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.
“Argerichâ€™s pianism is remarkable for combining seemingly effortless technical resource with temperamental volatility. Yet the vehemence of her playing is seldom to the disadvantage of the extraordinary subtlety of her art. Moreover, despite the limits she places on her repertory, such is the spontaneity of her approach that each of her interpretations, no matter how familiar in broad outline, is characterised by a profusion of contrasting details beneath the surface.”
NYT Classical Music Critic Anthony Tommasini says “ensembles [need] to reflect the communities they serve, [and] the [hiring] audition process [for musicians] should take into account race, gender and other factors.”
During the tumultuous summer of 1969, two Black musicians accused the New York Philharmonic of discrimination. Earl Madison, a cellist, and J. Arthur Davis, a bassist, said they had been rejected for positions because of their race.
The cityâ€™s Commission on Human Rights decided against the musicians, but found that aspects of the orchestraâ€™s hiring system, especially regarding substitute and extra players, functioned as an old boysâ€™ network and were discriminatory. The ruling helped prod American orchestras, finally, to try and deal with the biases that had kept them overwhelmingly white and male. The Philharmonic, and many other ensembles, began to hold auditions behind a screen, so that factors like race and gender wouldnâ€™t influence strictly musical appraisals.
Blind auditions, as they became known, proved transformative. The percentage of women in orchestras, which hovered under 6 percent in 1970, grew. Today, women make up a third of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and they are half the New York Philharmonic. Blind auditions changed the face of American orchestras.
But not enough.
American orchestras remain among the nationâ€™s least racially diverse institutions, especially in regard to Black and Latino artists. In a 2014 study, only 1.8 percent of the players in top ensembles were Black; just 2.5 percent were Latino. At the time of the Philharmonicâ€™s 1969 discrimination case, it had one Black player, the first it ever hired: Sanford Allen, a violinist. Today, in a city that is a quarter Black, just one out of 106 full-time players is Black: Anthony McGill, the principal clarinet.
The status quo is not working. If things are to change, ensembles must be able to take proactive steps to address the appalling racial imbalance that remains in their ranks. Blind auditions are no longer tenable.
Can there be any notion more preposterous, more incapable of surviving intellectual scrutiny, than today’s liberal shibboleth of “Diversity”?
Diversity requires abandonment of standards of merit, achievement, and genuine equality of opportunity, accompanied by lots of rationalizations, denial, and outright lying about what is needed to produce sufficient representation of members of various privileged victim identity groups. Note how Mr. Tommasini assures NYT readers that there is
remarkably little difference between players at the top tier. There is an athletic component to playing an instrument, and as with sprinters, gymnasts and tennis pros, the basic level of technical skill among American instrumentalists has steadily risen. A typical orchestral audition might end up attracting dozens of people who are essentially indistinguishable in their musicianship and technique.
But this begs the question: are there actually many representatives of underclass minorities in that “top tier”? Obviously, there are not, because, if there were, then blind auditions would work to achieve their hiring just fine.
Mr. Tommasini fails also to explain why “diversity” in the sense of more African-Americans in classical orchestras is an urgent problem, while massive over-representation of African-Americans in professional sports is no problem at all.
Why, I often wonder, are blacks, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, and homosexuals important for “Diversity” but not Finns, Ukrainians, or Belgians? If the answer is that a sob story about past hardships is required, then how come Jews, Appalachian hillbillies, and all those ethnic Catholic blue collar communities count for nothing in the Diversity sweepstakes? Tell us, Mr. Tommasini: what percentage of classical orchestra ensembles are made up of Southern Italians from the Outer Boroughs of New York?
You can imagine what I thought when I looked up Mr. Tommasini and found that he is a Yale classmate of mine.
Now here is something downright exceptional from last year.
Nebal Maysaud (a Lebanese composer of the Sodomitical persuasion) complains that Western Classical Music oppresses persons of color and colonizes Third World cultures operating as an agent of cultural change. All this is the fault of Capitalism. (Personally, I thought most of the really good Classical Music was created by the patronage of pre-capitalist monarchs and aristocrats. Prince Esterhazy did not engage in trade.)
There comes a point in some abusive relationships where the victim wakes up out of their Stockholm syndrome and learns that they need to plan an escape. As you communicate with others and you get a taste of freedom, you learn that the force you thought was protecting you is in truth keeping you in danger.
For those who havenâ€™t encountered abusive relationships, you may support the abuser, or wonder why the victim doesnâ€™t just leave. But you donâ€™t know what itâ€™s like to live in a world where you canâ€™t tell truth from myth.
For the victims who arenâ€™t ready, you may have an urge to push away those of us seeking to help you and stay with your abuser, believing them to be a source of protection.
Unfortunately, not everyone can escape. But having the knowledge that your abuser is an abuser itself can be freeing. It can help you find the next step in your journey towards liberation. But you need a community to fall back on. You need people to talk to so that they can keep you safe, so that they can help you understand the truth, and so that they can teach you the abuserâ€™s techniques and how to fight them.
My fellow musicians of color: it is time to accept that we are in an abusive relationship with classical music.
In my previous articles, I laid out my experiences and reasoning for coming to this conclusion. I started with â€œAm I Not a Minority?â€ to explain the everyday racism people of color experience and how it manifests on an institutional level. If you havenâ€™t read it already, I encourage you to explore how institutions uphold their power by choosing which minorities to give access to.
The few scraps given to minorities are overwhelmingly whiteâ€“occupied by white cisgender women or LGBT+ individuals. The few PoC who are given access to institutional space are most often light skinned and non-Black while also exoticised and tokenised.
And that led me to my second article, â€œEscaping the Mold of Oriental Fantasyâ€œâ€“a personal history of isolation and colonization, of how Western classical music participates in the act of destroying culture and replaces it with its own white supremacist narrative.
Finally, I shared my attempts at reviving my culture and my tradition, along with the barriers I faced on this journey. My third article, â€œIâ€™m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way,â€ chronicles the difficulties (and the near impossibility) of engaging with my own cultural musical practices in a proper, authentic way.
From three angles I shared my attempts at being an authentic composer. These articles bring to light the many ways in which the dreams of low-income people of color are obstructed in the Western classical tradition.
Western classical music is not about culture. Itâ€™s about whiteness. Itâ€™s a combination of European traditions which serve the specious belief that whiteness has a cultureâ€”one that is superior to all others. Its main purpose is to be a cultural anchor for the myth of white supremacy. In that regard, people of color can never truly be pioneers of Western classical music. The best we can be are exotic guests: entertainment for the white audiences and an example of how Western classical music is more elite than the cultures of people of color.
After the Revolution, you see, a benevolent Central Committee will see to it that persons of color, like Nebal here — and whites as well (!) –, are amply funded to produce music in their native cultural traditions. Everyone will be liberated!
Unless, of course, the State is having production problems, and all those aspiring creatives are marched off to labor camps to mine salt.
I stumbled upon this 1975, made for West German television with the collaboration of the 80-year-old Carl Orff, performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana directed by Jean Pierre Ponnelle, with Lucia Popp, Herman Prey, the Bavarian Radio Chorus, the Tolz Children’s Choir, and the Munich Radio Orchestra conducted by Kurt Eichhorn. It’s quite a dramatization.