumann described Furtwängler's bizarre gestures as "agogic," concerned only with flow, continuity and expression.
Music works best as an autonomous form of art. While music
occasionally can blend well with certain other art forms such as dance (to produce ballet) and poetry (to create song), the most affecting musical experiences have no need of such linkage. The greatest music, like all great performing art, rarely translates well into verbiage. The mere fact that Furtwängler's technique was so often described, both by himself and by others, in such vague and abstract terms serves as powerful testimony to the depth of his intrinsically musical quality. And yet, such obtuse language carries with it an underlying frustration in denying us the ability to envision and to understand just how Furtwängler achieved what he did.
Attempts to crystallize such nebulous accounts into a visual image would be all but impossible were it not for a few precious newsreel clips of Furtwängler rehearsals. Several are contained in a recent video, The Art of Conducting: Great Conductors of the Past (Teldec 4504-95038-3). The most intriguing clip shows Furtwängler in the throes of eliciting an emotion-drenched account of the last three minutes of the Brahms Symphony # 4.
Words can barely convey the bizarre spectacle of Furtwängler's technique, which violinist Hugh Bean once described as "a puppet on a string" (to which perhaps should be added: "held by a spastic puppeteer"). His right hand and baton roughly keep the beat, his left hand weaves round, flowing patterns having no apparent connection with the music, and his head and torso constantly jerk convulsively. How any orchestra could derive meaningful, much less expressive, cues from such seemingly random movements is amazing; that the Berlin Philharmonic could produce readings of compelling unity and power is simply miraculous.
But despite our natural fascination with seeing the process of artistic creation, of far greater significance is an artist's success in translating his technique into valid musical terms. For that, we have the resource of Furtwängler's recorded legacy.
Furtwängler flatly rejected the modernist notion of a standardized process by which a conductor simply assures the accurate playing of the written score. Legend has it that he once stormed out of a Toscanini concert, cursing the Maestro as a mere "time-beater." Furtwängler felt that a valid performance required him to internalize a score, completely identify with the composer and then vicariously repeat the act of creation, transmitting anew the tonal conception he heard inwardly. In the process, Furtwängler sought to master all the unique gestures and details of a work and then weave them into an organic whole. His vision, although deeply personal, was never arbitrary, but always sought inspiration in the mind of the composer.
One of the clearest examples of the validity of his unusual approach is found in the opening of Beethoven's Symphony # 7. The work begins with four full orchestral chords, separated by increasingly complex wind figures. There is nothing in the score to indicate anything other than a sharp attack; indeed, every other known recording presents the chords with as much precision as the orchestra can muster – a rapt call to attention and nothing more. In each Furtwängler recording, though, the chords are blurred and rough, each instrument emerging tentatively and out of synch. The impression is one of great effort, as if the chords had to struggle to overcome the smothering silence.
This is no mere empty rhetorical flourish. Rather, it reflects Furtwängler's rethinking of the entire work. Most conductors adhere to Berlioz's famous characterization of the Symphony # 7 as an apotheosis of the dance and emphasize its abundant grace and rhythmic drive. Furtwängler, though, placed the work in a far deeper region of Beethoven's psyche and performs it as a profound meditation on the elemental struggle between energy and fatigue, lightness and dark, motion and stasis. His opening chords are both the introduction to and the distillation of his vision.
Another extraordinary example of Furtwängler's art can be heard in his very last recording. The third act of Wagner's Die Walküre begins with the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" (often heard as an orchestral excerpt) in which the swirling excitement builds to wave after wave of thrilling climaxes. As eight warrior-sisters arrive at a rocky summit and boast of their exploits, the effect is indeed thrilling, with the sopranos belting out their ecstatic lines over the thrashing full orchestra. But Furtwängler recognized the inherent problem with playing this scene at full boil, a temptation which no other conductor seems able to resist: the remaining hour of the act, in which all of the important thematic action occurs, can seem awfully lax by comparison.
To Furtwängler, the "Ride of the Valkyries," as exciting as it can be, must yield to the far more serious business of Act III: the battle of wills between Brunhilde, the errant oldest daughter, and her father Wotan, the head of the gods. In a long, deeply moving scene, she begs forgiveness which he cannot grant without destroying his own authority, and ultimately is punished with banishment and mortality. Furtwängler deliberately forgoes the initial thrill for a more valid overall dramatic progression.
His recording heralds the drama perfectly, both in tempo and in texture. He begins the "Ride" at a brisk pace, but then gradually decelerates so that Brunhilde arrives not on a buoyant note of ecstasy but crushed by impending tragedy. The feeling is reinforced by the orchestral balances: shimmering and nearly devoid of bass at the outset but then gradually deepening so that the climax is mired in a heavy sludge of sound. As with the Beethoven, there is nothing in the score to suggest this; rather, Furtwängler reconceives the score in highly individual terms in order to elicit Wagner's overall meaning.
Furtwängler is often described as a "slow" conductor, but that reputation is only half true. Furtwängler favored extreme tempos, both slow and fast. The overall feeling of torpor is due far more to the bass-heavy sonority and reverberant concert halls Furtwängler favored than to the pulse itself.
Perhaps the most striking instance of Furtwängler's exaggerated tempos is found at the very end of Beethoven's Symphony # 9 ("Choral"), which Furtwängler regarded as the greatest of masterworks. Right before the end the final words of the chorus are slow and stately. This passage leads abruptly to an orchestral coda, marked "presto," which most conductors indeed take at a healthy clip. In each of his recordings, though, Furtwängler brings the pulse to a near-halt and then plunges into the coda at a superhuman pace more than twice as fast as any other recording, so fast that the musicians cannot possibly play the notes accurately. The musical sense becomes utterly lost and the work invariably ends in a jumble of confusion.
Why mangle the final sublime moment of the ultimate orchestral work of the greatest composer in this way? Because Furtwängler reminds us just who Beethoven was – not a gentle genius but the great rebel who constantly pushed music into uncharted territory. Thus, Furtwängler ends the symphony not with a refined and satisfying aesthetic touch but with an uncontrolled explosive outburst, blowing away the bounds of musicianship and culture just as the composer himself had done. In a single gesture, Furtwängler transcends the immediate moment and even the symphony itself to integrate the coda into the entire life, personality and outlook of its composer. At the same time his daring approach empowers the modern listener to relive the shock felt by Beethoven's own audiences.
Furtwängler was a conceptual artist: his "why" is far more important than his "what." Furtwängler's conducting often seems mannered, quixotic and even arbitrary until we discern his reasons and then recognize that his artistry is driven by genius.
Hearing inspired Furtwängler interpretations like these is revelatory, leaving other performances to sound flat and routine. The depth of his thought is simply staggering. Furtwängler's true magic was his ability to convey worlds of new meaning within even the most familiar pieces.
In 1937, Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic switched labels to HMV and recorded a Beethoven Symphony # 5. Aside from richer sound and a first movement repeat, the performance is virtually identical to their earlier 1926 Polydor reading. The next year, they returned to the studio for a solid Tchaikovsky Symphony # 6 ("Pathetique") and several Wagner excerpts. All the HMVs are now on Biddulph WHL 006-7 (2 CDs). During the War itself, they recorded only Gluck's Alceste Overture, the Adagio from Bruckner's Symphony # 7 and an orchestration of the Cavatina from Beethoven's Quartet in B Flat, Opus 130. All three are collected on Teldec CD 9031-76435-2 and are far more remarkable for the unrelieved somberness of the repertoire than for any particular musical insight.
