A musical journey against the odds

March 19, 2011

Wilhelm Furtwaengler — The Great EMI Recordings
21 CD set, EMI
Furtwaengler the Legend
Three CD set, EMI

George Whitbread, a long-deceased left identity in Perth who once led a printer’s strike at The West Australian, was reputedly fond of saying that “Beethoven gives you strength”.

Nor was “Whitty” (as he was called) alone in his sentiments.

After World War II, many on the left — builders, grocers, teachers, homemakers — took an active interest in classical music.

This cultural climate had been fostered by an unprecedented upsurge in the availability and popularity of classical music during the war as the belligerent governments came to realise that Beethoven and Tchaikovsky were good for morale.

This is not to suggest that classical music was ever a majority taste anywhere in society.

Nevertheless, to judge by what the left listens to today, it has lost interest in classical music and joined the empire of noise in the form of highly-commercialised popular music.

Some may find a reflection of the anger they feel in today’s popular music. But for an expression of anger in music, just listen to the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Here is the sound of a true revolutionary, a man who demanded equality of treatment with the aristocrats who employed him, a supporter of the French revolution and an admirer of Napoleon — until he proclaimed himself emperor.

Or try the composer’s miniature piano masterpiece “Rage Over a Lost Penny”.

But Beethoven wasn’t only an angry person. In his symphonies, we encounter nobility and heroism (no. 3, “Eroica”), deep affection (no. 4), a profound love of nature (no. 6, “Pastoral”), the joys of the dance (no. 7) and a celebration of human solidarity (no. 9, “Choral”).

His sole opera, Fidelio, tells of a political prisoner saved from death by his courageous and loving wife. This reminds us of two of the composer’s lifelong preoccupations — human liberation and the quest (in his case unsuccessful) for the ideal mate.

These themes are universal, valid in all places at all times. For this reason, Beethoven’s music can’t be pigeonholed as elitist, Germanic or of the 19th century alone.

These and other Beethoven works form a cornerstone of a CD set issued in January to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the birth of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwaengler (1886-1954).

The collection features Furtwaengler conducting Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies and opera Fidelio; Brahms’ Four Symphonies; and Wagner’s music drama Tristan und Isolde.

It features various works by Bartok, Cherubini, Furtwaengler, Haydn, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert, Richard Strauss and Tchaikovsky. There is also the audio documentary Furtwaengler Remembered.

Described by The Oxford Dictionary of Music as one of the great masters of the art of conducting, Furtwaengler was appointed chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra when still in his mid-30s.

His frequently revealing performances were acclaimed throughout Europe. However, his later decision to remain in Germany during the Nazi regime earned him suspicion and criticism in the outside world, and an unofficial ban from working in the US.

After World War II, his career seemed to be finished when the occupation authorities refused, on political grounds, to allow him to work.

Eventually, a de-Nazification panel cleared him of all charges and in 1947 he returned to conducting.

I have not seen Furtwaengler’s politics precisely defined, but in view of the choices he made and his social origins in the intellectual elite (his father was a famous archaeologist), it is likely that he resided somewhere on the conservative-liberal spectrum of German politics.

In posterity, it is widely accepted that his staying in Germany during its worst days was motivated by a self-imposed duty to preserve the best of German culture in the face of barbarism.

He publicly defended the contemporary composer Paul Hindemith against Nazi attacks on his music and reportedly did his utmost to protect Jewish musicians.
After the war, the great US-born Jewish violinist Yehudi Menuhin (heard on the CD as a concerto soloist) willingly worked with him.

Furtwaengler’s art had its detractors.

They objected to his flexible tempos and disdain for precision and contrasted his “subjective” style unfavourably with the supposedly “objective” approach of the US-based Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini.

Toscanini’s unambiguous anti-fascism was also counter-posed to Furtwaengler’s seemingly more ambivalent stance.

Others (including many on the left) valued the German conductor’s spacious and humane performances, which they felt arose from deep humanitarian instincts that had nothing in common with the politics of the Third Reich.

Over the past half-century, these partisan controversies have greatly abated and, against the odds, Furtwaengler’s reputation has only grown.

Almost all the performances in this set date from 1947-54 and fall into two classes: EMI studio recordings (mostly made with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) and in-concert (or “live”) recordings.

Most of the studio recordings have good early high fidelity (not stereo) sound, but many of the live ones do not.

No doubt with accessibility and sound quality in mind, EMI has made its studio recordings the backbone of the set, supplementing them with live performances of certain works where studio performances are unsuitable or non-existent.

There is a widely held view that some of the Vienna studio performances are less inspired than the live ones. Still, the set contains at least seven or eight studio recordings which have long been regarded as benchmarks: Mozart’s 40th Symphony and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde particularly stand out.

The much-admired live Beethoven Ninth Symphony from the 1951 Bayreuth Festival is here, but the even finer 1954 Lucerne Festival performance would have been preferable.

The live Brahms First Symphony is thrilling and reasonably well recorded. Unfortunately, the live Beethoven Second and Eighth Symphonies — presumably the only versions available — lack serviceable sound.

But all the other performances are well worth hearing and many are stimulating.

The set concludes with an informative radio-style documentary with musical illustrations.

In spite of some variability, this musical journey from a long-vanished age must be regarded as unique and unrepeatable.

No one who has ever enjoyed a great melody is likely to regret accompanying the conductor on his odyssey.

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