WILHELM FURTWAENGLER

1886-1954

Time to convene a chorus of musicians-critics-foreign correspondents to salute with their authoritative passion the art of Wilhelm Furtwaengler, an art which in its long heyday mostly in Berlin and Vienna magnetized believers (many) and non-believers (almost as many). The pianist Paul Badura-Skoda writes of the “blooming and streaming richness” in his musicmaking; violinist-guru Yehudi Menuhin recalls, as listener and co-performer, an overwhelming impression of “vast pulsating space.” Neville Cardus of The Guardian bows before “his penetration into the germ cell, the blood stream, the nervous system, and the brain center of Tristan and Parsifal [which] was absolute and consummate.” Pablo Casals the cellist, conductor and humanitarian salutes Furtwaengler’s impatience with “traditions” and “sclerotic schools.” And from the pianist Edwin Fischer pour goblets of poetry: Furtwaengler was “a figure from Gothic sculpture, as seen in his resemblance to the statue of the Knight in Bamberg Cathedral . . . [he was] restless, impulsive, self-torturing, rarely content, and shook at the gates of heaven and hell.” Gothic or not, Furtwaengler had, as the critic Geoffrey Sharp delights in telling us, “mannerisms in plenty; the occasional obdurate rhythmical puffings like a model steam locomotive getting under way; the intense, almost fanatical vertical shaking of the head; and, in calmer moments, the curious practice of hanging his left hand out to dry – almost as if it were no longer a part of him.” Sharp is quick to point out these quirks constituted merely the front window as it were of “a treasure house” of human experience which, in music that interested him, “he illuminated in varying perspectives according to his lights, which could be very searching.”

No one has put it better than Josef Krips, a conductor whose angelic, dancing style did not immediately call to mind the great Furtwaengler: “He knew about the eternal line in a great piece: when he started the first bar, in his mind he was already in the last. The music came from eternity and went back there.” Also: “He hated rough accents where they were not especially indicated: this caused his [deliberately somewhat fuzzy] way of downbeat, which was difficult for musicians who didn’t know him.” Krips doesn’t mention the preliminary “stabs” before launching Beethoven’s Fifth which, to critic Sharp, seemed to be aimed at some predatory insect.

And the veteran newsman Louis Lochner remembers a Mozart Requiem conducted “ecstatically, as if in a trance.” Restless, streaming, blooming, searching, ecstatic, eternal – the adjectives applied to Furtwaengler’s vision sound positively Wagnerian, as if a stately Tristan and portly Isolde on loan from their great love were reviewing his concerts in their not un-purpled libretto-ese. Ah, the vision, it was inimitable. But it inspired: between writing these paragraphs I chanced to watch the 2006 DVD of Lohengrin conducted by Kent Nagano in Baden Baden and there it was, I instantly felt, in the unusually slow and rich unfolding of the second act’s murky opening page, the spirit of Furtwaengler. What a hoverer he remains over today’s musicians, and record collectors of course, this architect of long lines, connoisseur of transitions, an inspired manufacturer of a magic glue that binds performances in endless tissues of poetry.  Here is, par excellence, the maestro of great tempo systems, evolving successions of huge accelerandi and decelerandi produced as if by the easing this way and that of some mood-sensitive rheostat. Furtwaengler is the conductor who with his love of stately animations, panoramic erasures, those handsomely crafted transit zones, will maneuver us into sightings, suspensions, incredible destinations out of which, give him a little time, he will proceed grandly, gracefully, with a certain tremble, to more passages read in metaphoric capitals.

Time to quote that wise and witty maestro Sir Adrian Boult: “I am inclined,” he writes, “to think it was this tension, this uncertainty [of that mysterious beat] that contributed a great deal to the magnetic power and warmth of the tone quality that came from Furtwaengler’s performances. If an orchestra doesn’t know quite where it is, it plays with a certain intensity that contributes enormously to the vitality of the performance [author’s italics].”  Sir Adrian grants that it “seemed a miracle” the players did come in together. “Furtwaengler’s concentration had chosen for them.”

But all that odd genius of communication didn’t interest the Nazis. This, we repeat, is not a book about politics, but just about everybody who’s heard of Furtwaengler knows that he remained in Germany during the Nazi period when he was, according to popular U.S./U.K. sentiment, supposed to follow the also-Aryan Erich Kleiber’s example and move to Buenos Aires and Havana or some interpretorial Timbuktu where, speaking in a better or worse Spanish, English or whatever newfound patois, he would guide new orchestras other than his beloved Berlin Philharmonic — in whose affairs the cynical and capricious Nazis were maddeningly meddling, leading him in fact to resign for a while in the mid-Thirties. He should take his Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven and Bruckner with him – by the way, he also liked Hemingway and read Jane Austen — in his perhaps hastily-packed bag, he should not have against that loathsome regime he detested the best revenge of keeping the sane fires of a great culture burning in its midst.

Furtwaengler, before and after he saw that his theory the Nazis were a passing phenomenon was unfortunately incorrect, felt it his sacred duty to oppose the Nazis from within, help their victims on scene. And then too, the bad guys who with total accuracy distrusted him, this crazy conductor who would defend Jewish musicians and root for a staging of Hindemith’s impossible new Mathis der Maler, well sir, they held over him the possibility of imprisoning his mother. But most of all, thought Yehudi Menuhin, that embracer of the blessed art of reconciliation, Furtwaengler felt expatriation imperiled somehow his very identity.