In purely artistic terms, the wartime studio recordings are barely significant. But from a psychological perspective, it seems amazing that such a sensitive artist was able to so fully suppress the turmoil and anguish that buffeted his personal and professional life. Perhaps this was an instinctive aversion to the unnatural mechanics of the recording process in which music was chopped into four-minute fragments and often recorded out of sequence, a system utterly repugnant to Furtwängler's organic approach to music. Or perhaps it was a measure of the extreme will power by which Furtwängler was able to erect a shield of artistic purity against which he refused to allow even the most intense outside political forces to intrude.
Whatever the reason, Furtwängler's emotional dam burst in concert. The first documentation of this change is heard in two marvelous London performances from May, 1937. Act III from Wagner's Die Walküre (on Myto MCD 914.43) boasts a magnificent sense of headstrong flow and inevitability, while Beethoven's Symphony # 9 (on Music & Arts CD 818) is gripping and highly inflected. While lacking the ultimate abandon that would emerge during the war itself, these live renditions are far more intense and overtly dramatic than the Wagner and Beethoven pieces Furtwängler was recording in the studio for HMV.
Other than his own Symphonic Concerto and some snippets from Wagner operas, we seem to have no further live Furtwängler recordings until 1942 to 1944, when Radio Berlin taped twenty concerts. By then, Furtwängler's artistry had become completely transformed.
The pickup consisted of a principal microphone at the podium, mixed at the back of the hall with 3 others; all were omnidirectional and picked up a lot of audience noise. The sound was relayed by telephone line to Radio Berlin headquarters, where it was recorded on machines in 20 minute segments on 14 inch reels of iron oxide tape running at 30 inches per second. Although 49 pieces reportedly were recorded, many of the tapes were lost, damaged or erased for reuse. The survivors were removed by Soviet occupation forces. After generating decades of Russian LP bootlegs, 22 were returned to Berlin in 1987. Nineteen were issued on ten DGG CDs in 1989. Now out of print, many have emerged on the American Music & Arts label.
Admittedly, it is rather difficult to listen to them today, knowing that the recordings originally were made to boost combat morale and that the highly audible audience coughs arose from the pampered throats of Nazi military and government elite. But such perverse uses of art aside, perhaps we can take some comfort in Furtwängler's hope that these broadcasts would also bolster the courage and humanity of civilian listeners. In any event, our ears know little of political correctness; none of the performances is less than fascinating, and more than a few are among the most intense of all time.
If there is a single common quality to all of these performances, it is the extreme cohesion between conductor and orchestra, hard enough to find in standard readings but nearly impossible to achieve when the interpretation is impulsive and radically reconceived. This remarkable quality arose from the symbiosis between Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic, whose mutual needs were both artistic and practical. The orchestra needed Furtwängler, without whose adoration by Hitler they would have lost their government subsidy and faced disbandment; indeed, the intensity of their playing has been ascribed to the fear that each performance might have been their last. And Furtwängler equally needed his players, his self-described "right arm," whose 20-year association enabled the musicians to understand and respond meaningfully to his bizarre gestures in a way that no other ensemble ever approached.
The magic bond is confirmed by both records and anecdotes. Wartime concerts have recently surfaced featuring Furtwängler conducting the Beethoven Symphony # 9 with the Stockholm Philharmonic (on Music & Arts CD-2002) and the Bruckner Symphony # 8 with the Vienna Philharmonic (on Music & Arts CD-764). Both works were Furtwängler specialties, but the readings lack even a hint of the gripping tension he regularly achieved with the Berlin Philharmonic. Also indicative of the Berlin players' unique understanding of their leader are the abundant tales from other orchestras, ranging from the Italian concertmaster who mistook Furtwängler's incomprehensible baton motions for nervousness and sought to reassure him, to the quip of a German musician that he knew when to start playing only by sitting down and counting to ten.
Among the highlights of the DGG series is a Strauss Sinfonia Domestica (on 427 781-2) that actually makes structural and dramatic sense of this diffuse, sprawling drivel; a frighteningly intense Beethoven Symphony # 7 (on 427 775-2) in which the finale accelerates completely out of control; a deeply-felt Brahms Piano Concerto # 2 (on 427 776-2) with Furtwängler's philosophical soul-mate Edwin Fischer as soloist; a haunting Sibelius En Saga (on 421 783-2, the effect of which unfortunately is compromised by extreme audience noise); a boldly impassioned Bruckner Symphony # 5 (on 427 774-2); a deeply mystical Beethoven Symphony # 4 (on 421 777-2); and, perhaps most surprising, a soaring Ravel Daphnis et Chloe Suite (on 427 783-2). Perhaps the best DGG disc of all is 427 781-2, which combines a powerful Schubert Symphony # 9 with a Weber Freischutz Overture that ranks as the finest example on record of Furtwängler's acclaimed ability to color and shape each individual phrase with a world of expressive insight.
The very best of the wartime performances, though, are found outside the DGG series. A December 1944 Beethoven Symphony # 3 ("Eroica") (Music & Arts CD 814) is massive but with a sharp nervous undertone unmatched in any other recording. A 1943 performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with George Kulenkampff transforms the usual fleet virtuostic display piece into a mournful study of mystery and menace. There is also an emphatic 1942 "Prelude and Leibestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (Music & Arts CD 730) and ecstatic Brahms Symphonies 2 and 4 from January 1945 and November 1943 (Music & Arts CD 804). An absolutely staggering January 1945 account of the finale of the Brahms Symphony # 1 (Music & Arts CD 805) was recorded at the Berlin concert Furtwängler knew would be his last and fully reflects the unbearable emotions of that occasion.
Even more startling is a March 1942 performance of Beethoven's Symphony # 9 on Music & Arts CD 653. John Ardoin's fine notes aptly describe it as a reading "of cyclonic fury, ... frightening and exhausting, ... drenched with torment, anger and a sense of struggle." Ardoin attributes this approach to Furtwängler's "acute awareness that ... one of the noblest utterances of the human spirit was being voiced in a country engaged in some of the most appalling atrocities to be committed in the 20th century," which led Furtwängler to "somehow attempt through the music to alter or reverse the events surrounding him." Regardless of whether this performance qualifies as idiomatic Beethoven, it is an astounding example of Furtwängler's ability to fully internalize and then regenerate a work as his own.
But even these extraordinary achievements pale beside the miracle of the 1944 Bruckner Symphony # 9, which after mediocre LP transfers has been restored to remarkably decent sound on Music & Arts CD 730. Unlike the other wartime performances, on this particular occasion there was no audience to intrude upon the intensely private communion between conductor and orchestra. The sole witnesses were the microphones, to preserve the event for broadcast. But in a deeper sense there was another essential participant: Bruckner himself.
Traditional classical music is a recreative art: a composer writes down his musical thoughts, which artists of other cultures and generations must revitalize. All musicians struggle to wrest from the cold notation their understanding of what the composer wanted to communicate, but the gulf of years and unique personalities are formidable barriers. Throughout the nineteenth century, the performer reigned supreme, and fidelity to creators' intentions was a foreign concept, at best of purely academic interest.
