Is Wilhelm Furtwängler (January 25, 1886 - November 30, 1954) the greatest conductor ever? While there are some who, in preference to his highly inflected, interventionist style, would prefer a more straight-forward conductor such as his contemporary Arturo Toscanini, many cognoscenti believe that at the least Furtwängler, when heard in his favored 19th century Austro-Germanic repertoire, ranks supreme of his type in the pre-stereo era. The aforementioned Toscanini himself was an admirer; asked who aside from himself was the greatest conductor, he named Furtwängler, and also pushed for the German to take over the directorship of the New York Philharmonic when Toscanini relinquished its reins, though controversy prevented that.
While Furtwängler was a more versatile conductor than some observers give him credit for, his reputation is based firmly on his masterful conducting of the symphonies of Beethoven, Bruckner, and Brahms and the operas of Wagner. He said, "A well-rehearsed concert is one in which you have to improvise no more than is needful and no less than indispensible…. It seems to me that the true interpretative artist is one who identifies himself with the work he is playing and re-improvises it." He is one of the most Romantic conductors on record, deftly manipulating tempos and dynamics to large degrees, seemingly acting in the spontaneity of the moment, yet always maintaining a keen awareness of the overall structure of the works. As a result, at his best -- and, something of a high-wire act, such conducting can't always succeed -- his performances are profoundly emotionally affecting.
The most significant distinguishing feature of Furtwängler's conducting is the way in which he is able to treat phrasing in an extremely flexible and expressive manner without compromising -- in fact, enhancing -- the structural integrity of the music. Some will find his tempos slow, but in his best performances, he is able to maintain overall tension of the lines. Thus, while listeners will be aware of some tempos being slow, the sense is of time being elongated, not of dragging or bogging down. And he was hardly committed to slow tempos as an overarching philosophy; in fast movements he could move with great alacrity. He was also a masterful manipulator of orchestral color, although at first hearing of these sometimes-dim recordings that is not what stands out.
Furtwängler was principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in the years 1922-45 and '52-54, and de facto principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1933-45 and '47-54. The interruptions in those tenures came after World War II, and Furtwängler remains a controversial figure for having stayed in Germany during the Nazi period. However, after the war it was revealed by a number of musicians that he had protected the Jewish members of the Berlin Philharmonic (as well as Jewish spouses of players) from arrest and worse. Though he avoided pure politics, he also spoke out on many occasions against the Nazis' treatment of conductors, composers, and performers deemed by the regime to be 'degenerate', overly modern, or insufficiently Aryan. Certainly it was a braver thing to stay and resist than to flee, though eventually he did in fact finally have to escape to Switzerland when he received word that the Nazis were no longer going to put up with his unwillingness to cooperate with them. He was never a party member, never gave the Heil Hitler salute, refused to play the Nazi anthem, and when there were swastika flags in concert halls, he refused to conduct until they were removed. Many Jewish musicians, most famously Yehudi Menuhin, backed Furtwängler after the war ended.
Here's a quick look at a baker's dozen of great Furtwängler performances.
1. Brahms: Symphony No. 1: North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in concert in Hamburg, October 27, 1951
Furtwängler was not fond of recording in the studio, but the insatiable demand for his recordings has been filled for decades with countless issues of the many radio broadcasts he led -- in Germany, these sorts of broadcasts have long been a significant feature of musical life, and have yielded considerable treasures, notably this magnificent reading. This monumental Brahms First is not just Furtwängler's finest performance of this work in any portion of his career, not just the best recording I know of this work (and I have 112 others to compare it with), but one of the greatest musical moments ever recorded. The slow introduction is not too slow and overly contrasted with the body of the movement (unlike a 1950 concert in which he led the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam); it is more dramatic yet also maintains both weight and momentum -- which describes the entire reading. Furtwängler's ability to hold listeners entranced by seemingly altering the rate at which time is passing -- to make entire movements seem like one long, carefully released breath -- is at its peak here. The nobility that marks his most successful and moving post-war documents -- as opposed to his often more fiery wartime efforts -- is here in full measure. And this was achieved as guest conductor! (Brahms's Variations on a Theme of Haydn, taken from the same performance, is another high point in Furtwängler's discography.) The Tahra label, which worked with the approval of the conductor's widow, included this performance on the entirely recommendable four-CD set Légendaires concerts d'après-guerre (Legendary Post-War Concerts); the other well-restored mastering available is on the also invaluable and ethical Music & Arts label. The M&A has a warmer sound and projects a more three-dimensional image than the Tahra, which while it seems more sharply focused, also seems tight and boxy. The Tahra may be truer to the original broadcast, but the M&A is easier to listen to. (Note that Tahra issues of this material earlier than this 2000 set included the addition of artificial reverberation, and dynamics were limited and compressed; for this set, however, they had access to original materials.) The M&A mastering to get is in their 1999 set of the complete Brahms symphonies (earlier versions were inferior).
2. Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 "Pathétique": Berlin Philharmonic in the studio in 1938
This performance was famously admired by Toscanini, who once spent an evening entertaining friends by playing it repeatedly while remarking on its many felicities. One of the reasons that this older recording is preferable to his later recording on Deutsche Grammophon is that the orchestra still played with the delicious string portamento that largely vanished from orchestral technique in the post-war years as ensembles modernized their sounds. Even with the more primitive recording technology (though honestly in the right mastering, such as on the Biddulph label's two-CD set The complete pre-war HMV recordings with the Berlin Philarmonic Orchestra, the sonics are actually pretty clean yet without losing richness), in 1938 the Berlin Philharmonic's string section sounds more plush and full than later. The other thing that makes it great is that Furtwängler truly inhabits the work's highly emotional world and gives it the fullest expression right from the first movement -- and the finale is profoundly overwhelming. (Everything on that Biddulph set is highly recommendable.)
3. Schubert: Symphony No. 9 "Great": Berlin Philharmonic in the studio in 1951
This was Furtwängler's only studio recording of this work (there are 'live' alternatives), but sonic superiority and orchestral execution make this the one to have; it can be found in Deutsche Grammophon's mid-price reissue series The Originals, paired with an also excellent studio recording of Haydn's Symphony No. 88 of the same vintage. Furtwängler is most admired for rising to exactly the sort of architectural challenge presented by the monumental structure of Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C major, the aptly dubbed "Great." He honors the most important repeats (not a given a half century ago) in delivering a deliciously broad reading in which, nonetheless, there is never any sense of slackness, just of irresistible lyricism indulged to exactly the right degree, even when found in spots often moved through with greater rapidity by other conductors (for instance, the Trio of the Scherzo). By comparison, his two wartime concert recordings (Berlin 1942, Vienna Phil. in Stockholm 1943) are more propulsive, offering the clearest alternatives, while a 1953 Berlin version is even more measured in its delivery than this '51. All, however, are delivered with dramatic fervor, with robust dynamics and accents. The Berlin Philharmonic, which he had molded into a magnificent instrument, sings the work's long lines beautifully. And it's worth noting that Furtwängler doesn't succumb to the misguided tradition of a diminuendo on the final chord -- such a betrayal of the work's architecture would be unthinkable from him.
4. Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen: Ferdinand Frantz (Wotan/Wanderer), Martha Mödl (Brünnhilde), Ludwig Suthaus (Siegfried), Wolfgang Windgassen (Loge, Siegmund), Margarete Klose (Erda [Siegfried only], Waltraute [Götterdämmerung only], First Norn), and Elisabeth Grümmer (Freia). The rest: Alfred Poell (Donner, Gunther), Lorenz Fehenberger (Froh), Ira Malaniuk (Fricka [Rheingold only], Rossweisse), Ruth Siewert (Erda), Gustav Neidlinger (Alberich [Rheingold only]), Josef Greindl (Fasolt, Fafner, Hagen), Gottlob Frick (Fafner [Rheingold only], Hunding), Sena Jurinac (Woglinde, Third Norn), Magda Gábory (Wellgunde, Ortlinde), Hilde Rössl-Majdan (Flosshilde, Schwerteite, Second Norn), Hilde Konetzni (Sieglinde), Elsa Cavelti (Fricka [Walküre only], Grimgerde), Judith Hellwig (Helmwige), Gerda Scheyrer (Gerhilde), Dagmar Schmedes (Waltraute [Walküre only]), Olga Bennings (Siegrune), Alois Pernerstorfer (Alberich [Siegfried only]), and Rita Streich (Stimme der Waldvogels), Julius Patzak (Mime), etc./Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI; 1953 radio recording in Rome
The two most important composers to Furtwängler were Beethoven and Wagner. In orchestral music he favored a highly inflected, interventionist style, but in Wagner he instead keeps the drama moving forward, not giving short shrift to the most dramatically significant moments but fully integrating them within the overall fabric of the work. Nowhere is this more true than in the Ring Cycle. The most monumental work in the Western tradition, this cycle of four operas is an immense challenge to all conductors. There are fragments of other Furtwängler performances superior to some sections on this, his only truly complete recording of the Ring, but the full experience (on 13 CDs at budget price) here rises above temporary minor flaws. The vast cast, too numerous to list completely, is largely fine, with Frantz, Mödl, and Suthaus excelling in the key roles. But the greatest interest lies in Furtwängler's taut yet subtly flexible sculpting of these symbolically complex adaptations of Norse mythology into four organic wholes, actually enhancing their dramatic impact. The most significant feature of Furtwängler's conducting is the way in which he is able to treat phrasing