So Furtwaengler soldiered on in Berlin, where he’d come from Mannheim, still a dark podium horse, back in 1922, feeling terribly isolated but making great music. Probably he kept some anti-Nazis sane. Then in ‘38 when the Nazis ordered the dissolution of his scarcely less beloved Vienna Philharmonic (“I’m married to the Berliners, but you Viennese are my darling sweetheart”) he managed to move a mountain or two in this eastern satellite and the gemuetlich Philharmoniker was saved, many wartime documents of its sonically site-specific musicmaking surviving for our turntables and CD players. Now Furtwaengler’s wartime Berlin broadcasts tend to have a crazy intensity, a great musical Importance. But the toll of what Ernest Ansermet called his “constant struggle with the Nazi leaders” – I like also Sir Thomas Beecham’s phrase “he protected the weak and assisted the helpless” — took its toll, as did an unnecessarily long de-Nazification process after the war.

And then Furtwaengler died too young, at 68, just before a tour to the America where many insufficiently informed and absolutely unforgiving foes lay in wait. His luck in the U.S. had never been particularly good except with record collectors. A promised lengthy reengagement after his New York Philharmonic debut in the Twenties proved a mirage, and an invitation to succeed Toscanini as music director of the Philharmonic in 1936-37 backfired in the face of Jewish opposition. There was also the flap heard ‘round the world a decade later when a flock of musicians, Menuhin prominently not among them, threw barrels of cold water on the idea of a big guest engagement with the Chicago Symphony.

But enough of such history. That poetical Nagano Lohengrin shoots us back to Bayreuth summer of ’36 for broadcast snippets from an awesome Furtwaengler performance of Wagner’s opera. We join at the beginning of the third act, the prelude registering an unusual amplitude while moving forward with a 10-out-of-10 intensity, even the delicate midsection sounding rather possessed. The Bridal Chorus, with bubbling harps, is nothing less than exalted: the D major of the eight ladies midway calls to mind an INVOCATION, then the celebrated “Here comes the you-know-what” returns on a roll, an oceanic wave – this before a very slow and dreamy start to the love duet which is more faithful than some to Wagner’s urgent request for molto tranquillo, that of course being a state of mind as well as tempo, a challenge conductors must sort out. Much, alas, is missing from here on, but the fanfare-rich assembling of the vassals has been saved for a gasping posterity: the giant sweep of the performance at this point is extraordinary, we are lifted out of our sofas-and-chairs metaphorically and then some. Of course Neville Cardus used to say that Furtwaengler sought to go into an orchestra and “stir up sleeping fires.” Here is The Art of Galvanization on vivid display.

But Furtwaenglerites know about his Wagner. Listen for a moment to the astute pianist Claudio Arrau who went on record saying that Furtwaengler’s Debussy was the best of that composer’s orchestral music he’d ever heard. Exhibit “A” is surely the Berlin Philharmonic broadcast of Nuages from 5-1-51. Coming on as it does doleful, hopeless and blank, with a certain bone-teasing chill, this Berliner cloudscape steers nimbly to the “voice” of the wispy-washy heroine of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande — have we said it before, the creative wires of Nuages and Pelléas were fated to get crossed in Debussy’s workroom. Furtwaengler’s interpretive aids are a very delicate but not unfirm touch, great dynamic care, inflection that establishes a personality. Well, the novelist Julian Barnes has it right: the sky “can be a theater of possibilities.” Shadings of tempo and dynamics are subtle but very telling, the slight retreat in speed and volume for instance when the initial wigwag of the winds returns in violins halfway between rehearsal numbers 1 and 2 – with, one might add, no such changes spelled out in the score. The launch of that grotto grope of chromatically rising clarinets in octaves four bars after 3, dark stuff this, over a wonderful suspension-laced meander in the strings, is another cue for Furtwaengler to intensify his performance with a small pay-attention weight on the tempo.

The succeeding Fetes betrays, perhaps, a certain tendency on Furtwaengler’s part to evade simplicity, he applies a peppery layer of anguish to a scene generally considered to be quite jolly indeed – it’s picnic time in the Bois de Boulogne, a scherzo bucolique, n’est-ce-pas? But his not uncharacteristic gravitas might be defended as echoing somewhat the tone of his Nuages. Unarguable, meanwhile, is the swing with which Furtwaengler conducts that proto-Bolero of a procession midway.

From Debussy a small distance to Ravel! Furtwaengler’s Rhapsodie Espagnole with the RAI Orchestra of Torino (3-3-52) steps immediately into espressivity’s deep end: the nocturnal prelude beginning the piece is indolent, obsessive, pleading. More clouds here of course: find them in the near-endless dee-dah-duh-dah scales of one orchestral department then another moving like ants over your patio floor then disappearing. The salubrious perfumes-of-the-night we frequently inhale in this prelude are under wraps and by the time Furtwaengler reaches the noodle-doodles of  back-alley bassoons against crickety violin trills — this is ten bars before the movement’s end — the music is sounding quite loony indeed, capturing perhaps some substantial wee-hours depravity. And Ravel, I suspect, would approve.

