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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphony No. 5 / Egmont Overture / WEBER, C.M. von: Der Freischutz Overture (Furtwangler, Early Recordings, Vol. 2) (1926-1935)
Volume 2 of the Naxos edition of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s pre-1940s recordings begins with a weighty account of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture followed by a galvanizing performance of the Symphony No. 5, Furtwängler’s first recording of the work. This is presented complete for the first time: a few bars of music went unrecorded during the transition from the first to the second side of the third movement and are replaced here by the inclusion of the corresponding bars from Furtwängler’s 1937 remake with the same orchestra. In the Overture to Weber’s Der Freischütz, Furtwängler’s volatile and ‘free’ conducting is remarkably convincing.
By David Denton
It was hearing the music of Beethoven that proved to be the driving force behind Wilhelm Furtwangler’s desire to become a musician. Born in Berlin in 1886, he was initially trained as a pianist, but become the most internationally famous German conductor in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1920’s he was appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus and Berlin Philharmonic orchestras, and it was mainly through his many recordings with the BPO that his name was transmitted around the world. His reputation tarnished in the Second World War by his compliance with the Nazi Party, but he was eventually rehabilitated and went on to make a number of well-recorded performances of his Beethoven interpretations. The thought that his expansive approach came in later life is blown away by the snail’s pace opening to the 1933 recording of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, though the concluding part does generate the necessary impact that transfers through to his first recording of the Fifth Symphony from 1926. The sound is very dry and causes rather abrupt musical punctuations, but while the sound is very basic, it is well balanced. That he could also have a waspish turn of speed comes in a virile reading of Weber’s Overture to Der Freischutz. He could have a sense of fun as shown in the two Rossini overtures, the express speed for the close to La gazza ladra displaying the quality of the Berlin violins in 1930. The speed with which recording technique improved is evidenced by the passable sound of the 1935 version of Il barbiere di Siviglia, so clear that you can picture the panic among the inner voices when faced with his express tempos.
Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)
The Early Recordings, Vol. 2 • Beethoven • Weber • Rossini
Gustav Heinrich Ernst Martin Wilhelm Furtwängler was born in Berlin on 25 January 1886 and died in Baden-Baden on 30th 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.
Indeed, 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, he 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 of Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven 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 he 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 1926 and 1935 is Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, part of the composer’s incidental music to Goethe’s drama concerning Egmont the Flemish aristocrat who defied Philip of Spain (although such resistance only resulted in execution). Furtwängler’s approach to the slow introduction is both weighty and exploratory; when the main Allegro arrives it bursts onto the scene with a welltimed acceleration that leads to a thrilling impetus which is intensively and incisively maintained, with something saved in reserve for the conquering final bars.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 follows, the coearliest recording here, having been made in October 1926. Victory is a significant word to use for this symphony; it is a ‘darkness to light’ work – C minor to C major (a trajectory that Brahms would follow in his long-delayed Symphony No. 1) – its world-famous opening motto something of a symbol for war and the vanquishing of oppressors: most of the world against the Nazi period of Germany’s history. Not that Beethoven would have had this in mind (nor necessarily Furtwängler in 1926) even though one can ponder what the composer’s machinations were during its composition, yet still be in awe of his powerful musical concentration of the first movement. Here Furtwängler, both measured in tempo but with galvanising thrust, dispenses with the repeat of the first movement’s exposition, which can be argued as concentrating further the movement to advantage or diminishing its scale, especially given the length (nearly double in terms of minutes) of the succeeding Andante con moto, a tempo-marking that Furtwängler ignores completely in favour of a lingering Adagio in a which a march-like tread is probably less discernible than Beethoven intended; that said, Furtwängler’s sensitivity to expressive lines gives the movement a lamenting quality that further emphasises the darkness of the work thus far. Stoicism is also Furtwängler’s way with the Scherzo, quite dogged, nothing taking for granted, en route to a mysterious and shadowy bridge passage – some of the quietest-played instruments only just picked-up by the microphones – an ‘escape’ into the triumphant finale in which Furtwängler’s initial breadth becomes a little quicker, and then quicker again, but with an organic sense of line remaining and a natural entwining of direct emotional engagement with the music. This account from 1926 is not the only example of Furtwängler conducting Beethoven’s Fifth. He made a celebrated Berlin recording of it in 1937 for HMV (a few bars of which have been used to patch the current performance, as Mark Obert-Thorn explains in this presentation) and there also exists a Berlin concert performance from 1943, given under war-time conditions (the music maybe taking on its greatest significance at such a juncture), as well as a Vienna account from 1950.
On the same day, 16 October, 1926, as some of the current Beethoven symphony was set down, Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic also recorded the overture to Der Freischütz, Weber’s ‘magic’ opera completed in 1821 and first heard in Berlin that year and quickly followed by productions in London (1824) and New York (1825). Furtwängler’s volatile and ‘free’ conducting is remarkably convincing and enacts the story-line to come and completely avoids any sense of ‘bar-line’ dogma.
The elegant, sly and humorous music of Rossini may not seem a likely choice for Furtwängler to conduct; and, indeed, the overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) does seem rather portentous and lacking in sparkle, if respectful and taken seriously, but lacking affection and a light touch. From five years later, in 1935, the overture The Barber of Seville is rather more silken and buoyant, if not as al fresco as the music can seem, and, in the faster music, rather spikier than the norm: an interesting if not definitive view of the music. One imagines the record company asking Furtwängler to record the music and him duly obliging not so much as a Rossinian but as a professional.
Leading up to the years of World War II, and during that conflict, Furtwängler, because he remained in Germany (other prominent musicians went into exile), was branded a Nazi (or certainly a member of the Nazi Party). Although, post-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. Pre-war, though, 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 present transfers were German Grammophon and Polydor shellac 78 rpm pressings. A few bars of music went unrecorded during the transition from the first to the second side of the third movement of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. The sides were taken down at different sessions, and both the engineer and conductor apparently forgot where the previous side had left off. I have filled in this gap (Track 4, 3:34 – 3:47) by cloning some surface noise from the 1926 recording and combining it with the corresponding bars from Furtwängler’s 1937 EMI remake with the same orchestra, thus presenting this performance complete for the first time.
GREAT CONDUCTORS • WILHELM FURTWÄNGLER 8.111003
The Early Recordings, Vol. 2
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827): Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
I Allegro con brio
II Andante con moto
Recorded 16 and 30 October, 1926 in Berlin
Matrices: 174 bm, 175 bm, 216 bm, 217 bm, 218 bm, 179 bm, 330 1/2 bm, 214 bm and 215 bm
First issued on Grammophon 69855 through 69859
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826): Der Freischütz – Overture
Recorded 16 October, 1926 in Berlin
Matrices: 172 bm and 173 bm
First issued on Grammophon 66466
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868): La gazza ladra – Overture
Recorded in 1930 in the Hochschule für Musik, Berlin
Matrices: 1108 1/2 bi I and 1109 1/2 bi I
First issued on Grammophon 95427
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868): Il barbiere di Siviglia – Overture
Recorded May, 1935 in the Hochschule für Musik, Berlin
Matrices: 526 1/2 gs and 527 1/2 gs
First issued on Grammophon 35028
Special thanks to Donald R. Hodgman and Don Tait
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BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphony No. 5 / Egmont Overtur...