ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 / MOZART, W.A.: Eine kleine Nachtmusik / SCHUBERT: Rosamunde (excerpts) (Furtwangler, Early Recordings, Vol. 1)
Volume 1 of this new Naxos edition of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s pre- 1940s recordings includes an account of J.S. Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto that is lightyears away from the ‘historically informed’ norm of today, yet eloquent, deeply-felt and with a real sense of light and shade. The two Mozart opera overtures are typically dramatic and intense, while in the ever-popular Eine kleine Nachtmusik Furtwängler caresses the melodies, allowing rhythms to stand proud and making effective use of dynamic contrasts. The Overture to Schubert’s Rosamunde is especially weighty in Furtwängler’s hands, while the B flat Entr’acte is tender and warmly expressed, and the G major Ballet Music puckish and witty.
By David Denton
Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)
The Early Recordings, Vol. 1 • Bach • Mozart • Schubert
Gustav Heinrich Ernst Martin Wilhelm Furtwängler was born in Berlin on 25 January 1886 and died in Baden-Baden on 30 November 1954. His father was an archaeologist and his mother a painter; such exploratory and creative qualities might be perceived in Furtwängler’s distinctive and personal brand of musicianship. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s musical education began at an early age, with his instrument being the piano, and was fuelled in particular by a love of Beethoven’s music, which would develop into a lifetime’s engrossment for him. Although his posthumous reputation is as a conductor of the Austro-German classics, kept alive through a relatively small official discography now swelled by many releases of exhumed concert-performances, Furtwängler was also a composer (and not the only composer-conductor to put the act of creation above that of re-creation: Boulez is, and Klemperer was, of a similar mind). Furtwängler’s compositions include several pieces of expansive chamber music, a piano concerto, and three Brucknersize symphonies.
Bruckner’s music was also a very important part of Furtwängler’s repertoire; recordings, approved or otherwise, exist of Furtwängler conducting several of Bruckner’s symphonies. Indeed it was Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 that Furtwängler included in his first concert in 1907, which was with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra; owing to his father’s teaching commitments, Wilhelm had spent his childhood in this city. Furtwängler then received engagements with various Austrian and German orchestras and opera houses until, in 1922, he was appointed to the celebrated Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, in succession to the legendary Arthur Nikisch, and also to the Berlin Philharmonic. For all that Furtwängler would have success with the Vienna Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestra (London), it is with the Berlin Philharmonic that he was and is most closely associated, and it is the Berliners that are heard on all the recordings on this release.
To associate Furtwängler with the music, as here, of Bach, Mozart and Schubert is natural, but also typecasting, although this is, of course, the music that he recorded. Furtwängler’s repertoire was broader than might be supposed and includes him conducting the premières of, for example, Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler, in 1934, and Schoenberg’s masterly if ‘newly complex’ Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, in 1928. Nor was Furtwängler a stranger to Bartók’s music. In 1927 he had conducted the first performance of Piano Concerto No. 1 with the composer as the soloist, and, over twenty years later, recorded Violin Concerto No. 2 with Yehudi Menuhin, and there exist concert-recordings of Furtwängler conducting Ravel and Stravinsky.
Beginning this selection of recordings made by Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic between 1929 and 1937 is an account of Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto that is light-years away from the sort of ‘historically informed’ account that has become more the norm for us. With quite a large string section sporting ‘inauthentic’ vibrato – but with no harpsichord continuo (not one that is audible anyway) – Furtwängler and his players give a deliberate tread to the first movement that might now be considered ponderous and heavy-handed. Is it invalid? Well, not if one is attracted by the attention to rhythm, expression and light and shade that this account elicits, albeit within something of performance straitjacket. The finale – Furtwängler eschews a transition to replace the supposedly lost second movement – is lighter on its feet and yields more sparkle. The Air, sometimes reduced to a titular G string, could today be regarded as funereally slow and ultra- Romantic, a world-away from anything that Bach himself could have imagined; yet is it not also eloquent and deeply-felt, and does not the music itself stand up remarkably well to the sort of personal testimony that Furtwängler gives it?
The two Mozart opera overtures, both here exuding a real sense of theatre, include a dashing one to Le nozze di Figaro, built from the bass line and decorously detailed, with something saved until the end to give a ‘kick’ to the finishing post, and a particularly spirited version of the overture that launches Die Entführung aus dem Serail, the ‘Turkish’ percussion touched in rather than dominating and with the overture’s middle section, typically, made lyrically affecting. With the ever-popular Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Furtwängler returns to a relaxed approach, caressing the melodies, allowing rhythms to stand proud and making effective use of dynamic contrasts. With exposition repeats not observed in the outer movements, this four-movement serenade could be over in a flash, but Furtwängler brings significance to every bar; therefore there is much for the listener to concentrate on.