in an extremely expressive manner without compromising the structural integrity of the music -- in fact, he enhances it. Furtwängler, a composer himself, studied with seminal Austrian theorist Heinrich Schenker, whose approach to musical structure ("Schenkerian analysis") ranks among the most influential schools of musical thought in the 20th century. But Furtwängler's structural mastery may have been innate -- he was the son of an architect. He was also a masterful manipulator of orchestral color, a deeply spiritual yet intellectual artist, and concerned always with emotional expression. On a more mundane level, the quality of the performance is helped by the fact that, as it was not a staged performance (though it was recorded live in front of a small -- and quiet -- audience), Furtwängler was able to shape it on an entirely musical basis, broader than his flawed (and cut) La Scala performance yet still dramatically compelling. Also, the tapings were spread out across a broader period of time, so the singers and instrumentalists were less physically challenged. The sound quality, though far from hi-fi, is also vastly superior to concert performances of this period, both in dynamic range (though there is still some distortion at peaks) and in balance. No single performance of this massive cycle can be truly definitive, but aside from the issue of recording quality, from an interpretive point of view this truly historic reading (officially licensed for the past few decades by EMI Classics) comes closest.
5. Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica": Vienna Philharmonic in concert in Berlin in December 1944
Beethoven's most drastic reimagining of the symphony format short of his Ninth (and we will be hearing about that work soon) was often played more broadly and monumentally by Furtwängler after the war. During the war, though, his Beethoven (and much else) tended to be more fiery, and this is a perfect example, his emotions seeming to erupt with even more spontaneity than usual, and certainly more vehemence in a reading characterized by bold momentum. (And yet, when the sketchy label Urania issued this performance in 1953, the conductor took legal action and got it withdrawn.) Like all the authenticated Furtwängler recordings of the "Eroica," this one skips the exposition repeat in the first movement but takes all repeats in the third and fourth movements, which I find gives the work more structural balance. This is certainly Furtwängler's most heroic "Eroica" in the sense of capturing the hero in action; in comparison, his later renditions tend to be more like the hero's statue, communicative of greatness on a different emotional level. I have this in a fine Music & Arts four-CD set (with Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 3-7, 9, the Coriolan Overture, and the Leonore Overture No. 3) that focuses on recordings made during World War II. The intensity of these performances suggests a greater concentration of passion as the conductor seemingly attempts to exorcise through art the myriad evils, fears, and frustrations faced by him and most Germans at that time, as though proclaiming to the Nazis, "You think you represent the German people? No, Beethoven represents us, and his music negates everything you stand for."
6, 7, 8. Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 "Choral"
Till Briem, Elisabeth Höngen, Peter Anders, Rudolf Watzke/Bruno Kittel Choir/Berlin Philharmonic, in concert in Berlin on March 20-22, 1942
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Höngen, Hans Hopf, Otto Edelmann/Bayreuth Festival Chorus & Orchestra in concert at Bayreuth on July 29, 1951 (but see below)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elsa Cavelti, Ernst Häfliger, Otto Edelmann/Lucerne Festival Chorus/Philharmonia Orchestra in concert in Lucerne on August 22, 1954
Furtwängler felt Beethoven's Ninth was an inspirational, symbolic masterwork and often used it on special occasions where it would be, in the words of the late John Ardoin, "a communal experience." Part of the joy of Furtwängler collecting is comparison listening, not necessarily to achieve an ultimate list of the undeniably best recordings as to savor the differences from one to the next, to absorb Furtwängler's evolving points of view on specific issues. All nine of his issued complete recordings of the Ninth were made in concert; the first that's been preserved in its entirety dates from 1937 in London. It and a wartime Berlin concert (1942) are highly dramatic, full of strong accents and bold shifts; the Berlin reading is particularly fierce (though not faster; tempo isn't everything). The 1942 Ninth has to be heard. One is tempted to say that hearing it is worth the cost of the entire set (it's in the M&A wartime set mentioned above), for it is a unique account. Rather than the celebratory aura of most performances of the Ninth, this one exudes a desperate search for affirmation; its power and catharsis are unmatched. Its extremes may not be how one wants to always hear the Ninth (and Briem is sub-par), but it is fascinating.