Furtwängler inherited this outlook. Even though he labored to find the inner meaning of each work, he had such an overwhelming personality that his approach, despite the validity of his musical thought, was not necessarily on the same wavelength as the composers themselves. All the more remarkable, then, that for one critical moment his personal torment coincided so precisely with that of Bruckner that it yielded a performance that is as close as we will ever come to a perfect melding of composer and performer.
The composition of the Symphony # 9 consumed the last agonized decade of Bruckner's life. He was a peasant who craved acceptance but was crushed by the snubs of society and the critical establishment. His music was strikingly original, but the cultural gatekeepers of the time insisted on editing and reorchestrating it to conform to their own artistic norms. He was obsessed with morbidity, and was increasingly terrified by his own imminent end. He was deeply religious and dedicated his final work to God, but could not comprehend how God could refuse him the strength and inspiration to finish it.
The symphony is incomplete in far more than the immediate sense of lacking a final movement; Bruckner clearly struggled for something new and far-reaching but ultimately died unable to realize it. The first movement, in particular, seems fragmentary and rough. Every other conductor tries to smooth the score into a cohesive whole. Furtwängler's approach, though, is far, far different.
Furtwängler once said that "an interpreter can render only what he has first lived through." Of all the conductors who have grappled with the complex challenges of the Bruckner Ninth, Furtwängler was best positioned to understand what Bruckner had achieved. Bruno Walter had hinted at this when he observed that he never understood Bruckner until he became mortally ill. The Ninth is not a failed attempt at a cohesive artistic statement. Rather, it is a complete and perfect musical depiction of a tortured mind: a desperate snatch at a vision that grew ever more elusive, a vain quest for understanding and fulfillment in a world that would not provide it, a fevered groping for fragments of life in the lengthening shadow of death. As he wrestled with his Ninth Symphony, Bruckner stood at the very edge of that abyss. By late 1944, Furtwängler stood there too.
The first climax of the first movement heralds his emotion. The Berlin Philharmonic is fully controlled and its ensemble perfectly together, and yet the tempo is so unstable and dynamically alive that no note falls quite where its predecessors would suggest, as if to reflect the entire orchestra's heaving, nervous desperation. Furtwängler often spent entire rehearsals polishing crucial transitions, but not here; he chops the first movement into dozens of inconclusive fragments, deliberately wrenching the mood from lilting lyricism to raw savagery, the tempos from standstill to runaway, and dynamics from inaudible to heavily overloaded. The movement ends in screaming trumpets, a primordial burst of sheer abject terror as both Bruckner and Furtwängler confronted the most horrifying fear of all: that at the very end of their struggles there would be only a void.
Although nothing could eclipse the unparalleled power of the opening, the wonders of this radical reworking of the Bruckner Ninth do not end with the shattering climax of the first movement. Furtwängler whips the scherzo and trio from a slightly menacing waltz and bucolic pastorale into a furiously driven, vertiginous ride to damnation. He then gradually builds the unintended adagio finale to a terrifying dissonance, after which the exhausted fragments wither into eternal silence.
None of this is explicit in the score. It took Furtwängler to recognize and recreate an absolutely perfect depiction of a single mind and, by extension, an entire world on the brink of collapse.
Furtwängler may have been pushed to the very edge by the pressure and ambivalence of his role, but by early 1945 Nazi tolerance of Furtwängler's insolence had reached the breaking point as well. As the Thousand Year Reich lurched toward its early end, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler prepared to launch a grim final legacy: improving the world by ridding it of disloyal Germans who had thwarted faultless leadership and betrayed their nation's destiny of global domination.
The Gestapo had compiled a huge dossier on Furtwängler, who was near the top of their blacklist; as Himmler so delicately put it, "There is no Jew, filthy as he may be, for whom Furtwängler does not stretch out a helping hand." Under pretext of complicity in a failed July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, Furtwängler was targeted for liquidation. Albert Speer, chief architect of the Reich and an ardent admirer, warned Furtwängler that he had to flee for his life.
After conducting in Vienna, Furtwängler claimed to have fallen and suffered a concussion and informed Berlin that his return would have to be delayed until he recuperated. On February 7, 1945 he escaped to Switzerland. There, he reunited with his wife, who had gone earlier to give birth to his only legitimate child. (Furtwängler had fathered at least four other children, all of whom he acknowledged and supported.)
In Switzerland, he was in limbo. German sympathizers considered him a traitor, while others deemed him a collaborator. In a sense, Furtwängler's predicament was fundamentally unfair. We rarely condemn doctors or clergymen who stay behind to attend to the medical or spiritual needs of the civilian population in wartime. Why, then, should an artist who tries to preserve the cultural health of the populace be held to a different humanitarian standard?
In any event, Furtwängler was unable to work pending a denazification investigation, which was delayed until the conclusion of the Nuremburg war crimes trial, a proceeding that ultimately consumed an entire year. The Allied command was not to be rushed, as they considered Furtwängler's celebrity to be a useful symbol of defeated Germany.
During this period, Furtwängler composed his Symphony # 2, which he intended as his artistic testament. But instead of the seething, emotional catharsis suggested by the circumstances of its composition, or a beleaguered artist's visionary escape into new tonal territory, the sprawling work is a pastiche of older styles, meandering among glimmers of Brahms, Strauss, Sibelius and Bruckner without ever asserting an identity of its own. Admittedly, its virtues are obscured by the blandness of Furtwängler's own indifferent 1951 DG studio runthrough with the Berlin Philharmonic. Far more convincing is his blazing 1953 Vienna concert version (on Orfeo CD 375 941). Even so, it is clear that Furtwängler sought refuge in the past and that his talent lay in interpretation rather than innovation.
Perhaps more revealing of Furtwängler’s post-War psyche and aesthetic outlook is his last composition, his Symphony # 3 in c-sharp minor. Although lacking Bruckner’s assertive themes or wide emotional range, its massive, sprawling, thickly-scored sobriety evoke that composer, yet ironically they share more than fundamental style – like Bruckner’s Ninth, despite intensive effort Furtwängler died unable to achieve the finale. Noting that Furtwängler always considered himself primarily a composer for whom conducting was a practicality, Gottfried Kraus felt that the work was a creative means to overcome the crises in his life. In his diary Furtwängler stated that he “wanted to make neither a mystical and mathematical construction nor an ironical and skeptical consideration of the time but nothing more and nothing less than a tragedy.” The three completed movements, marked largo, allegro and adagio, were entitled “Disaster,” “Under compulsion to life” and “Beyond.” (The finale was to have been “The conflict continues.”) A fine realization is a 1980 concert (Orfeo CD 406 961) by the Bayeriches Staatsorchester conducted by Wolfgang Sawallich, who sees the Third as reflecting strong personal values in an introverted, confessional work that extends the general mourning of the time into deeply spiritual spheres.
Furtwängler's trial began on December 11, 1946. Based on its preliminary investigation, the tribunal conceded that Furtwängler was not part of any National Socialist organization, that he avoided outward obeisance to the Nazis and that he tried to help persecuted people because of their race. Even so, Furtwängler stood accused of holding one official position (the nettlesome Staatsrat), performing at one Nazi function, uttering one anti-Semitic slur, and generally serving the purposes of the Nazi regime. The first three were readily rebutted or explained, but the last was troublesome. It was, quite simply, guilt by association.
