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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS: Violin Concerto / WAGNER: Siegfried Idyll (Furtwangler, Comm. Recordings 1940-50, Vol. 6)
Although Furtwängler’s recorded legacy is extensive, recordings of concertos are relatively few. This 1949 recording of Brahms’ Violin Concerto is notable for the legendary conductor’s highly expressive accompaniment. In the Hungarian Dances Furtwängler’s innate understanding of their idiom brings a variety of subtleties and inflexions that make this recording particularly memorable. In Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture his structural strength of line, together with a natural fluidity of tempo underpinning the thematic imagery, strikes a perfect balance. Last but not least, the heart-warming performance of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll demonstrates once again that even when Furtwängler conducted the lighter works of those composers whose output could be considered predominantly serious, he always brought the same questing spirit to search out the soul of the music.
By David Denton
Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)
Commercial Recordings 1940-1950, Volume 6
The almost mystic reputation of Furtwängler as guardian of the High German music tradition, a living legend in the interpretation of Wagner, and master of the three symphonic B's – Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner, tends to overshadow his achievements in other areas of the repertoire. He also conducted Debussy, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Franck, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Bartók and Hindemith, as well as a wealth of other German composers including Weber, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann. Whatever he conducted, even the lighter works of those composers whose output could be considered predominantly serious, he always brought the same questing spirit to search out the soul of the music, revealing the inspiration and the influences that fired the composer's imagination.
Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture is one of the first great Romantic musical seascapes, yet the inner workings of the piece retain a strong classical and formal rigour. Furtwängler's structural strength of line, together with a natural fluidity of tempo underpinning the thematic imagery conveying the natural elements, strikes a perfect balance. The layered backdrop of the chording that supports the opening theme given to middle-register violas, cellos and bassoon suggestive of the ebb and flow of the sea has a vibrato-less mystery that not only secures the harmonic foundation, but also seems to reflect the sky in its predominantly treble instrument orientation. The underlying swell of timpani and basses provides a predictable threat, but the device is not exaggerated. Furtwängler allows the contrasting second main theme of the work that returns as a serene clarinet solo towards the end of the work to offer a notably awed human response to the marine context, thereby establishing another balance within the music. Nor is the conductor slow to bring striking physical presence to the swirling chromatic accompaniments that speak of a sea whose storms look forward to Wagner's The Flying Dutchman.
Brahms was a composer for whom Furtwängler always retained a special affinity. The Hungarian Dances have a rhythmic verve and distinctive nationalist style as characteristic as the Slavonic Dances of Dvořák or the waltzes and polkas of the Strauss family. The conductor's innate understanding of their idiom brings a variety of subtleties and inflexions that mark out his performances of them as particularly memorable and it is especially endearing to hear him in some of the composer's lighter music. Rarely does he seem to be audibly enjoying his music-making quite so much as here, and the Vienna Philharmonic, of all orchestras, comes custom-built to follow him wherever his spontaneity takes them.
Although Furtwängler's recorded legacy is extensive, recordings of concertos are relatively few. The re-establishment of his international career after the Second World War was fraught with difficulty, especially in the United States, where a cabal of opposition amongst his peer group of musicians effectively froze him out, both from securing permanent appointments or guest conducting. The violinist Yehudi Menuhin not only refused to join this ostracism of the conductor, but he became publicly and politically active in pleading Furtwängler's case. Menuhin was himself Jewish and before the war had joined a boycott of the conductor. But immediately after the cessation of hostilities, Menuhin had gone to Germany in 1945 to perform for survivors of the concentration camps and the multitudes of displaced people. He heard many first-hand accounts of where responsibilities devolved for the atrocities committed and became convinced that Furtwängler was not a collaborator with the Nazi regime. After his visit, he went into the lion's den in America to openly declare as much and to defend the conductor's character further.
Returning to Europe, Menuhin was introduced to Furtwängler by his second wife, Diana, who had been acquainted with the conductor before the war. A meeting of minds was inevitable and the two musicians rapidly established a rapport that was to bear artistic fruit. The violinist first performed with Furtwängler in Salzburg on 13 August 1947, when they performed the Brahms Violin Concerto together. The conductor had escaped to Switzerland from Germany not long before the end of the war and was to continue to use this as his base. Later the same month, Menuhin played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Furtwängler and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, a performance swiftly taken into the recording studio by HMV's Walter Legge.
In 1948, matters regarding Furtwängler's stormy relationship with the United States were brought to a head by approaches from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to engage him as its Music Director following the departure of Artur Rodzinski. Furtwängler was keen, especially as he had not performed in America since 1927, but aware of the strength of the opposition, he suggested an extended guest conducting appointment, possibly as a gesture of compromise, eventually signing a contract for an eight-week engagement for the 1949-1950 concert season. The announcement caused a furore comparable to the débacle surrounding his near-miss succession to Toscanini as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1936. The Chicago board began to hesitate in the face of the number of artist protests and the invective against the conductor and his proposed appointment. Once again, however, Menuhin made an impassioned stand, stating that he would refuse to play with the orchestra until the matter had been resolved. Supporting the conductor again to this degree began seriously to threaten Menuhin's own career in the United States, but there is no question that he swayed the opinion of several key people and organizations elsewhere regarding the conductor's integrity and that this level of high profile exposure of the conductor's past conduct began to count for rather than against him. Nevertheless, ultimately the pressure proved too much and the Chicago board asked Furtwängler to withdraw.
America's loss proved to be Europe's gain and, the infamous rivalry with Karajan notwithstanding, Furtwängler was much in demand both in the concert hall and especially in the recording studio, where he consolidated his relationship with the canny Walter Legge to produce a glorious Indian Summer of recordings, a technology he had never been completely at ease with.
The performance of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll is a special case in point. With a voluminous Vienna Philharmonic in refulgent tone, Furtwängler allows the Rheinland forest to claim the work back from the Wagner family staircase as a true pendant to the music drama, from which it draws its material. The geniality and fluency of the interwoven thematic references have rarely sounded more heart-warming. Given the terrible associations that Wagner's music had assumed during the previous years, the sheer beauty and natural wonder of this performance offer an added sense of vindication and repose, audibly salving the conductor's troubles and the composer's reputation.
Felix MENDELSSOHN: The Hebrides ‘Fingal's Cave' – Overture, Op. 26
Recorded at the Brahmssaal, Musikverein, Vienna, 15 February 1949
HMV DB 6941 (Mats. 2VH 7108-9)
Johannes BRAHMS: Hungarian Dances, WoO 1
No. 1 in G minor
Recorded at the Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 4 April 1949
HMV DB 6976 (Mats. 2VH7168)
No. 2 in D minor & No. 3 in F major
Recorded at the Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 4 April 1949
HMV DB 6934 (Mats. 2VH7167)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
Recorded at the Kunsthaus, Lucerne, 29-31 August 1949
HMV DB 21000-4S (Mats. 2ZA63-71)
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883): Siegfried Idyll
Recorded at the Brahmssaal, Musikverein, Vienna, 16-17 February 1949
HMV DB 6916-7 (Mats. 2VH 7121-4)
Special thanks to Daniel Barolsky and Richard A. Kaplan
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