Furtwängler's post-war recordings, though still full of contrasts, are more transcendental in overall effect, more affirmative. EMI has frequently reissued the performance from July 29, 1951, from the concert that reopened Bayreuth (which, used as a political tool during WWII by the Nazis, had been shut down by the Allies following the war's end). The producer of this recording, the famous Walter Legge, could be most undiplomatic, and in Furtwängler's dressing room afterwards said to the conductor, "A good performance, but not as good as it might have been." Intriguing in light of Legge's comment is the recent rumor that what EMI released is not actually the concert recording, but instead was compiled from rehearsals. Either way, and Legge's opinion notwithstanding, this recording is astounding in its overall effect. If you don't already have it, you might as well acquire it in EMI's box set of Furtwängler in all the Beethoven symphonies.
Some aficionados prefer Furtwängler's very last performance of the work, at the 1954 Lucerne Festival. This was Legge's preference as well (it was another EMI recording, though I have it in the Tahra Legendary Concerts set, where the sound is better than an earlier M&A issue), but it was not issued until decades after the fact. By then, the 1951 Bayreuth recording -- the first of the conductor's Ninths to come out -- was the standard against which others had to measure up. The 1951 Bayreuth recording is not perfect. Most noticeable is that between the 9th and 10th minutes of the third movement, there is some rather sour intonation and the prominent horn solo is especially out-of-tune. The Lucerne version, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, is not similarly afflicted. Vocal soloists in each are fine, with soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and bass Otto Edelmann common to both (and excellent), contralto Elsa Cavelti sounding more mellifluous and less forced in '54 than Elisabeth Höngen in '51, while '54 tenor Ernst Häfliger and Hans Hopf are equally fine. In Lucerne, the chorus sounds clearer and is miked more closely, but that reveals them to be a smidge less well prepared and a bit thinner in tone; orchestral sound is clearer in '54 as well.
But in interpretive terms, I feel Bayreuth '51 comes off slightly better. The first movement is tauter and more involving (again, not a matter of speed; it's just a few seconds faster). The inner movements (aside from the deficient execution already mentioned) are both similarly fine. The fourth movement differs most of all. In 1954, points are made forcefully, and perhaps a bit self-consciously; in '51, everything comes together seamlessly, flowing from moment to moment in a way that seems absolutely ideal, perhaps a tad less intense at moments but achieving an Apollonian transcendence through perfect proportions. Lucerne is perhaps more emotionally moving, but Bayreuth is better music-making. It's a blessing that we can enjoy all three with their contrasting virtues, six decades and more later.
9. Wagner: Tristan und Isolde: Kirsten Flagstad, Blanche Thebom, Ludwig Suthaus, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Josef Greindl/Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Philharmonia Orchestra: studio recording at Kingsway Hall in London, June 10-22, 1952
Despite a bit of controversy about Schwarzkopf dubbing in a high C for Flagstad, this has been hailed since it was first released in 1953. Of course, it suffers from the curse of all Wagner opera recordings -- perfection is seemingly impossible, because there are just too many factors involved, especially in casting the singers -- but it offers more than enough merits to make up for being in mono sound (nice clear mono sound, it should be noted). Many of the merits flow from the conducting. Tristan und Isoldeis a smoother-flowing construction than arguably any other Wagner opera, and Furtwängler's mastery of structure and ongoing tempo modifications serves him well. There's never a sense of the action grinding to a halt for a big aria, for instance, and the drama ebbs and flows organically rather than occurring in spurts. The singing is not as strong as some would like; even with noted Wagnerian Suthaus as an emotive yet well-modulated Tristan, golden-toned Flagstad as Isolde, and then-young Fischer-Dieskau as Kurwenal (a bit strained at peak volume, but wonderfully attentive to small details), it's far from an all-star cast. But the other singers -- most importantly, Thebom as Brangäne (occasionally unsteady, but always emotionally on point) and Greindl as King Mark (though some might prefer a heavier voice here) -- offer all the acting skills the parts require, if not necessarily ideal power. And working in the studio, moderating the orchestra so that the singers are rarely overbalanced, Furtwängler makes it work wonderfully as an ensemble piece. That none of the singers stand out too far from the rest is actually a blessing in disguise. Overall excellence counts for more than star power, and as many lesser Wagner albums have proven, star power too often serves itself rather than the music. Here we have a recording that over the course of four-and-a-quarter hours serves the music magnificently. EMI Classics has kept it in print continuously.