Now do we spy in this conducting a tendency toward an “irrational factor” such as Vargas Llosa seems to unearth in his sympathetic study of Flaubert. Deliberate irrationality, of course! Next the Malaguena, a dance from Malaga, and Furtwaengler divides his listeners into two camps, those who will and those who will not accept a more malevolent than “Malaga-esque” approach. At a tempo more like 136 than Ravel’s 176 beats to the minute the familiar charm and fire give way to a dangerous edge, a heart of darkness. We seem like V.S. Pritchett in the threadbare Madrid of Enrique Arbos to be passing many mournful people in the street all in black.

And Furtwaengler is exactly on Ravel’s prescribed tempo in the Rhapsodie’s finale.

The easy living of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, we’re talking the suite of excerpts opening with a three-star Daybreak, might not seem natural stuff for so high-minded and provocative a musician as Furwaengler. But then again, he’s the expert in streaming and blooming sounds, much in demand in this music. The fact is Furtwaengler’s Daphnis broadcast from Berlin 3-21-44, not exactly an easy time in that bunkering-down city – one can’t help noticing the persistent obbligato of late winter coughs — is totally idiomatic, a passionate and transparent performance launched with a serenity worthy of Olympus. But hark, why is the prolonged fortissimo at Daybreak’s end so tenacious, biting, blinding? Always a tossup to read current affairs into a nuance, but is this amazing blare simply a reflection of Furtwaengler’s taste for BIG and INTENSE, or is it an Edvard Munchian SCREAM hatched from the baton of a conductor who has had enough, enough, Enough of the Third Reich?

If Debussy and Ravel are not composers Furtwaengler’s record company keepers were desperate to record him in, Stravinsky and Bartok were not much favored either. But as the twentieth century unfolded Furtwaengler the Beethovenian and Brucknerian kept abreast of new musical developments. One of the best-known photographs of the master has him watching intently over the shoulder of a solemn Igor Stravinsky at the Bechstein. The “live” Berlin performance of the divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss dated 5-18-53 couldn’t be more charming, with a warmth, flexibility and taste for mood-building (i.e. cozy ruminations in the first section) more akin to that of a Stravinskian like Michael Tilson Thomas than the composer-himself-as-conductor. One tends, rightly or wrongly, to be on the lookout for a certain “German” heaviness in Furtwaengler; I can’t say I noticed such the last time I listened to this springtime broadcast.

As for Bartok! The ‘53 recording of the Second Violin Concerto with Menuhin and the Philharmonia is desert-island stuff, not one note in a million unfelt. The fiercely rhythmic percussion in the jazzy vivace of the first movement development is enormously engaging, in the finale the tension is magnificent in the thirty second buildup to the waltzing reappearance of the shuffling main theme, and there are many other felicities. In short: this recording alone would secure Furtwaengler a fine reputation.

But hasten we must to repertoire for which Furtwaengler is generally known, Schubert’s Great C major Symphony, for instance, Schumann’s Fourth, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The 1950 Salzburg Festival broadcast of Mozart’s opera is full of marvels, beginning with the enormous chords launching the overture. Scary! And off the music goes, meandering through murky introductory regions with an almost manic grandeur. Taut and omnivorous it spills from the hi-fi, devouring the air around it. Mozart’s molto allegro comes on a tad slow, but molto energico. The finality of the timpani’s contribution is unquestionable, the whole orchestra is grabbing us by the scruff of our metaphorical necks. Alas, dear Don, the spirit of retribution is in the air.

Then as the curtain rises Furtwaengler in a twinkling brings his Wiener Philharmoniker down to dramma giocoso earth (that of course being the opera’s subtitle), setting a lighter tone for Leporello’s buffo screed — what a drag, he sings, to work for a 24-7 libertine! Minutes later with the ambiguous scuffle of the Don and his “victim” Donna Anna the conductor’s tempo is spacious, his grip, as if on the Don’s clutching hands, tenacious. And next, something amazing in the annals of interpretation. With Furtwaengler palpably extending the big fermata on which the Commendatore is run through and summoning from his orchestra a suspenseful pause, like this . . . . . . . the violins’ innocent arpeggio triplets succeeding such a momentous pileup of high dramatic tension (C major they might seem, only they’re morphing into the dominant of F minor) suggest nothing so much as the blood dribbling out of the poor man’s wound: duhdeedee/duhdeedee/duhdeedee. It took me years to stop looking for this effect in Fritz Busch’s very different and in its way very wonderful Don Giovanni from Glyndebourne.

The show continues. The orchestral sound has solidity, yes, but Leporello’s catalog song is playful galore, the chorus setting off the Zerlina scene all a-whirl. Then another lesson in interpretation, the possibilities of tempo! Tito Gobbi, Furtwaengler’s Don, leaves aside the snarl of an angry libido and woos Zerlina  (La ci darem la mano) in an oily-leisurely andante, following more or less the composer’s tempo prescription – which in any event Mozart would never have sought to lock into some moral velocic imperative. And then, get this, it’s a no-brainer actually: once this country girl is won over and the music vaults a double bar into the 6/8 of a seduction virtually achieved, Furtwaengler has Gobbi and the adorable Irmgard Seefried skipping off in a veritable allegretto not marked in the score. Only surely it captures their momentary joy only too well! It’s as if some production code had not yet gone into effect: think of how Astaire and Rodgers seem more irreverent in Flying Down to Rio than later on.