Furtwängler had no attorney and was ill prepared to defend himself. As Yehudi Menuhin observed: "Furtwängler was the last of an age that did not expect a man to be both a creator and a salesman at the same time. He explained himself badly." Even so, Furtwängler tried to convince the tribunal that he had to cooperate with the government to some extent in order to work against it from within the system. This, of course, is the principle of all underground movements. Thus, Furtwängler conceded that he had to couch correspondence in the Nazis' preferred racial language: "To a certain degree I had to fight with their weapons; otherwise I could not have achieved anything."
After a week-long recess, Furtwängler presented several persuasive character witnesses who swore to his unstinting rescue efforts. Furtwängler's summation proudly defended his record: "The fear of being misused for propaganda purposes was wiped out by the greater concern for preserving German music as far as this was possible. I could not leave Germany in her deepest misery. To get out at that moment would have been a shameful flight. I am a German, whatever may be thought of that abroad. I do not regret having done it for the German people."
Furtwängler was fully acquitted. The New York Times, though, published a distorted account of the trial and its outcome, implying that the charges against Furtwängler essentially had been proven. This influential report was picked up by wire services, spread throughout the free world, and hardened public opinion against Furtwängler.
The persistence of this cruel fiction throughout the rest of Furtwängler's life is preserved in two reference books published in 1954, his final year. David Ewen's Encyclopedia of Concert Music refers to Furtwängler's "intimate associations with the Nazi regime," and the updated Grove's Dictionary of Music noted: "Under the Nazi regime in Germany, and particularly during the second world war, Furtwängler seems to have enjoyed a privileged position." Only in recent times has such innuendo been superseded by a more balanced view. Thus, the current edition of Compton's Encyclopedia reports: "He had difficulties with the Nazi government in the early 1930s but an uneasy truce was made. In Germany he was generally considered anti-Nazi, but elsewhere a conspirator." Encarta goes even further: "Although he remained in Germany through most of World War II, he opposed the Nazi regime and was exonerated of charges of collaboration."
Even though he had been completely absolved, Furtwängler still could not work until the Allied Command certified to his "normalization," a procedure that dragged on for 5 months. At long last, the papers were issued and the final phase of Furtwängler's career was at hand.
For his first concert in over two years Furtwängler chose an all-Beethoven program with the Berlin Philharmonic, which was hurriedly scheduled for May 25, 1947. Fittingly, the program duplicated the first concert Furtwängler had led upon resuming activity after the Hindemith affair.
Throughout the war, to minimize friction over his refusal to give the Nazi salute, Furtwängler had briskly strode to the podium, baton in hand, and immediately began conducting. This time, he made a normal entrance. The audience understood the gesture and gave him a fifteen minute ovation. Furtwängler then proceeded to pour into Beethoven all of the repressed emotions he had withheld from his own second symphony. The Symphony # 5 progresses from a grimly powerful opening to an ecstatic explosion of triumph. And the transition from the thunderstorm to the pastoral hymn of thanksgiving in the Symphony # 6 has never been rendered with such exquisite earnestness. The event is preserved on Music & Arts CD-789.
Clearly, Furtwängler seized upon the deep symbolism of these works and through them recreated his own personal odyssey from misery to freedom. The symbolism was extended two weeks later, when Furtwängler devoted his first post-war concert with the Vienna Philharmonic to an all-Mendelssohn program, whose works had been among the first to have been banned by the Nazis.
Furtwängler quickly reestablished his reputation in most of Europe. Even Toscanini, who had demonized Furtwängler throughout the war, was quoted in 1948 as considering him the second best conductor in the world (Toscanini, of course, being the first).
But much of the rest of the world did not forget as quickly. Furtwängler concerts outside of German-speaking countries were protested, especially in England and Holland. Plagued with guilt over his country's misdeeds, Furtwängler refused to challenge misperceptions over his past and backed away from confrontation. As a sad indication of this extreme post-war sensitivity, Joachim Kaiser recalls how Furtwängler was greatly impressed at a 1950 Leonard Bernstein concert in Amsterdam but resisted any attempt to express his admiration for fear that even a passing contact could damage the young American's career.
America remained especially elusive. In 1949, Furtwängler was offered the helm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but the announcement provoked a firestorm of protests, fueled by rumors of collaboration and fanned by jealous rival conductors. The most sought-after soloists, including Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Jascha Heifetz, all warned that they would boycott any orchestra that engaged Furtwängler. Yehudi Menuhin, who had heard many testimonials among the displaced people for whom he played in Europe following the war and who was the first Jew to perform again with Furtwängler, attempted to air the facts, but to little avail. Bruno Walter accurately summed up the problem as the one which would haunt Furtwängler for the rest of his life: as Germany's most prominent musician, he became an unwitting magnet for anti-German frustrations. The matter was concluded when the Chicago musicians union refused Furtwängler a work permit.
Furtwängler settled in Switzerland and wanted to remain free-lance, but his hand was forced by von Karajan, who desperately coveted the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic. Largely as a defensive measure, Furtwängler agreed to become the orchestra's Music Director for life in January 1952 on condition that he have full and exclusive control over all its activities.
But rather than settle into the contented life of a tenured master, Furtwängler remained pursued by demons. His hearing had declined to the point where he wore headphones at rehearsals and feared that the impairment would soon compromise his integrity. He felt mired in a golden culture of the past which history had left behind. He was still tarred by the very politics he had abhorred. And an upcoming Berlin Philharmonic tour of the United States promised a repeat of the bitter Chicago protests of 1949.
In late October 1954, exhausted from completing a Vienna studio version of Wagner's massive opera Die Walküre, Furtwängler was diagnosed with pneumonia. His doctors were confident of his full recovery, but his depression grew. He confided to his wife that he no longer wanted to live. For the first time in two decades, Furtwängler got what he wanted. But so did von Karajan, who eagerly replaced him, led the Berlin Philharmonic on a triumphant US tour, and in appreciation for his services was made the orchestra's new permanent conductor, a power-base to which he would cling for the remaining thirty-four years of his life and parlay into the most profitable career in the history of music.
Furtwängler hated the recording process as freezing an art that should constantly evolve and be recreated anew. And yet, after the war he succumbed to the studio, waxing dozens of works with the Vienna Philharmonic. Among the best are exquisitely polished accounts of the Beethoven Symphonies # 3 ("Eroica") and # 6 ("Pastorale") on EMI CDH 7 63033 2 and CDH 7 63034 2. Only a handful have been converted to CD, but the loss is not that severe. All display a fine sense of architecture and are well-played but lack the inspiration of his prime work. Perhaps Furtwängler knew that only the Berlin Philharmonic could respond with instinctive precision to his impulses and therefore didn't even attempt spontaneous wonders with other ensembles. Or perhaps Furtwängler sensed that he could discharge his distasteful studio assignments most efficiently by avoiding any unusual interpretive features that might produce flaws and require retakes.
Furtwängler also recorded a few works in the studio with the Berlin Philharmonic, including a noble 1951 Schubert Symphony # 9 (on DGG CD 427 405-2) and a powerful 1953 Schumann Symphony # 4 (on DGG CD 427 404-2). While preferable to the Vienna readings, they still seem somewhat reserved and lack the spontaneity of his live performances. Perhaps his finest studio recording was a complete Wagner Tristan und Isolde (on EMI CDS 7 47322 8, 4 CDs), recorded in London in 1952 with Kirsten Flagstad, Ludwig Suthaus and the Philharmonia Orchestra, each LP side registered in a single take to preserve continuity. But Furtwängler's truly great and lasting work was all achieved in the concert hall.
