03 Dec 2020

Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1939-1945 Radio Broadcast Recordings

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There is a perverse kind of romantic interest in sharing via Wilhelm Furtwangler’s 1939-1945 Berlin Philharmonic Radio Recordings the great conductor’s unique and astoundingly intense performances all taking place in the damned and doomed atmosphere of WWII Berlin and the living presences of Hitler and Goebbels and many of the other principal figures of the Third Reich.

This 22-SACD set is accompanied by a 184-page hardcover book.

The earliest broadcasts (1939) were originally recorded on shellac discs. Beginning in 1942, the broadcasts were preserved on magnetic tape invented by AEG/ Magnetophon.

Every Furtwängler concert would be taped and edited for broadcast during one hour every Sunday night.

At the close of the war, the broadcast tapes were captured by the Soviet Union. It was not until 2017 that the original tapes were finally returned.

Needless to say, it is an expensive set (currently $245.25 at Amazon, and gradually increasing in price as it sells out), and is likely to produce some duplication for any serious fan of Furtwängler.

It was clearly issued originally last year, as there is this May 2, 2019 New Yorker review by Alex Ross.

The German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler has long held an exalted place among practitioners of the enigmatic art of waving one’s arms in front of an orchestra. A tall, willowy man with the air of a distracted philosopher, Furtwängler led the Berlin Philharmonic from 1922 until 1945, and again from 1952 until his death, in 1954. Many of the recordings he left behind are so charged with expressive intensity that comparing them to modern accounts of the same repertory can be invidious. Consider a performance of Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture, which the Berlin Philharmonic has released as part of a new box set titled “Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Radio Recordings, 1939–1945.” It begins with an octave C in the strings, followed by a loud, curt F-minor chord in the full orchestra. Few orchestras fail to shake up the audience with this gesture. Furtwängler’s players unleash a sound that falls somewhere between the musical and the geological—a seismic rumbling followed by a concussive crack.

There is no way to avoid thinking about the circumstances under which this recording was made. Furtwängler was Hitler’s favorite conductor, and the Philharmonic’s wartime concerts were taped, according to minutes from a meeting with Joseph Goebbels, “in accordance with the Führer’s wish.” … What did the music mean to him? To the audience? To Furtwängler? The conductor’s defenders profess to hear an anguished defiance in his Nazi-era performances. Surely this borderline-deranged account of the “Coriolan” cannot be in accord with Hitler’s ideology. But you could also hear it as a defiance of the enemy—a willingness to fight to the death. …

[T]he nimbus of greatness around Furtwängler arises not in spite of the historical situation but because of it. The conductor and his musicians were working “as if there were no tomorrow,” Taruskin writes, in discussing the last item in the set—the final movement of Brahms’s First Symphony, recorded amid the inferno of January, 1945. “The music builds unbearable tension, abjures all ‘Brahmsian’ restraint or relaxation, and its raging subjectivity hits dumbfounding extravagances of tempo at both ends of the scale. . . . The bloodiest of all wars brought the foremost classical musician in the country with the most distinguished tradition of classical music to the pinnacle of his career, setting a standard neither he nor any other symphonic conductor was ever moved to duplicate.” …

Nor are Furtwängler’s legendarily explosive accounts of nineteenth-century repertory beyond criticism. As the hours went by, I found myself tiring of his determination to wring significance from every phrase. The atmosphere is always dire; there is a dearth of pleasure, grace, and wit. Furtwängler often criticized what he called an “American” manner of orchestral playing—soulless, machinelike, monotonous. He associated that style with Toscanini, whose fame obsessed him inordinately. But he, too, was prone to a certain hectoring relentlessness. He brings an astonishing demonic energy to the final movements of the Beethoven Seventh and the Schubert Ninth, but the effect is more battering than it is uplifting.

That said, these recordings are precious documents, from which there is much to be learned. In an age of note-perfect digital renditions, what’s most striking is Furtwängler’s willingness—and his musicians’ willingness—to sacrifice precision for the sake of passion. The conductor had a famously wobbly, hard-to-read beat, which inspired many jokes. A member of the London Philharmonic quipped that one should wait until the “thirteenth preliminary wiggle” of the baton before beginning to play. Furtwängler’s renditions of Beethoven’s Fifth tend to begin not with “bum-bum-bum-BUM” but with “b-bumbumbumBUM.” The inexactitude was by design. It’s the roughness of the attacks at the beginning of the “Coriolan” that provides a sense of catastrophic power. As Taruskin points out, Furtwängler was entirely capable of eliciting unanimity when he wanted to, as rip-roaring accounts of Strauss’s “Don Juan” and “Till Eulenspiegel” attest. One never knows quite what to expect: spontaneity is the rule.


John Fowler’s Amazon review is useful and valuable.


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