A case could be made that Furtwaengler has a soft spot for Zerlina’s music, or certainly the grazioso Mozart asked for in her pair of cuddly arias. Luminous indeed is Batti, batti o bel Masetto, the flock of violin trills just before the 6/8 suggesting merry birds in top chirp mode; Vedrai, carino is dreamy and long-lined, showing off the light cream of Seefried’s soprano to great advantage. But the Don himself is not shortchanged, hear Furtwaengler’s taste for delicacy in the enchanting plink of Deh vieni alla finestra. And then there’s Furtwaengler the ironist, the connoisseur of the loopy. In the first act finale there’s a place where three orchestras, one in the pit, two on stage, proclaim their every-band-for-itself in a mad horse race of three concurrent rhythms, 3/8, 2/4 and 3/4. No conductor has caught better the nagging sense that a tri-rhythmic tipsyness is about to run the music right off the rails. A landmark, this, in the annals of orchestral inebriation.

Schubert’s Great C major Symphony, ah what a wonderful working over Furtwaengler could give that maddening piece with which so many of us have a love-hate relationship. Tunes it has, energy, backbone, some indisputable moments, waiting of course for a sweet prince to soul-kiss them into excitement; but it reeks of obsessive rhythmic snap, picket fence repetitions of phrase, emotional objectivity. There’s certainly very little amour in it. And this is why Furtwaengler whenever he conducted the C major invoked in various sections and movements the same Plan A in which a seamless succession of gracefully reached tempos faster and slower than their predecessors was put into play, metaphorical hand ever close to that rheostat dial. The point, of course, to worm into the music the asymmetry Furtwaengler felt, rightly I think, was good for it.

The symphony’s introduction, a clever package of procession-evoking variations more and more drawn into the orbit of the ensuing allegro ma non troppo, could be its most dramatic bit. Trust Furtwaengler to push the envelope of this tempting episode and look no further than what is perhaps his greatest C major, the one with the Vienna Philharmonic caught “live” in Stockholm 5-12-43 – presumably in the wake of a long train trip VIENNA-DRESDEN-BERLIN-SASSNITZ-the MALMO ferry and on up to the capital, blackout curtains obscuring the countryside much of the way. The introduction here is characteristically slow (not the andante of the page) and quieter on the average than most, inflection worthy of a Debussyan sky aimed at capturing an inescapable sense of resignation. It’s almost a Marcia Funebre of the most somber sort. And such is the terrifying dolefulness here in safe old Stockholm with its sexy waterside statues and chocolate sauce in silver restaurant gravy boats that Furtwaengler’s customary brisk tempo for the succeeding allegro ma non troppo is achieved via a transition that sounds like an angry cavalry charge of his Philharmonic artillery, nothing less! The music has to break free of its despair. Helping, of course, are the insect triplet staccati of violins who begin their sneaky buzz about Schubert’s launch-pad theme at measure 61, this on the heels of crescendoing octave jumps in a pair of horns who seem to be standing on one foot then the other with an impatience worthy of urinary distress.

A Vienna Philharmonic broadcast of the C major from a decade later, 8-30-53 at the Salzburg Festival, is launched with a strangely disappointing introduction, thanks in part to “old boy” hornists seemingly unwilling to imbue the opening motto with anything remotely like the strong feelings registered at the magnetizing start of the ’43 version. With the ensuing allegro this performance proceeds through the usual arrangement of contrasting tempos aimed at de-squaring Schubert’s martial-rustic-ceremonial material – riproaring theme 1, slower theme 2, then an accel., then a mellow tempo for the great trombone scene with its big handsome notes, accel. again, etc. — but in a relatively uptight manner, until Furtwaengler has had enough of either his or his orchestra’s insufficiency (the Philharmoniker sounds at times like rather clumsy removal men heaving furniture about) and out of nowhere in the last pages of the movement there builds and BUILDS a tremendous excitement. An awesome dreadnought of fortissimo has steamed right into this Salzburg performance’s muddy waters.

Then in a live Berlin Philharmonic performance only seventeen days later – we’re still focusing our flight of C majors on the first movement – Furtwaengler seems to have totally recovered his mastery of what in modern parlance might be called “that inner thing.” Again the opening is exquisitely plaintive, the music is leisurely and deep, effectively lost. And, a minute or two later, eager to arrive momentarily in the freedom of the succeeding allegro the music positively YEARNS. Another bonus of the 9-15-53 C major is the most mellifluous trombone scene of all.

Now to the andante con moto, fiercely repetitious but containing at least a couple of wonderfully dramatic paragraphs: the haunting antiphony between a pair of lonesome horns and hummy string chords taking place on a distant horizon just below one of the best Cloud Nines in the symphonic literature, this leading suspensefully to the first return of the movement’s opening A minor (Schumann, by the way, singled out this passage in his account of this movement) . . . and a few minutes later, at the crest of an increasingly tempestuous development – which could, almost, be mimicking Mozartian swordplay — a pause (not as LONG in the printed score as Furtwaengler habitually and so effectively made it, we all hold our breath!) answered by a bittersweet variation of the movement’s opening ditty in lyricism-ready cellos –this I hum to myself patiently in a broad Furtwaenglerian tempo when I’m giving blood or waiting for a very long traffic light to change — this in turn giving way after fourteen potentially mesmerizing bars to a weight-off-the-shoulders return to the major mode of the movement’s second subject. This is where your little boy’s kite soars to the heavens.