LP collectors enjoyed a wide choice of Furtwängler concert releases, including an extensive Furtwängler Edition on Arkadia's Fonit/Cetra label, a more limited "official" series on Unicorn's Furtwängler Society imprint, and further choices on DGG, Heliodor, Discocorp and Turnabout. The most comprehensive CD edition is on the Italian Virtuoso label, but the selections are all post-war, sound quality is often rough and documentation is nonexistent; even so, these are well worth their super-budget price, but you may have to search in offbeat outlets, as many music stores shun them. The growing series on the full-price American Music & Arts label boasts far better transfers, and their catalogue is selective of Furtwängler's best work. Also worthwhile are CDs on the DGG, Arkadia, Ermitage, AS Disc and Tahra labels.
Every few months nowadays seems to yield a bumper crop of new Furtwängler CDs. But the sheer number of discs and labels is deceptive; despite occasionally improved sources and restoration techniques, most of the "new" recordings duplicate previous releases. (Please note: In all candor, I haven't acquired most of the rereleases if I already have an earlier edition, and consequently I haven't tried to update the labels and CD numbers cited here in order to take new or superceding transfers into account. To minimize confusion, I've tried to identify each recording by location and/or date to enable readers to distinguish it from other versions in various incarnations.) Although dozens of tantalizing concerts reportedly hide in private archives, we are fortunate that, with only a few serious gaps, we have fine examples of nearly all of Furtwängler's core repertoire – and most in multiple versions that permit fascinating comparisons, including five Beethoven Fifths, five Brahms Firsts and seven Beethoven Ninths.
Furtwängler poured into his concerts an artistic vision that had become transformed through his life experiences. As John Ardoin aptly observes in The Furtwängler Record, the pre-war recordings found Furtwängler at the height of technical achievement, recreating sound through the combined resources of mind and heart; during the war years his technique was tempered by a powerful sense of history and rage; and finally, all that had gone before was recast through a hard-won serenity and sense of perspective. The post-war concerts are monumental, the power of the past now embedded in pride and dignity.
Furtwängler's most famous post-war concert took place on July 29, 1951 at the rededication of the Festival Hall at Bayreuth and fully exemplifies his transformed outlook. Inaugurated 75 years earlier by Richard Wagner for the presentation of his operas, Bayreuth had become the embodiment of German musical culture. Furtwängler, himself the paradigm of German classical tradition, was the obvious choice to reopen the theater. To Furtwängler, the occasion had deep personal significance, as it symbolized the reemergence of German culture from the ashes of wartime politics and thus reflected and vindicated the very philosophy to which he had adhered during the war and for which he had suffered so greatly.
To Furtwängler, only one work in all of music could possibly suffice for such a momentous event: Beethoven's Symphony # 9. The performance stands in striking contrast to his astounding 1942 Berlin performance. The timings of the movements are virtually identical, but there all similarity ends. Each reading is overwhelmingly passionate, but conceived in utterly divergent terms. The wartime performance is organized around slashing, brutal climaxes, while the Bayreuth concert builds its power subtly into a seething continuum. Fury has yielded to spirituality. Animal ferocity has evolved into human emotion. If the Berlin performance was a cry of desperation, the Bayreuth concert was a valedictory confirmation of the ultimate triumph of the artistic spirit. Furtwängler's achievement, both personal and aesthetic, is absolutely magnificent.
Furtwängler could never bring himself to make a studio recording of this favorite work, and so after his death his widow arranged for release of the tape of the Bayreuth concert. It became a best-seller when first issued in 1955 on RCA LM-6043, and has remained in print for succeeding generations through reissues on Angel's Great Recordings of the Century (COLH 78-79), Seraphim budget LPs (IB-6068) and now EMI CD 7 69801 2. It is hard to imagine a more fitting and lasting tribute to the man and to his art.
Furtwängler's other great post-war achievement was in opera. Furtwängler avoided the silly, contrived fluff that leads to ridicule of the genre, turning instead to works that have something profound to say about the human condition. Virtuoso CDs present magnificent Salzburg Festival performances of Verdi's Otello (on 2697382), Mozart's Magic Flute (2699192), Mozart's Don Giovanni (2699052) and Weber's Der Freischutz (2697222). These performances are of particular appeal to those who tend to shy away from opera, since Furtwängler took a symphonic approach to the music and deemphasized the libretto.
Furtwängler's closest identification in the public mind was with Wagner, who had transformed German music with an aesthetic that was as revolutionary and brilliant as his racist political writings were reactionary and depraved. The summit of Wagner's art was The Ring of the Nibelung, a series of four operas lasting over fifteen hours which tell a sweeping mythological tale of mortal and godly creation, evolution, love, greed, betrayal and downfall. Extraordinary vocal and scenic demands render the mounting of even a single Ring opera rare enough, but Furtwängler led two complete post-war cycles in Italy. (It is a true testament to the Italians' love of opera that they would lavish their resources on the revival of this summit of German art!)
The first Furtwängler Ring was recorded live in 1950 at the famous La Scala opera house in Milan. Originally unlistenable on Murray Hill records, which in a gesture of false economy had crammed up to 45 minutes onto each LP side, the entire set has been successfully restored on Virtuoso 2699082 (14 super-budget CDs), Fonit Cetra ECDC 1000 (14 mid-priced CDs) and Arkadia CDWFE 351.12 (12 premium-priced CDs). The second Ring was broadcast from Rome over Italian radio in 1953, one act per night. After years of haggling over rights, it emerged on Seraphim LPs in 1972 and is now on EMI CZS 7 67123 2 (13 budget CDs) or Arkadia CDWFE 359.12 (12 premium CDs). A 1952 Rome "sampler" of Act I of Die Walküre and Act III of Gotterdämmerung is on Music and Arts CD 866 (2 CDs).
Opera fanatics will forever debate the relative merits of the two full cycles. The La Scala set is swifter and boasts the spontaneous excitement (as well as the flaws, noise, awkward balances and grueling exhaustion) of a real opera performance, while the Rome broadcasts are more relaxed and better recorded. For some fans, the choice is dictated by the female lead: the icy beauty of Kirsten Flagstad in 1950 or the rougher drama of Martha Mödl in 1953. True opera buffs would never part with either set and rank both among the finest Wagner ever recorded.
But it was Fidelio to which Furtwängler kept returning. Not only was this the sole opera of his beloved Beethoven, but its theme of fidelity and love triumphing over political repression struck a deep chord within Furtwängler's own experiences.
The entire opera takes place in the courtyard and dungeon of a political prison. The admittedly absurd plot premise finds the female title character disguised as a young man trying to ingratiate "himself" to the jailer guarding her husband Florestan. Opportunity finally arrives when the evil governor asks her to help dispose of Florestan prior to the visit of the benevolent minister. At the crucial moment she reveals herself and holds the governor at bay until the minister arrives to restore social and moral order by liberating the prisoners, punishing the despot and reuniting the faithful wife and husband.
The final act, in particular, throbs with heartfelt commitment under Furtwängler's baton, from its opening in the dungeon as Florestan hallucinates hope, through his devoted wife's daring rescue, the thwarting of the murder scheme, the lovers' fervent embrace, a sublime orchestral "underture" which blends all of these themes, and the final cathartic choruses in praise of love, devotion and liberty.