10. Bruckner: Symphony No. 5: Berlin Philharmonic in concert in Berlin on October 28, 1942
Furtwängler's adept handling of vast structures stood him in good stead whenever he took on the epic symphonies of Bruckner. This is a particularly impressive example; in spite of some rather deliberate tempos, he makes this into a dramatic experience full of contrast yet cohering magnificently. While one would never call it "light," it is certainly luminous; he makes this music glow with an inner radiance. This performance is in included in a Deutsche Grammophon five CD set of somewhat erratic quality, Recordings 1942-1944 vol. 2, and on a few other labels as well.
11. Weber: Der Freischütz: Elisabeth Grümmer, Rita Streich, Hans Hopf, Alfred Poell, Oscar Czerwenka, Kurt Böhme, Karl Dönch, Claus Clausen, Otto Edelmann/Vienna State Opera Chorus/Vienna Philharmonic live at the Salzburg Festival on July 26, 1954
The first major German Romantic opera (1821), Der Freischütz (The Marksman) tells a supernatural tale of a forester trying to win a shooting contest who lets an evil acquaintance talk him into making magic bullets with the assistance of the supernatural being Samiel, the Black Huntsman. The terrifying scene in the Wolf's Glen, where this is done, proved hugely influential upon German opera, not least upon Wagner. There are, I know, recordings with better sonics than this 1954 Salzburg Festival performance (on Music & Arts). And since I've chosen a studio recording and an unstaged concert reading so far to represent his opera work, I felt compelled to include a fully staged performance as well (I could just as well have gone with his great 1953 Don Giovanni). Furtwängler was a great admirer of this opera, writing that "this score, with its certainty of intention, its compelling mystery of part-writing and sound in every bar, its telling characterization of human emotions, was written with an insight into the particular needs of the theater that marks it as one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature," and then went on to characterize it as "a genuine communal experience." He makes it seem almost like a religious ceremony in the breadth with which he handles it, but nobody surpasses Furtwängler's sense of drama and dark foreboding, either; the eruption of the Wolf's Glen scene is all the starker for its contrast with the measured handling of the rest.
12. Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61: Yehudi Menuhin/Lucerne Festival Orchestra in studio recordings at the Lucerne Kunsthaus on August 28-29, 1947
13. Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64: Yehudi Menuhin/Berlin Philharmonic in a studio recording in Berlin at the Jesus-Christus Kirche on May 26, 1952
These masterful collaborations with his post-war defender show Furtwängler's abilities as an accompanist, which I have neglected (unless you count opera) until this point. The 1947 Beethoven, made in conjunction with a Lucerne Festival appearance that was something of a celebration of Furtwängler having been cleared by the Allies of any taint of Nazism, not only finds Menuhin in especially good form as far as tonal production, it also finds Furtwängler's Beethoven typically supple in his handling of tempo relationships within the work's monumental structure, finding great majesty in the work. The Mendelssohn is, of course, quite different stylistically, and here we get to hear the verve and lightness Furtwängler was capable of when appropriate.
I could have listed more -- many more -- recordings, but this is a fairly representative list that covers most of his most acclaimed and crucial performances, filtered of course through my personal tastes (which explains why his two Schumann symphony recordings didn't quite make the cut). There is indubitably greatness throughout all of these recordings. Time and again, Furtwängler, a composer himself, enters into these classic works and points out features other conductors whisk past. He imbues them with spontaneity and a life-force that raises them above mere passive listening experiences into transformative events. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.