And perhaps these MOMENTS are all the better for being surrounded by longueurs, musical Po Valleys searching for a Ferrara or a Mantova.

Not surprisingly, given what we know about the three first movements tallied above, Furtwaengler’s Swedish and Berlin C majors continue as close siblings in this hefty andante con moto, and for starters that means base tempo is andante ma non con moto. The mood is plaintive, tints of nostalgia invading the flow, the tempo stretching just before the second subject, a primly lyrical and rather inscrutable theme, comes on at a slower tempo than that of the opening. This is a tempo designed for spreading soulful wings. Next, in the antiphonal passage with its drowsy summons as if from mobile phones lost in thought, Furtwaengler becomes slower yet, before the initial A minor returns slower than at its first appearance – so the trend is, to borrow the title of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography dealing with the inter-war period, Downhill All the Way. Better to call it Inward Ho!

That troublesome Salzburg performance marches to a somewhat different drum. Certainly not as deep and tension-stocked as its brethren – it seems to operate outside the carefully laid plan apparent in Stockholm and Berlin, as if perhaps its pilot didn’t have his head completely clear – it does have its passing passions. And remarkable indeed is the vividness with which, after that kite escapes heavenward from the village green, Furtwaengler brings out the accented syncopations of the violins swiping in this case playfully-aggressively against the downward legato of the lyrical second subject theme. As for the LONG pause Furtwaengler repeatedly painted for us with a very large brush, well, it’s a case of what the pianist Leon Fleisher, speaking in a different context, has called playing “as late as possible, without being late.”

And a long brush is used in Furtwaengler’s benchmark Schumann Fourth recorded in a Berlin church 5-14-53. The most remarkable feature of this characteristically capacious performance is the absolute snail-crawl in which he inches (millimeters?) forward the oscillations of divided violas at the end of the scherzo, ushering them thereby straight into Thomas Carlyle’s definition of music: “a kind of inarticulate unfathomable speech, which leads us to the edge of the Infinite, and lets us for moments gaze into that!” Not purely in the service of a lovingly lirico-misterioso line does Furtwaengler toy with these overtly bland chords marked nothing more than poco ritenuto within the context of a nominally speedy scherzo. What Furtwaengler hears by the simple process of reading the next page of score, the launching of a slow bridge passage headed gingerly toward the fast finale, is that those oscillations truly belong more to that oncoming bridge than the down-winding scherzo of which they seem at first glance to be an integral part. “Tis “Elementary, dear Watson” — so prepared, the shudder of large notes at the start of the official bridge is like a giant mouth of music opening wide.

Well, Alfred Brendel thinks Schumann’s notation is “a very personal mixture of pedantry and inexactness.”

* * * *

As for Schubert, the noted pianist opines with affection that whereas Beethoven composes like an architect Schubert with his talent for delivering us into dreams is a sleepwalker of the compositorial workroom . . . And that brings us to Furtwaengler’s Big B’s, Beethoven for starters – meanwhile it occurs to me that Furtwaengler would have conducted some of Benjamin Britten’s music as well as Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner, not to speak of Bach. Let’s begin with Beethoven’s Eroica, a quite incendiary threesome of performances from 1944, 1950 and 1952. Look to the opening movement and the same plan of attack in each case, with rather small differences in shading here and there. The point, of course, is repeatedly to invoke Wagner’s primal pronouncement re the importance of “delicate yet constant change of rhythm, which alone is able to take a fixed, classical, so to speak ‘note-for-note-played’ piece of music, and bring forth from it that which it really is: something emerging and growing, a living process . . .” The colors of Rembrandt more than the technique of Durer, that is the Wagnerian/Furtwaengleresque ideal. Space, it goes without saying, is always available for tempo to move a little this way and that with perfect grace.

As for emerging and growing, Furtwaengler in the Eroica’s first movement development customarily approached that new and lyrical theme at bar 284 — a quiet, rocking theme dipping in the oboe and rising in the cellos like independent tidal minds moving about the rocks beneath one’s seaside window — with Beethoven’s enormous pre-theme pileup of SFORZANDI suggesting in their Railing-at-the-Heavens the near-demise of another Commendatore about to be run through. As for the theme itself, veritable valley after peak and a way station of course on Beethoven’s harmonic journey, the adjectives I noted after listening to each of these three performances were virtually identical: 1950 pathétique; 1944, musing; 1952, fragile.

The broadcast from 8-31-50, a Salzburg Festival affair, gets off to an especially gripping start because in this performance the Eroica’s first chord sounds as if it’s being wrenched with great tenacity, and suspense, from a recalcitrant socket. Naturally the attendant birth and growth of this symphonic child is a little more vivid and prized than that of its obstetrically less menaced brethren. But all these performances take fire, the elixir of spirituality pours – with, one might add, not quite the artistic disarrangement of a Fried or Mengelberg at their occasional furthest out. The celebrated Vienna Philharmonic Eroica from 1944  begins in a rather more stately manner; in due course it proceeds, by impulse or design, to something more possessed. Design it could be! As Elisabeth Furtwaengler quotes her husband in her extremely moving memoir, About Wilhelm Furtwaengler, “for me [these classics] are never the same works” . . Now was it Paul Valéry who said a work of art by the likes of Beethoven is “never truly finished, only abandoned,” as if to say it’s the interpreter who picks up the missing pieces of one and another lovely puzzle! At all events, moods of Furtwaengler’s biorhythmic moments obviously made their inroads, but as Frau Furtwaengler reminds us, her husband studied even his core repertory again and again, “sometimes catching something which had so far eluded him.” The endless life of art . . . .

