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ClassicsOnline Home » WAGNER, R.: Opera excerpts / STRAUSS, R.: Till Eulenspiegel / BRAHMS, J.: Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 10 (Furtwangler, Early Recordings, Vol. 4)(1930-36)
This fourth volume of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s early recordings features music by composers who were closely associated with the renowned conductor. These
distinguished recordings include seamless and intensely wrought interpretations of evergreen favourites from Wagner’s Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde
and Götterdämmerung, the accomplishment of a musician who knew the music-dramas as a whole. The graphic and lovingly turned account of Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks benefits from a remarkably vivid 1930 recording which belies its age.
By Rob Cowan
Great Conductors: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954)
The Early Recordings, Vol. 4 • Wagner • Brahms • J. Strauss II • R. Strauss
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 and 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 1907 in his first concert, 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 the Philharmonia Orchestra in 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.
This fourth volume of Furtwängler’s early recordings begins with music by Richard Wagner, selections from three of his operas, a composer closely associated with Furtwängler, and continues with music by Brahms, Johann Strauss (the second) and Richard Strauss, all composers being associated, to a greater or lesser extent, with this conductor. Not that
Furtwängler’s repertoire was limited to the Austro-German classics, for he conducted the premières of, for example, Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler, in
1934, and Schoenberg’s masterly if then ‘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 the Violin Concerto
No. 2 with Yehudi Menuhin. There are also in circulation concert-recordings of Furtwängler conducting Ravel and Stravinsky, and also pieces by his German composer contemporaries such as Hans Pfitzner and Wolfgang Fortner.
Beginning this selection of recordings made by Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic between 1930 and 1936 is the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin,
a solemn if radiant traversal, its spiritual journey to and away from the brass-laden climax undimmed by the limited recording technology of the day and the many decades that have passed since it was made. With Tristan und Isolde we enter very different territory, Wagner’s forward-looking musical thinking for this boundary-breaking and influential music-drama. Later in Furtwängler’s career, during a two-week period in June 1952 in Kingsway Hall, London, he would make a celebrated recording of the complete opera for HMV (EMI) with the Philharmonia Orchestra and a cast including Suthaus (Tristan), Flagstad (Isolde), Schock, Greindl and Fischer-Dieskau.
In 1930 Furtwängler had set down the Prelude and Liebestod, effectively the bookends of the opera, a stitching together that was probably effected by Engelbert Humperdinck, an assistant to Wagner and a fine composer in his own right, not least in his popular opera Hänsel und Gretel. Furtwängler’s conception of Tristan und Isolde’s beginning and end is seamless and intensely wrought, the accomplishment of a musician who knew the music-drama as a whole. From three years later, in terms of Furtwängler’s discography, the opening of Siegfried’s Funeral Music, from Act III of Götterdämmerung, the last opera of the tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, finds the opening timpani strokes as quietly baleful; the expressive burden is palpable and finds outlet in the nobly uplifting climaxes, the hero borne aloft.
To lighter fare now and two of the three (of 21) Hungarian Dances that Brahms himself orchestrated from the original versions for piano/four hands. In the first of them, Hungarian Dance No. 1, which is music often mauled by conductors, pulling it one way, then the other, Furtwängler allows some fluctuation but without obvious contrivance, the music’s frisky energy and alluring melody given with improvisatory abandon. Hungarian Dance No. 10 is more sectionalised by Furtwängler; heavily underlined at the opening and developing into a heady mixture of controlled inebriation.
The most recent recording of this selection is from 1936. The Overture to Johann Strauss II’s frothy operetta Die Fledermaus finds Furtwängler in rather serious mood. There is a lack of wit and sparkle if no lack of musical care, yet the spontaneity this music needs is missing. Not so in the final selection, from another Strauss (Richard, born in Munich, was not a member of the Austrian dynasty of composers), one of his most-brilliant orchestral showpieces, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, a fifteen-minute scherzo that takes us through Till’s various adventures until he is captured and hanged. Through a remarkably vivid recording from 1930 (particularly so given the large and colourful orchestral forces that Strauss calls for and his scoring’s dynamic range), Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with no editing possible in those days, give a rambunctious, graphic and lovingly turned account, quite teasing at times, and also with dramatic increases in pace (not least leading to the point of Till’s execution), of this concise yet eventful masterpiece. Eighty years on, there’s a relish here of Strauss’s music that still thrills.
The inclusion in this collection of music by Richard Wagner, and these particular recordings’ provenance, from the Berlin of the early 1930s, perhaps recalls the connection between Wagner’s music and Adolf Hitler’s fondness for it, and the political and tarnishing connections that have since been applied. 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, this stigma dogged his career for some time. (The afore-mentioned Yehudi 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.’
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