Furtwängler viewed Fidelio more as a Mass than a mere opera. As he wrote in 1950, "What Beethoven was trying to express in Fidelio ... extends beyond the narrow limits of a musical composition; it touches the heart of every human being and will always appeal directly to the conscience of Europe. ... The emotions expressed in the whole of this music ... are ... the constituents of a religion of humanity. After all that we have experienced and suffered in recent times, this religious faith has never seemed so essential as it does today." Furtwängler led post-war performances of Fidelio as a moral imperative. It is no coincidence that the truly great recordings of Fidelio (Toscanini (RCA 60273), Furtwängler and Bernstein (DGG 419 436)) were all crafted by men of deep social and political conscience.
Fortunately, beyond a bland 1953 studio version we have three recordings of Furtwängler Fidelios: a 1948 Salzburg performance, incomplete and in rotten sound but the most fleet and overtly dramatic (on Melodram CDM 25009), a glowing 1950 Salzburg version with a dream cast (on EMI CDM 7 64901 2) and a profound 1953 Vienna performance (on Virtuoso 2697272 or EMI CDHB 64496).
Furtwängler's post-war orchestral repertoire ranged from Bach and Handel through Hoeller, Blacher, Fortner and other contemporaries. But his most memorable interpretations were of the nineteenth century German symphonic literature (especially Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner), to which he brought unique insight. The most fascinating of his performances are listed in the sidebar. As a general rule, though, it's hard to go far wrong with any Furtwängler concert.
In a 1948 BBC interview, Furtwängler insisted that "the conductor has one arch-enemy to fight: routine." While he may ultimately have succumbed to the wounds of life's other battles, this was the one fight that Furtwängler undeniably won. As New York Times critic Harold Schonberg concluded: "It is safe to say that never in his life did Furtwängler give a routine performance."
Karl Schumann has observed that Furtwängler had no direct successors, since his personality, experiences and subjective outlook were truly unique. Thus, while the specific approach of a Toscanini could be copied (and was, quite extensively), the highly personal vision of a Furtwängler could only be caricatured. And yet, Toscanini's vast former popularity has waned, while Furtwängler has become the inspiration of a host of performers willing to trust their vision and artistic instincts above tradition and the written score.
Foremost among these is Sergiu Celibidache (pronounced "Chell-ee-bee-DAY-chee"), who was as close as Furtwängler ever came to having a protege. His career, like Furtwängler's, has been seeped in mystique and controversy. Fans laud his eccentricities as the hallmarks of genius; others condemn them as the signs of a charlatan.
During the long wait for Furtwängler's trial and rehabilitation, the leadership of the Berlin Philharmonic fell to this unknown Rumanian music student who had won a contest and apparently was one of the very few conductors whose politics and wartime activities were above suspicion. Upon his return, Furtwängler retained Celibidache as his assistant. Several of Celibidache's Berlin Philharmonic concerts from 1948 to 1953 are preserved on Hunt 734 (3 CDs) and are quite similar in style to Furtwängler.
Celibidache's recording career is surely the shortest in modern history, having both begun and ended in 1948, when he cut records of Tchaikovsky's Symphony # 5 and Nutcracker Suite (now on London 425 958-2). Their passion, impulse and freshness already mark Celibidache daring to take his master's qualities to the extreme. Among the conductors' other shared values was their aversion toward recordings. But Celibidache magnified his mentor's mere distaste into abject hatred, proclaiming recordings to be obscene, "like a photograph of love-making." Lacking Furtwängler's practical willingness to accommodate, following his early venture Celibidache has steadfastly refused to set foot ever again in a recording studio.
Another quirk which Celibidache refused to compromise was his insistence upon a dozen or more rehearsals for every concert, many times the number any commercially responsible orchestra could possibly afford. Consequently, Celibidache's activities were effectively limited to occasional projects with heavily subsidized European radio ensembles. His immense talent is preserved in tapes of some of those broadcasts. The results are truly awesome and prove the value of his unorthodox approach: under his baton and attention, even the most provincial group plays with the assurance and subtlety of the Vienna Philharmonic.
A further benefit of Celibidache's rehearsal mania was that by solving performance problems beforehand he was free to explore unconventional interpretations that enthralled audiences bored with safe and indifferent runthroughs of familiar repertoire. Like Furtwängler, Celibidache prefers slow tempos, but unlike his mentor rarely opts for extreme speed as well. He also eschews Furtwängler's sense of melodrama in favor of blending dynamics and sonority into a continuous emotional flow.
Celibidache is now in his eighties, and his lifelong studio boycott seems unlikely to end (although, curiously, he has made a few videos). Fortunately, many of his concerts through the years were recorded and have emerged on import CDs. Of those from his years as a musical nomad, the most fascinating were taped in 1959 and 1960 with various Italian radio orchestras: a solid Brahms cycle on Arkadia CDGI 764.3, a glorious Ravel program on Arkadia CDGI 741, an exquisitely subtle Wagner Siegfried Idyll on Arkadia CDGI 750.1, a gloriously profound Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Overture on Arkadia CDM 402 or Fonit Cetra CDAR 2013, a reverential Mozart Requiem on Arkadia CDMP 425.1, a heartfelt Mozart Mass in c minor on Fonit Cetra CDAR 2007, and a magnificent Brahms German Requiem on Hunt CD 546.
In the late 1970s Celibidache began to settle down, gravitating first toward the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra and then the Munich Philharmonic, of which he has now become the permanent conductor. The Exclusive, Artists Live and Originals labels have all released concerts that evidence even a finer sheen than Celibidache was able to achieve with the earlier Italian ensembles. His artistic temperament is ideally suited to Bruckner, and concerts of the Mass # 3 (on Exclusive 37/38), the Symphony # 3 (on Exclusive 59), the Symphonies 4 and 9 (on Exclusive 23/24), the Symphonies 5 and 8 (on Exclusive 44/46) and the Symphony # 6 (on Artists Live FED 063) shine a uniquely mesmerizing light on their sprawling structures.
Among Celibidache's other superb recent concerts released so far are a deeply-felt but surprisingly stylish Bach Mass in b minor (on Exclusive 33/34) and Mozart Requiem (on Artists Live FED 039), a languorous Debussy program (on Artists Live FED 031), profoundly meditative accounts of the Franck Symphony in d (on Artists Live FED 034) and Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (on Artists Live FED 017), a swooningly sensual Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade (on Exclusive 85), seething and passionate Tchaikovsky Symphonies 4 and 5 (on Artists Live FED 022/023) and ravishing Wagner Overtures (on Artists Live FED 026).
If you want only a single example of Celibidache's magic, grab his Ravel Daphnis and Chloe Suites on Originals SH 803. With absolutely breathtaking dynamics, balances, ensemble and overall polish, this is quite simply one of the most gorgeous examples of orchestral playing ever recorded.
[1999 update although little has changed and so I felt comfortable leaving the rest of this 1996 article intact, it should be noted that (a) Celibidache died late that year and (b) EMI launched a posthumous CD series featuring his late Munich Philharmonic concerts. Of the bootlegs mentioned above, all the Bruckner works, as well as the Debussy program, Tchaikovsky Fifth, Romeo and Juliet and Pictures at an Exhibition, are superceded, both sonically and artistically, by the new CDs. For a review of the new EMI series, please see Life After Death.]