Now we inspect a trio of Beethoven Fifths spanning seventeen years: 1926, 1937, 1943, all with the Berlin Philharmonic, the last of them “live,” during the war of course, a year short of D-Day and the Russian front no picnic. Almost too neatly fitting the circumstances of their respective hatchings are the messages of each of these fascinating Fifths. The ’26 says look here, I’m a bright young conductor and I can’t help being somewhat under the spell of my fabulous predecessor Arthur Nikisch . . . The ’37 says, well, this is my first big international record for HMV/Victor and I don’t want to scare away the folks in Nottingham and Dubuque with too “mannered” an interpretation . . . And the ’43 says, for God’s sake, man, here we are in Berlin, the roof is falling in, but we’ve got our Beethoven, BEETHOVEN did you hear, that’s what’s sustaining us, we’re not all a bunch of Nazis, so listen up and have your socks knocked off.

A bit of chapter-and-verse. The ’26 opens with an appropriately stentorian dot-dot-dot-dash, then sets off on its contrapuntal Morse in an urgent leggiero. Soon a crescendo, leading quickly to the fermata’d chord at bar 21 which Furtwaengler extends to an a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e  m-a-x-i-m-u-m, followed by an equally drawn out pause on what we musn’t forget is a rest to which – even if it’s just a quarter rest – Beethoven affixed a fermata. This three-star hiatus is pure Furtwaengler, dark horse recently in from Mannheim — how many suspense-dispensing angels pass here, perhaps a dozen? – but the glare of tenacious Nikisch hovers in that chordal shoulder-grab at 21. Now more buildup, the music arrives at the great fanfare launching the second subject and Furtwaengler comes on grand enough he could be thinking, at least a little, of his mentor’s intrerpretation. Remember the famous 1913 recording . . .

The especially-for-export ’37 version, we’re still comparing first movements, comes on elegant and vibrant, very light, that interesting pause on the quarter rest notably briefer than in ’26 and that 150-watt fanfare less Nikischy by some distance. A fine performance, finer perhaps if one hasn’t heard the slightly self-conscious but more dramatic ’26 version first, but not quite so characteristic. Winged it is, glamorous, sweet, a svelte damsel to be sure.

Then ’43!! The famous opening is baleful, the succeeding Morse more spacious than before. The FERMATA at 21 is tenaciously HELD. And soon the performance sounds possessed, by angels or demons one isn’t exactly sure. It crashes up to the fanfare, and said fanfare is curious indeed because it seems very soon to let out a sigh, a very telling sigh. The fact is, Beethoven’s diminuendo at the end of this announcement is advanced in this reading to a more central position, creating one of the biggest shadows in the history of Beethovenian performance. Absolutely unique!

. . . And so the performance proceeds, letting itself go in the metaphorical sense while proceeding with total efficiency as well as intensity. An element here of pounding on a door to get the hell out. Well, Beethoven’s highly rhythmic Fifth provides material for such activity without flinching. Summation: it’s all so exciting one simply doesn’t want to hear another Fifth for a long time. And that is why you can write your own review of the 1947 Furtwaengler Fifth signalling his return to the Berlin concert scene. And the 1954 Fifth in Paris which this observer, a GI stationed an hour south of the capital, missed by one day.

Elisabeth Furtwaengler is vivid about the atmosphere in which Furtwaengler’s wartime concerts took place. The extraordinary intensity of the ’43 Fifth is no surprise when one reads that “the people came to the Philharmonie under very difficult conditions; often bombs had fallen during the previous night . . . one had to climb over heaps of rubble . . . everyone had the feeling this might be their last time to experience a concert.” Also, she says, many in the audience were in the anti-Nazi resistance, some would die after the unsuccessful attempt on Hitler’s life. Interestingly enough Furtwaengler must have had some hope: the cursed war would end. He and his young wife had a child. And when he had an engagement at the Lucerne Festival in the summer of ’44 he was able to leave mother and child in Switzerland. There, reunited with them a little before the war ended – thanks to a long-standing invitation from good Ernest Ansermet – he would spend his two year postwar exile.

And other Furtwaengler Beethovens:

Concertgebouw “live,” 7-13-50: A genial, fastidious Amsterdam performance of the First Symphony stamped with the personality of . . . yes, a prankster. Well, a very upmarket one. The introduction is, to be sure, a thing of high seriousness, tender, touching, a little guarded, a little possessed (well, this is Furtwaengler, the Sviatoslav Richter of the podium, never totally semplice), but the succeeding allegro con brio is quite racy, even frilly, and slyly arrived at too! Delicate stuff. The second subject comes on perky as Doris Day and in the development Furtwaengler relishes Beethoven’s ticking-and-tootling. A buffo brio is ascendant without a doubt and a cheerful Leporello might be ushering in the recapitulation. Then, no surprise, the tiger in the tank is unleashed in a very festive conclusion, trumpets and drums all ablaze, larger than life . . . The finale is launched with an introduction the portentousness of which is tinged with obvious tongue-in-cheek, owing a sou or two to the maker of Clock and Surprise symphonies. The pauses between one then another upward snippet of the violins, each a note longer, are exaggerated with characteristic Furtwaenglerian patience in measures 2, 3 and 4, and so as not to lose an iota of suspense a micro-pause is added just on the line separating the fourth and fifth bars, as if some epauletted doorman of the bar lines had put in a fleeting appearance, all this to suggest, I very much suspect, the near tongue-tiededness of a nervous lover.

