Thursday, July 11, 2013

Wilhelm Furtwängler conducts Ninth by Beethoven

   Wilhelm Furtwängler was one of the best symphonic and operatic conductors in 20th century. He was the man of phenomenal talent and musical reliability, an artist challenging with dramatic circumstances in German culture of nazi era and many unfair judgments after the war. There were some controversies about how much his position in nazi Germany affected mature period of his career. It’s meaningful, after decades these issues are still remembered and discussed as the matter of public interest. There was also in 1995 a play Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood and then movie under the same title produced in 2001 with Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgård. Both are great as adversaries fighting in front of a pair symbolically representing first generation of rebuilding Germany Birgit Minichmayr and Moritz Bleibtreu. Skarsgård is so convincing in the role of dr Wilhelm Furtwängler, it’s easy to forgive he is not a conductor. Actor’s conducting gesture is wary and safe against the real Furtwängler’s expression as we know it from documentaries. Although movie is interesting vision of postwar consciousness conflicts, it is not quite accurate picture.
Despite Wilhelm Furtwängler was great musician, he was responsible person taking difficult decisions at the time it could have cost him his life. His personal story of recognized conductor in time of nazi regime, the story of a German who did not agree with the nazis but did not leave the country, trying to help as many as he can, both Jewish musicians and Germans who did not agree with politics of new rulers. As an artist with internationally recognized fame, director of Berliner Philharmoniker was to some degree untouchable, so he was able to help for many people. Furtwängler was also in contact with German resistance and his situation began to change when regime was close to the end, he had to flee to Switzerland. After the war famous conductor was brought to degasification trial and in effect cleared of all allegations. In comments he said he stayed in Germany during nazi rule because he felt responsible for German music. The controversy was just at starting point.

Furtwängler – Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 (1951)

   Despite the verdict of denazification officials, Wilhelm Furtwängler was stigmatized in public opinion. In forthcoming years there were still people who disagreed with artist’s acquittal, blaming him for confirming nazi regime. When in 1949 he was proposed as director of Chicago Symphony Orchestra, artists in USA and some other countries had declared against him and Chicago Symphony boycott, among his opponents were conductors Arturo Toscanini and George Szell, pianists Alexander Brailowsky, Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and violinist Isaac Stern. Finally the offer has been withdrawn. Accusations against conductor can be seen as an effect of emotional and intellectual powerlessness in the face of nazi crimes. While Furtwängler was banned in America, in Germany he was authority regarded not only as the great artist but also the one who was trying to save as much of German culture as it was possible.
   There were also artistic controversies dealing Furtwängler’s interpretations. Probably the most famous was 1942 performance of the Choral Symphony before rulers of Germany. He presented the rendition revealing depth of humanity present in Beethoven’s music and in Schiller’s poem. Next performance was prepared for festive re-opening of Bayreuther Festspiele in 1951, when two performances were recorded – first during dress rehearsal (EMI) and second during public performance (Orfeo D’or). Last of Furtwängler’s recordings of the Ninth was concert performance from Lucerne Festival in 1954.
   The one Wilhelm Furtwängler conducts with the Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele made by EMI was for years recognized as one of best performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 D Minor op. 125. Recorded at the July 29, 1951 in Bayreuth and published by EMI in 1955, this is dramatic performance, full of inner tensions and contrasting episodes. Great quartet of soloists includes great soprano, star of world opera Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, known for her Wagner and Richard Strauss performances mezzo-soprano, here announced as an alt, Elisabeth Höngen, operatic heroic tenor Hans Hopf and Wagnerian bass Otto Edelman. Powerful team makes the symphony stands on the foundation of a solid sound. Perfection and sudden changes affect the turbulent and dramatic narrative. More than 60 years later, I still can impress, although it is also evidence that both recording technique and means of expression over the years have changed considerably. Three stars as it is still fair performance.

No comments:

Post a Comment