Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Furtwängler's Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, 1943

Today marks Wilhelm Furtwängler's one hundred-and-twenty-sixth birthday. Who knows whether Mahler or Wagner were 'greater' conductors? Here is unquestionably the greatest of whom we have recorded evidence, offering a flickering candle of hope during Germany's darkest night of the soul. 'Shattering' does not even come close to describing so magisterial a rebuke to Toscanini-like bandmasters and murderous politicians alike:

Max Reinhardt: 'People like Furtwängler must stay, if Germany is to survive.'

From Furtwängler's notebook in 1935: 'Art is truthfulness; what we have now is the opposite.'

Yehudi Menuhin: 'In listening to him, it is the impression of vast, pulsating space which is most overwhelming.'


Lisa Hirsch said...

Could you be more specific about the differences between Furtwangler and Toscanini in this music? The "bandmaster" swipe is like my dismissing RVW or another British composer by using the term "cowpat."

Mark Berry said...

Well, I'd have few problems with such a dismissal of RVW... But anyway, re Toscanini, I have simply never understood why he was taken seriously as a conductor. (Sometimes there are people/works, etc. one can understand why other people esteem, even if one does not oneself, but not in this case.) The music is never given space to breathe: not a matter of speed. Even Toscanini's slow Wagner fails to my ears to follow the melos of the music. Rather, the music is harried, browbeaten into submission, with apparently no sense of what it might mean, or indeed of anything approaching the metaphysical. All one has is someone dictatorially beating time, a walking metronome. And then there is the nonsensical claim of reading/performing only what is in the score (quite untrue, even on its own, staggeringly limited terms). But it is probably far better to let Furtwängler, who actually heard Toscanini, speak (Notebook, 1935):

'The "Diener am Werk" nonsense (Toscanini. A self-evident truth is held up as a major breakthrough. It is really a barrier, the self-restraint of a society of "literati" which has got out of control, against its own licentiousness. ... [This is] the myth of the ruler, of the animal-tamer. The latter quality is based on the slave instinct of the so-called audience and - let there be no illusions about this - was also in many ways the determining factor ... So it is not the experience of art, but the experience of the ruler. The dullness of this source, the subjective, all-too-human aspect of this quality, when compared with the true greatness of art, does not merit discussion. It is incidentally no coincidence that the "servants of the work" theory was not invented for the conductors R. Wagner or Mahler, say, or the pianists Liszt and Rubinstein, etc., but for people such as Bülow, Toscanini, etc.'

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ahaha! re RVW - I try to be as specific as possible rather than using shorthand, myself. And I think highly of RVW's symphonies and some of his other music, though I cannot bear the few overplayed pieces that are popular in the US. Can't stand the "Serenade to Music," either, though I have a sentimental soft spot in my heart for it owing to Eva Turner's appearance in the first 16.

Not enough space to breath is a reasonable point against Toscanini, though... On a Met broadcast years ago Will Crutchfield discussed rubato in various performances of "De miei bolenti spiriti" from Traviata and made a good case for the presence of rubato in Toscanini's performance on the live set. It's just subtler and over a shorter time scale than in other conductors.

As for taken seriously and's not clear that the best-known Toscanini, from the 50s, is representative of his best work. The recordings with the BBCSO, NYPO, and Philly from the 30s are supposed to be better.

Have you read Harvey Sach's bio? It puts him a historical context where it's easy to see why he was taken seriously. There's plenty in there also about how his contemporaries viewed.

Leonard said...

Dear Mark,

I'm really glad that people now know they should appreciate Furtwangler's great integrity - not only musical but also moral, and I think you are too.

It seems that you are quite taken by Wagner's theory (and thus Furtwangler's belief) on conducting (melos?). I would be grateful if you can write more on this subject.

As for the Coriolan Overture - one of my favourite dramatic overtures - I have only been truly moved by two conductors' renditions: Furtwangler's, and Carlos Kleiber's. Would you agree?

Thanks for your wonderful posts on this blogs.

Greetings from Hong Kong,