Hamburg Philharmonic “live,” 6-9-47: A Second Leonore Overture in which the a-i-r-s-p-a-c-e Beethoven provided on the second beat of the opening bar gives Furtwaengler the opportunity – at a slow tempo permitting Fate plenty of time to express itself – a chance to let his timpanist WHACK out a second fortissimo a fraction even bigger than the one just sounded as part of the overture’s initial tutti. The effect is rather as if a very angry man had batted a tennis ball against an innocent but annoyingly impassive backboard with all his might. Fate continues to have a field day with the big wind chords attended by string swirls at bar 36: explosions, these, with dust settling around them in the form of sixty-fourth note motes. Oh, to have heard Furtwaengler conduct La Forza del Destino! Then Beethoven’s allegro slips in, almost out of nowhere, throbbing. The hummy development in Furtwaengler’s hands is pure kammermusik, the final pages of the overture a cavalry charge assuring us that the imprisoned Florestan has been properly rescued and then some.

. . . And a Vienna Philharmonic Fourth Symphony from January 1950: Most treasurable here is a second movement that opens loving adagio arms at a tempo scarcely more than half Beethoven’s marking of eighth = 84. Music in the yoga position, you might say, but flowing like a feeling-no-pain Pastoral brook of sorts, with a perfect serenity not to speak of scant ambition. Beethoven does write cantabile under the ever-so-songful main theme — at 84 beats it would, I suspect, sound more like a white-tie aria than Furtwaengler’s caress down in the 40s . . . Now our Vienna maestro has a bit of an amorous plot up his sleeve: when the main theme returns at bar 42 – quietly in the wake of a big crescendo, and in more floral dress than before – he capitalizes on Beethoven’s weaving triplet sixteenths to promote a much richer, more vibrant theme than before. After a while it seems to perspire with love . . . And after that curious developmental passage beginning at 54 which Mengelberg found so crazy (Furtwaengler gazes on it rather more happily) this Viennese performance treats us to a singularly unrushed, awestruck return to the next appearance of that core theme, this at bar 65, pianissimo cantabile this time, in the flute, the atmosphere so enchanting it must be a case of a willing beloved appearing before the eyes of her swain. Rapture incorporated!

And Wilhelm had his young Elisabeth . . .

Wartime again, a “live” Pastoral from Berlin March ’44: Such a lovely calm in the scene by the brook, bringing perhaps a collective drop in the blood pressure of the audience gathered for this reverie. Note meanwhile the long crescendo Furtwaengler devises in a series of subtle lifts to the second theme, bars 21 to 29. But he doesn’t spare his alarm-weary parishioners in the Storm wherein Beethoven’s timpani crescendo from piano to forte at bars 49-51 becomes absolutely terrifying and reaches fff at least. Even Stokowski and Mengelberg might flinch. Twenty bars later and this storm has slowed a bit and gained extra weight, like a sated monster.

And now a dozen vintage Furtwaengler performances, in alphabetical order:

Bach Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, Vienna Philharmonic “live” at Salzburg 8-19-51 –  Romantic, delicious and very moving. Movement 1: while purists run for cover you can enjoy the lovely tenderness of the first concertino interlude, following an admittedly megalithic tutti; then the LONGING that permeates the second concertino; and the delicate footsteps of flute and friends on the patio stones of the third; and so forth, with a positively operatic passion getting into the act a bit further on. More here than a lowest-baroque-denominator progression from A to B to C. Movement 2: Very slow indeed, the music a thing of the heart on an expressively extended sleeve. Movement 3: A misto of regret, ardor, exaltation.

Brahms Variations on a theme by Haydn, Berlin Philharmonic “live” 1942 – Characterization is intense enough here one wonders if this music couldn’t be a kind of pre-Elgarian Enigma Variations in which each section is a musical “picture” of an interesting character in the composer’s life. Clara Schumann, anyone? At all events the first variation is broad, insistent, consuming, the third full of a sweet nostalgia, the fourth an amazing quasi-dirge, absolutely not Brahms’ andante con moto but more moving perhaps than any other performance in this archivist’s memory. Alfred Frankenstein, one of my favorite program note maestri, called the seventh variation a languorous barcarolle and Furtwaengler is obviously in total agreement.

