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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS, J.: Symphony No. 2 / BRUCKNER, A.: Symphony No. 7: II. Adagio (Furtwangler, Commercial Recordings 1940-50, Vol. 7)
If the most notable trait of this 1948 recording of Brahms’ Second Symphony, Furtwängler’s only commercial recording of the work, is the extreme variance of tempo, the composer’s characteristically restless contrast of dynamism and lyricism is nevertheless placed firmly within a framework of the clearest realisation of form and symphonic development. The orchestra is audibly galvanised by Furtwängler’s interpretative flexibility, which courses at white heat throughout the work. Another considerable asset is the recording quality achieved by the engineers in one of the most sought-after venues for orchestral music in England, Kingsway Hall in London. The wartime Telefunken recording of the second movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony is also Furtwängler’s only commercial recording of the composer’s music.
By David Denton
Having been cleared of his involvement in the Nazi regime, Wilhelm Furtwangler came to London to conduct a series of concerts and recordings, including his only studio version of the Brahms Second Symphony. It was made by Decca in their new-found venue of acoustic excellence at the Kingsway Hall. They had on hand the London Philharmonic, not at the time enjoying much critical acclaim, though they do appear to have been given a new lease of life by Furtwangler. The downside was the conductor at his most egocentric, tempos pulled all over the place, phrases moulded in a purely personal mode, and the basic speeds tending towards the leisurely. I suppose it should have been committed to the waste bin, but Decca were not so well endowed with conductors in the mid 1940’s as to miss out on a famous name. Now in their usual bent towards completeness, Naxos issue it as part of their Furtwangler series, and I must admit I have enjoyed moments more than I expected, though the LPO were in poor shape. The disc is completed with the slow movement from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the very recording broadcast by German radio after the announcement of Hitler’s suicide. It was the only official Bruckner recording Furtwangler made, the Berlin Philharmonic sounding in even worse shape than the LPO. As a document it may be important to Furtwangler fans.
Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954)
Commercial Recordings 1940-1950, Volume 7
This particular Furtwängler recording of Brahms’s Second Symphony has long had a reputation as one of his more eccentric readings. This symphony was the last work he had conducted with the Vienna Philharmonic in January 1945 before finally fleeing to Switzerland, when he was advised his own personal safety and that of his family were under threat amidst the turmoil of the last months of the war in Europe. It was also in the programme of the first concert that he conducted after the cessation of hostilities. This was at the invitation of the cellist Enrico Mainardi, a staunch friend, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra of Rome and the Teatro Comunale Orchestra of Florence. Although still not cleared by the Allied Tribunal investigating his activities in Hitler’s regime in Germany, their powers did not extend to Italy at the time. Furtwängler accepted the Italian invitation and went to Rome to conduct on 6 April 1947 the concert, which also featured Beethoven’s Leonora Overture No. 3 and Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony.
The publicity surrounding the event forced the issue of the artistic limbo in which Furtwängler continued to be restricted and he was formally cleared of criminal collaboration almost two years to the day after the German surrender. He gave his first post-war concert with the Berlin Philharmonic on 25 May 1947, a triumphant and affirmative all-Beethoven programme in the Titania Palast, a huge cinema that had escaped destruction in the bombing. Apart from brief visits to Stockholm and Paris, much of Furtwängler’s immediate post-war conducting took place within his immediate comfort zone of German, Austrian and Swiss cities, but in February 1948 he returned to England to conduct eleven concerts with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as this studio recording of the Brahms symphony. Despite the wealth of live off-air broadcast and concert performances now available of the work, this is his only commercial recording of the Second Symphony.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra was going through one of its periods in the doldrums at the time. Having been founded by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1932, the orchestra was left rather rudderless throughout the war, after Beecham’s resignation in 1940, and it was only in 1948 that the celebrated Dutch conductor Eduard van Beinum was invited to become principal conductor, a relationship that did not endure for long. Although clearly not in the same league as either the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics of the time, the orchestra is audibly galvanised by Furtwängler and his view of the work, even if the sense of deep-rooted performance tradition and executive polish is less honed than on mainland Europe. Another considerable asset is the recording quality achieved by Decca engineers in what later became one of their signature venues, the Kingsway Hall in London.
So what of the reputation for eccentricity this performance has accrued over the years? Now that so many live broadcasts have become available, comparisons reveal much the same as in other works where we now have the advantage of access to multiple Furtwängler interpretations. Perhaps the most notable trait of the LPO recording is the extreme variances of tempo deployed throughout the work. When passions are rising, especially in the first two movements, an accelerando is sustained akin to the accelerator eventually reaching the floor before a sudden release when tensions cool. This could be heard merely as a crude trick, much the same as unsympathetic conductors perpetrated to overheat superficially the music of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. But Furtwängler places the composer’s characteristically restless contrast of dynamism and lyricism firmly within the framework of the clearest realisation of form and symphonic development. It may not be spelled out in the written instructions Brahms chose to append to the actual notes in his score, but it allows interpretative flexibility and the illusion of spontaneity to course at white heat through the work in Furtwängler’s hands. Listening comparatively to him in several versions, these perceived extremes may vary to a degree, but they are consistently present both as a structural and emotional template.
Some other common points of note – in the second movement, the baleful trombones in the brief transition leading to the restatements of the main theme are always characterised by a strong nuance of glissando and in the finale, there is a consistently marked differentiation in tempo between the pianissimo opening and the fiery outburst that follows, just as the ensuing accelerando through the main material is relentlessly increased through to the sequence of Scottish snaps which closes the opening section.
The added wilfulness, even wildness of this particular Brahms Second Symphony may have readily stemmed from a combination of conducting a favourite work with an unfamiliar orchestra in a recently hostile environment and, having been banned from conducting, devoting much time to the composition of his own Second Symphony (Marco Polo 8.223436). In this work, Furtwängler continued to grapple with the search for order out of chaos in a style rooted in the language of his beloved Brahms and Bruckner, but transformed by his own distinctly late-Romantic vocabulary more influenced by Richard Strauss and Mahler. Here it becomes abundantly clear that Furtwängler saw himself as an inheritor, guardian and perpetuator of his mentors’ musical traditions. Like Brahms’s Second Symphony and Bruckner’s Eighth, his own Second ends in a blazing triumph of the will, sharing finales preceded by voiceless songs of very much the same earth.
The wartime Telefunken recording of the second movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony is also Furtwängler’s only commercial recording of the composer’s music. Why was just this movement recorded? The length of the complete work may have been prohibitive in terms of cost and practicality, especially within the Germany economic framework of 1942. It was also probably the composer’s most celebrated single movement in the country at the time, and known to be particularly admired by Hitler. It was this particular recording that was broadcast on German radio after the announcement of the Führer’s death in 1945. In comparison with live and complete post-war Bruckner 7s, Furtwängler’s performance here has an uncharacteristically dour and understated quality to it. Did he know to what use the recording might be put? Some presentiment at least would not be surprising, which may account for the unusually sombre tone. The funeral music certainly does not ring heroically true with the composer’s avowed homage to Wagner. This Brucknerian soil is tilled with a bleak desolation much more representative of its recording date than of 1883.
GREAT CONDUCTORS • WILHELM FURTWÄNGLER
Commercial recordings 1940-1950 • Volume 7
Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73 41:19
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 22 - 25 March 1948, Kingsway Hall, London
Matrices: AR12879/88; cat. Decca K1875/79
Symphony No. 7 in E major
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 1 April 1942, Berlin Philharmonie
Matrices: 026378/83: cat. Telefunken SK3230/32
Special thanks to J. Neil Forster
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