Such a malleable approach – note the divisions brought forward in the second movement Romanze – is one of Furtwängler’s hallmarks, which tends to distinguish him from Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957); the two conductors often referred to as each other’s antithesis, the Italian musician with an immaculate technique and dedicated to the published score (although who can also be heard as dispensing ruthless and unimaginative performances) and Furtwängler with a maybe deliberate vagueness of gesture that helped create music as being something fluid and, conversely, not organic enough over a large span, such was his tendency to fluctuate the pulse. Furtwängler’s musicmaking was more a force of nature than a literal realisation of what was printed on the page. Yet both men have enough dedicated, die-hard followers for much heated discussion to ensue, while others will take the best qualities of either conductor and also recognise their failings.
Closing this release are three excerpts from the incidental music that Schubert composed for Rosamunde, the overture in fact being for Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp). This extended piece is especially weighty in Furtwängler’s hands; he moulds the music into shape, as a potter might a vase, introducing a fizz to the allegro sections and building climaxes in emotional increments that come from within rather than being imposed. The B flat Entr’acte is heard as if from the Elysian Fields, tenderly and warmly expressed, giving the impression of being extemporised, the woodwind-led sections offering a bucolic contrast. The G major Ballet Music is puckish and witty, Furtwängler not tinkering with direction in the way that some others conductors do. With the nifty point shown here, this is indeed very danceable music.
Leading up to the years of World War II, and during that conflict, Furtwängler, because he remained in Germany, while other prominent musicians went into exile, was branded a Nazi, or certainly a member of the Nazi Party. Although after the war he was cleared of such associations, such a stigma dogged his career for quite some time. As mentioned earlier, Menuhin, a Jew, worked with Furtwängler in the conductor’s last years, although before the war he had refused to do so. Furtwängler explained his actions thus: ‘I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis. I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like’.
The sources for the transfers on this CD were original German Grammophon or Polydor shellac pressings except for the Rosamunde Overture, which was only released on 78 rpm discs in the USA and which here was taken from a laminated Brunswick edition. Because the original recording ledgers no longer exist, exact dates are not known for some of the sides. Those given here are from Michael Gray’s discographic research, which he compiled from orchestral archives and other such sources. The matrix numbers and suffixes are shown exactly as they appear on the discs, with all the variants in capitalization, etc. left intact.
A word is in order about the 1929 version of the Rosamunde Entr’acte (matrix 862 bi I), not included on this disc. Although it appears in Furtwängler discographies, there is no evidence that it was ever released, and those LP and CD reissues claiming to contain this earlier version are all believed to derive from the more commonly found version on matrix 1102 bi I.
GREAT CONDUCTORS • WILHELM FURTWÄNGLER
The Early Recordings, Vol. 1
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048
Recorded in 1930
Matrices: 1104 BI I, 1105 1/2 BI I and 1106 3/4 bi 1
First issued on Grammophon 95417 and 95418
Johann Sebastian BACH: Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068
Recorded 13 June, 1929
Matrix: 860 Bi I • First issued on Grammophon 66926
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492
Recorded November, 1933
Matrix: 737 BE I • First issued on Grammophon 35013
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART: Die Entführung aus dem Serail, K. 384
Recorded November, 1933
Matrix: 738 1/2 BE I • First issued on Grammophon 35013
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART: Serenade No. 13 in G major, K. 525, ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’
Recorded 28 December, 1936 and June, 1937
Matrices: 781 1/2 GE 1, 679 1/2 GS 1, 680 1/2 GS 1, 691 1/2 GS 1 and 785 1/2 GE 1
First issued on Grammophon 67156 through 67158
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828): Rosamunde – Incidental Music, D.797
Recorded in 1930 (Tracks 10 and 11) and 13 June, 1929 (Track 12)
Matrices: 1091 BI I and 1092 BI I (Track 10), 1102 1/2 Bi 1 (Track 11) and 861 Bi (Track 12)
First issued on Brunswick 90147 (Track 10) and Grammophon 95458 (Tracks 11 and 12)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra • Wilhelm Furtwängler
All recordings made in the Hochschule für Musik, Berlin
Special thanks to Richard A. Kaplan for providing source material for this release