Brahms Symphony No. 3, Berlin Philharmonic “live” in Torino, 5-14-54 – Ten days earlier I heard the same team do Brahms’ Third from a top balcony seat at the Palais Garnier in Paris, a long stick of  asparagus in white tie wriggling on the podium a kilometer off. I was a GI on leave from duty of sorts an hour south of town. I remember only the opening, and here it is in Torino, a slow, poetically uncertain opening, crescendoing from below, not quite in accordance with the here’s-a-forte of the score’s bar 1, as if a great orchestral flower were unfolding to the tune of winds and brass. Well, Furtwaengler must have been thinking, Who’s Afraid of a Maximized  pre-Blast Upbeat? Then at the third bar and the beginning of the passionate first theme enjoy one of those crazy yank-it-out attacks from the Philharmoniker, vibrating! Being as he was a sort of Bergmannesque opener of lyrical Pandora’s boxes, Furtwaengler makes of the Third a soulful and complex affair, vulnerability drenched, very exciting to hear when one’s in the mood for the orchestral equivalent of ten rich ragouts. Note the transparency — the unlocking of not always available doors in the instrumental texture means that with the first movement’s second subject opening, especially pathetic here in its micro-rhythm 9/4, we hear clearly not only the piano grazioso theme of the clarinet but the concomitant syncopated piano of tied quarters, these in a solitary flute, suggesting nothing so much as the proverbial telephone wire peopled by two birds here, another two there, sounding quite frail and forgotten.

Bruckner Fourth Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic “live” 10-22-51 – A good demonstration model of Furtwaengler’s fluid, fervent Bruckner, the opening horn unsurprisingly quiet and seeing a vision of course in that performing fool of a sky, the overall line of the opening movement long and organic, easy adjustments made from ferocity to rumination. Bruckner’s SQUARENESS is laid low by an imaginative tempo system ranging as wide as Furtwaengler’s approximately half = 48 to 92 in the development. Bear in mind Bruckner’s tempo for the movement is 72 beats with an occasional rather leisurely or somewhat animated thrown in. Professor Tovey discussing the tick of the Brucknerian mechanism said the composer’s mind “moves no faster than in four bar steps of moderate alla breve time.” Here with his marvelous velocic lubrication, his rising fevers of spontaneity, Furtwaengler hastens Bruckner’s cerebration . . . Note as well a slow movement in which the art of daydreaming while remaining fully awake is perfectly demonstrated, then a shimmering and sassy scherzo, and a finale in which Furtwaengler’s patience tends to avert choppiness.

Franck Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic “live,” 1-28-45 – A very dramatic performance easing via Furtwaengler’s clever rheostat from lugubrious to inflamed, with the pocket woodwind closeups of the first movement taken slowly enough to break a heart. The nominally allegretto second movement comes on very slowly too, worming its way to our ears . . . and Haydn Symphony No. 88, RAI Torino “live,” 3-3-52 – Furtwaengler being a conductor who can burn delighted listeners out with his rich and soulful style, it’s a pleasure to list here a performance that might have been conducted by any musician with a good feeling for Haydn’s charming assets. The opening movement is jolly, sturdy and sweet, the slow movement flows perfectly, the minuet has an agreeable peasant weightiness, and the zippy finale, a postilion’s delight, is launched with the slyest mincing steps.

Liszt Les Préludes, Vienna Philharmonic “live,” 3-3-54 – Not a favorite piece of Furtwaengler’s, but the show must go on! A boiling, gleaming, penetrating performance, thick as a 2-inch Porterhouse steak.

Rossini Gazza Ladra Overture, Berlin Philharmonic, 1930 — Charmingly pomposo, sly and unaffected: it could be Molajoli or Panizza conducting as easily as Furtwaengler. To borrow a phrasing from an earlierday French critic, there’s no sea of stylization here to be beached in . . . and  Sibelius En Saga, Berlin Philharmonic “live,” 2-10-43 – Why isn’t there more Sibelius from Furtwaengler, just this, I believe, and the violin concerto. Heavens, the monumentality and richness of vision of the Finnish master cry for his interpretive feedback. Suffice to say this is a performance full of grace and surge, molto liquido, with a characteristically TREMENDOUS climax near the end.

Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, Vienna Philharmonic “live” at Salzburg, 8-15-50 – Stravinsky bad-mouthed Furtwaengler of course, saying nasty things about his conducting of his music, but this is a great performance, the opening movement positively eroico with its grip as well as motion, its gravitas and zing. A Pacific 231 bearing down on you! Alas, the slow movement is laid out so beautifully, like a fine table setting, that the essential triviality of the music is exposed. Flute and harp might as well be goldfish in a tank . . . and Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, RAI Torino “live,” 6-6-52 — The novelist Edmund White has written about characters that he suspects are given a part “in which the dialog keeps running out.” That you cannot say about Furtwaewngler: another case in point is this taut yet grazioso performance encompassing, of course, many emotions. Carefuly organized, it does however create the impression its life is evolving on the spot. That is Art . . . .

I n t e r m I s s I o n   T i m e –—-

T HOUGHTS  IN  PASSING   During   S e v e n t h   I n n i n g   S t r e t c h :

When Rachmaninoff was asked by a journalist for a definition of Music, he replied:

“Music is a calm moonlight night, a rustling of summer foliage. Music is the distant peal of bells at eventide! Music is born only in the heart and it appeals only to the heart; it is Love! . . . The sister of Music is Poesy, and its mother is Sorrow!”

Ruminating on his listening life in 1928, conductor Sir Adrian Boult remarked: “It’s true that practically all of the greatest performances that I can remember have been slower than average.”

Edmund White remembers a piece by Brahms “as unpredictable as thought and as human as conversation.

And hark to Nietzsche: “Music scatters pictures like sparks.”

The actor Simon Callow writes that in interpreting a part in a play – but this could apply to musical interpretation as well, “you must go with the impulses of your character, . . . exceeding the parameters set by the author.”

And godfather Nikisch: “Make every performance like an improvisation.”