For having scorned the expected role of the congenial, cosmopolitan, well-recorded modern maestro, Celibidache is often dismissed by the musical establishment as an insignificant kook. But his work is utterly unique, and in our days of boring perfunctory standardization, that in itself makes him invaluable.
Celibidache apparently refuses to discuss his feelings toward Furtwängler. But he doesn't have to. Furtwängler's artistic soul and spirit clearly infuse his work and endure through his talent.
It has been said that the truest measure of a man often lies in the esteem of his enemies. And so it is that the most intriguing pendant to the Furtwängler saga summons once again his younger nemesis.
After taking the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic upon Furtwängler's death, Herbert von Karajan won unprecedented fame and fortune by polishing his performances to a superhuman precision, purging the music of any vestige of human emotion, as if to deliberately suppress memories of the approach of his predecessor. And yet, decades after Furtwängler's tortured demise, toward the end of his own charmed life, the wealthiest and most successful musician of all time seems to have become haunted with a most peculiar concern. Reportedly, even while bathed in constant public adulation by legions of sycophants and forever ecstatic audiences, von Karajan would privately despair and scowl at all the acclaim.
What doubt possibly could have troubled the mind of the world's greatest musician? That Furtwängler wouldn't have approved!
In view of the geographic focus and international controversy surrounding his career, it is not surprising that much writing on (and by) Furtwängler remains in untranslated German. The most comprehensive English-language resource is Sam H. Shirakawa's The Devil's Music Master (Oxford University Press, 1992) which dwells upon the wartime period and its aftermath with considerably more sympathy than its title suggests. Even more sympathetic – indeed, outright apologist at times – is Fred Prieberg's Tower of Strength: Wilhelm Furtwängler in the Third Reich (Christopher Dolan, translator) (Northeastern University Press, 1994), which analyzes rare archival and private documents to assess Furtwängler's activities and attitudes during the War.
After contributing fine liner notes for many of the Music & Arts CDs, John Ardoin expanded his observations into the excellent The Furtwängler Record (Amadeus Press, 1994), which includes a helpful (although already outdated) discography. Ardoin's analysis of every known shred of Furtwängler's recorded legacy is comprehensive, but perhaps too detailed for most readers. Worthy but briefer overviews include a chapter in Harold Schonberg's The Great Conductors (Simon & Schuster, 1967), Karl Schumann's essay "Furtwängler: The Myth and Personality of a Musician" (included in the LP box of Fidelio, Seraphim IC-6022), and occasional insights in the DGG Furtwängler CD liners.
Testimonials to Furtwängler's life, artistry and wartime courage are collected in David Gillis's Furtwängler Remembered (Meredith Press, 1965). Furtwängler expounded his own philosophy in Concerning Music (T. J. Lawrence, translator) (Boosey & Hawkes, 1953). He can be heard in a brief English-language interview on Music & Arts CD 792 and can be glimpsed in rehearsal and in performance on The Art of Conducting (Teldec video 4504-95038-3). The rivalry with von Karajan is recounted in Roger Vaughan's Herbert von Karajan (Norton & Co., 1986) and more skeptically in Norman Lebrecht's The Maestro Myth (Birch Lane Press, 1991).
The biographical material in this article is largely derived from the above sources. Unless otherwise indicated, the musical analyses and judgements are solely those of the author.
If there is one immutable truth in art it is that taste and fashion do not evolve in a linear, orderly way; rather, they constantly shift unpredictably. The relics of the past invariably become the inspiration of the future.
When he died two generations ago, Furtwängler was considered an ancient curiosity beyond whose egotistical distortions of the score Toscanini and his legions of followers had progressed. Furtwängler's deeply personal, mystical groping for metaphysical insight seemed irrelevant and even ridiculous when compared with the clear objective vision of the new approach, which echoed the emerging modern drive in all the arts toward simplicity, brevity and conformity. But the fickle sands of taste continue to shift and Furtwängler has become meaningful once more.
In the years since Furtwängler's death, we have wandered through a musical desert. Boredom has set in with a vengeance. Record shelves and CD browsers bulge with dozens of nearly identical "objective" performances of the standard repertoire. The prospect of yet another is worth barely a yawn. Who really cares to hear conductor X and orchestra Y mechanically translate a well-worn score into sound? What could such an exercise ever add to what we already know?
Modern electronic convenience, too, has exacted a heavy cultural toll. Furtwängler was part of an era in which classical music really mattered. It had to. Music could not be taken for granted. Performances were not conjured or dismissed with the push of a button. Listening required a genuine personal commitment of a trip to the concert hall or actually playing the music yourself. Music was not relegated to the background but was heard in settings which demanded full attention and in return yielded deep insight.
Listening to a Furtwängler performance requires an atmosphere free of distractions. Only then can the magnitude of his art be understood and appreciated. Furtwängler did not merely produce patterned sound from written directions. He created meaning far beyond the notes. He strove to communicate something ineffably profound about the human condition. Although nominally anchored in the ethos of a specific era, his approach transcends time.
It is, of course, ironic that Furtwängler's posthumous fame rests largely upon the very medium he had so disdained. In selecting Furtwängler recordings, there are two cardinal rules. First, choose concerts over studio readings. Second, choose the Berlin Philharmonic over the Vienna Philharmonic, and those two over any other orchestras.
Of the available Furtwängler performances, none is less than interesting. The best are absolutely compelling and rank among the greatest achievements of the phonographic era. Here is a highly subjective list of personal favorites:
Beethoven: Symphony # 7. Berlin Philharmonic (October 3, 1943), DGG 427 775-2 or Music & Arts CD 823. Furtwängler's Beethoven output was uniformly excellent. But while his accustomed brilliance with the other major Beethoven symphonies has been justly praised, perhaps his greatest achievement lies here, a radical and deeply personal rethinking which wrests profound truth from a work in which others are content to find only lyrical grace.
Beethoven: Symphony # 9 ("Choral"). (1) Berlin Philharmonic (March 22, 1942), Music & Arts CD-653. (2) Bayreuth Festival Orchestra (July 29, 1951), EMI CDH 7 69801 2. Each of these magnificent performances embodied Furtwängler's artistic outlook at the time. That a single conductor could produce such radically different but equally convincing interpretations of the same work speaks not only to the depth of his talent but the enormity of the emotional journey he had traversed. According to his widow, Furtwängler's own favorite performance of the Ninth was his last, given August 21, 1954 with the Philharmonia Orchestra in Lucerne (on Tahra 1003), after which he told her, "This time I had one foot in the other world."
Beethoven: Fidelio. Kirsten Flagstad, Julius Patzak, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Anton Dermota, Joseph Greindl, Paul Schöffler, Vienna Philharmonic (Salzburg Festival, August 5, 1950), EMI CDMB 7 64901 2 (2 CDs). In Furtwängler's hands, Beethoven's only opera transcends its dated libretto to become an urgent contemporary morality play of eternal love and faith defeating the temporary evils of politics and vengeance. Every musical phrase and every word, even the formulaic romantic distractions and insipid dialogue, pulses with heartfelt meaning, a fervent prayer for humanity rising directly from Furtwängler's very soul.
Beethoven: Violin Concerto. Berlin Philharmonic, with Yehudi Menuhin (September 30, 1947), Music & Arts CD 708. This was both a beautiful performance and a magnificent gesture of conscience. Despite Allied findings of noncollaboration, much of the world music community continued to spurn Furtwängler after the War. Having heard first-hand accounts of Furtwängler's valor from survivors, Yehudi Menuhin, a Jewish American virtuoso, risked his reputation by travelling to Berlin and there, in the proverbial lion's den, effected an artistic reconciliation. The intense bond between the scorned conductor and his ardent young champion produced a performance of consummate feeling. The marvel was repeated at the 1949 Lucerne Festival with an equally fine reading of the Brahms Violin Concerto (on EMI CD 63496).
Brahms: The Four Symphonies; Haydn Variations. Berlin Philharmonic (1948-1952). Virtuoso 2699072 (3 CDs). Just as Brahms revitalized traditional musical form through his own resourcefulness, so Furtwängler reconceived Brahms in deeply personal terms. Every one of these readings is a knockout, inspiringly conducted, brilliantly played, well recorded and at a super-budget price. If you can't find this set, an alternative can be pieced together. Music & Arts 804 (4 CDs priced as 3) boasts even finer wartime Symphonies 2 and 4 but decidedly lesser versions of the others, further hampered by wow and thin sonics. A 1951 Hamburg Symphony # 1 is on Memories 4531 or Tahra 1001, abetted by superb sound (albeit in fake stereo on the Memories version). An excellent 1954 Symphony # 3 is on DGG 423592-2. And that astounding finale of the Symphony # 1 from January, 1945 is on Music & Arts 805.
Brahms: German Requiem. Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus (November 19, 1948). Music & Arts CD-289 (2 CDs). Most of Furtwängler's work away from Berlin or Vienna tends to sound pretty rough, but he achieved a miracle of cohesion in Stockholm; perhaps the special rapport stemmed from his wartime visits to the neutral Sweden, which provided his only contact with music and emissaries of the free world. Furtwängler slows the pace to a crawl and blends the sonorities to an exquisite subtlety. The result lends wonder, awe, and a deep reverential feeling to this gorgeous work.
Bruckner: Symphony # 8 in c minor. Berlin Philharmonic (March 15, 1949). Music & Arts CD-624. Any Furtwängler Bruckner performance is a safe bet, but this is a wild, reckless and utterly astounding reading that manages to blend wartime tension with a newfound repose and in the process demonstrates what truly committed conducting (and playing) is all about. Unfortunately, the climaxes are severely overloaded and some quiet sections are plagued by extreme audience noise. Equally ecstatic are a 1943 Symphony #6 (of which the first movement is missing) on Music & Arts CD 805 and a 1951 Symphony # 4 on Virtuoso CD 2697372.
Bruckner: Symphony # 9 in d minor. Berlin Philharmonic (October 7, 1944). Music & Arts CD-730. The wonder of this concert is described in the main article. The Bruckner Ninth was the first work Furtwängler ever conducted in public and remained one of his favorites, but after this staggeringly intense performance he never touched it again; how could he? The CD sound is a considerable improvement over previous DGG and Heliodor LPs.
Furtwängler: Symphonic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Edwin Fischer, piano, Berlin Philharmonic (January 19, 1939). Pilz CD 78 004. All conductors strive for immortality through composition, but to Furtwängler composing had a deeper purpose: it was an outlet to which he turned during the most frustrating and tempestuous times of his life. Although both the recording and the CD transfer are mediocre, this sprawling work from the agonizing period of 1936 is as close as he ever got to a self-portrait. Equally revealing, but in a far different way, is his Symphony # 2 (Vienna Philharmonic, 1953; Orfeo 375 941). Written while awaiting his "rehabilitation" in 1946, this serves as a compendium of Furtwängler's musical influences and proclivities. Together, these works document more about Furtwängler's artistic outlook than words can ever convey. They also display the unique nature of Furtwängler's talent, since in other hands they sound boring and diffuse but here they pulse with commitment and power.
Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture. Vienna Philharmonic (October 29, 1951). Recital Records 351 or Fonit/Cetra FE 35. The vast majority of Furtwängler's concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic are polished but dry. In the summer of 1951, though, they briefly caught fire and produced some thrilling results. The menacing atmosphere, seething mysticism and palpable tension of this performance are breathtaking, but as of this writing it is only on LP. Other incendiary Vienna concerts from the same season include a Schumann Symphony # 1 "Spring" (on Virtuoso 2697402 or London 417 287-2) and Bruckner Symphonies 4 and 5 (on Virtuoso 2697372 and 2697342 or Music & Arts 796).
Schubert: Symphony # 9 ("Great"). It's impossible to choose a single Furtwängler recording of this favorite work, as each illuminates a different aspect of the same fundamental interpretation. A 1942 Berlin concert (on DGG 427 781-2) is impulsive and overtly dramatic, a 1951 Vienna studio reading (on DGG 427 405-2) is lyric and gentle, a 1952 Vienna concert (on Virtuoso 2697362) boasts breathtakingly smooth transitions, and a 1953 Berlin concert (on Music & Arts CD-795) is massive and noble. Furtwängler's profound exposition of Schubert's Symphony # 8 ("Unfinished") is on DGG 423 572-2.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony # 5. Turin Radio Orchestra (June 9, 1952). Music & Arts CD-712 or AS Disc 371. The composer's fiery emotion and the conductor's probing insight were a natural match, but unfortunately this is the only available Furtwängler concert of a Tchaikovsky symphony. The interpretation is quintessential Furtwängler, deeply impassioned but without the flaming excess of some other maestros. The ragged playing, though, documents the problems which arose when an unfamiliar ensemble had to decipher Furtwängler's unconventional gestures. A superb 1951 Berlin Philharmonic concert of the Symphony # 6 in which such lapses are absent has eluded CDs so far and was last on DGG LP 2535 165.
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde. Kirsten Flagstad, Ludwig Suthaus, Blanche Thebom, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Philharmonia Orchestra (June, 1952). EMI CHS 7 473222 8 (4 CDs). Elizabeth Furtwängler recalled that this recording first prompted her husband to realize the potential of the medium, whose permanence he had considered improper and whose editing he had condemned as dishonest. Critics agree that this is one of the greatest opera recordings ever made, in which the vast spaces of Wagner are unified with compelling vision. Furtwängler's only other studio Wagner project, Die Walkure (EMI CHS 7 63045 2 (3 CDs) was his last endeavor and is nearly as good. Excellent orchestral Wagner concert excerpts are on Music & Arts CD-794 and DGG 427 406-2.
Weber: Overture to "Der Freischutz". Furtwängler's performances of this work span his recording career and document his evolving artistry. The Overture was his debut recording in 1926 (on Koch 3-7059-2). It and the nearly identical 1935 reading (on Koch 3-7073-2) explode with youthful energy, the 1944 Berlin concert (on DGG 427 781-2) quivers with tension, and the 1952 Berlin and 1954 Vienna concerts (on Music & Arts CD-795 and Virtuoso 2697222, respectively) achieve a rarefied calm of nobility and pride. Furtwängler's affinity for this piece seems especially fitting, as it introduces an opera that, more than any other, embodies the very essence of German themes, outlook and music. And that, of course, was also the essence of Furtwängler.
Copyright 1996 and 1999 by Peter Gutmann
For a note about the illustrations, please click here.
copyright © 1999-2002 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.