The present introduction to Furtwängler's art of conducting was
initially released in 1998 by Tahra Records on a 2 CD set Furt 1032-1033 including the complete recordings of the three
sessions. It it published here by courtesy of Sami-Alexander Habra and Tahra Records.
This particular work allows us a wonderful insight into Furtwängler’s
art, it being the symphony that he conducted more than any other work during his career (more than 200 times), and which had a special meaning to him : « one of the summits of western civilisation », as he
Out of the twelve different recordings that have come down to us (from 1926 to 1954), the three chosen in this set illustrate perfectly Furtwängler’s evolution, all three performances having been captured at
significant periods of his life. In all three cases, it is the same orchestra : the Berlin Philharmonic.
Without going the length of talking of “Furtwängler’s first manner, second manner, etc…”, let us say that each version symbolises an artistic period of the great conductor : Nobility and Lyricism (1937),
Rebellion and Tragedy (1943), supreme Sovereignty (1954). Other features of his Art are not dealt with, here, i.e. : youth and vehemence (1926), rebirth and hope (1947), although these assets are still
underlying or present in all three versions analysed here.
One of the main reasons which made Furtwängler so great was his everlasting quest for Truth in this work (as well as in many others). This explains the apparent differences between these three performances;
whereas an overwhelming majority of conductors have sought to freeze, once and for all, their own immovable conception of the Fifth Symphony. But Furtwängler’s sincerity, commitment and great love for Beethoven
are such as to convince the listener that any of the three performances, heard individually, is the ideal one. We shall now speak of these differences which we will call “variables”, as well as of an important
number of “constants” in Furtwängler’s basic conception.
The legendary start, the meaning of which has always eluded us, is said to be fascinating by some, quite
naive by others (“a small child could have found this theme”), even considered laughable by some modern composers….. Furtwängler has always treated it as an Epigraph
or Title. In order to perform this debut the way he felt, he was in the habit of creating a great tension among the players just before starting (the celebrated wavering and
trembling of his baton). He would then release that tension with the utmost power. A famous story tells us about Music academy professors who, fascinated by Furtwängler’s
treatment of this entry, enthusiastically describe it to their pupils, at the same time strongly advising them not to try to imitate it ! This entry is mathematically
unbalanced, Beethoven having written here an additional full bar to the second fermata. This could be one of the reasons for which Furtwängler invariably isolates this
Entry into the Recapitulation (ff)
From this point; the Title will be treated in the same way at each recurrence, with optimum power drawn from
all desks concerned. Let us not forget that Schindler, friend and disciple of Beethoven, used to tout Europe, recommending the above reatment to eminent musicians such as
Liszt, Mendelssohn and others, even if said musicians did not always see eye to eye with Schindler. Here are the two most striking examples of the recurrence of this cell,
the performance of which – either gradual or sudden rallentando – has always been very trying technically for the players :
Ending of Recapitulation (ff)
regarded by many
as the "ideal" tempo
slower and tenser,
preferred by others
noble and sovereign
The basic tempo of the 1st movement is always independent of the Epigraph : this is a Furtwängler constant
again, even if the basic tempi in all three performances under study are far from being identical. Let us listen to all three tempi, up to the return of the principal cell.
The basic pace is off again, followed by a crescendo culminating into three fortissimi,
expressed by Furtwängler in pure energy, namely on the string section, and so on until the cell’s 4th appearance on the horn.
The rush into the abyss (development)
This particular energy on the strings shall always be a striking
feature of the movement. Another example is given hereunder.
Peak of the movement (before the final peroration)
nobility of conception
ff, descrescendo, and specta-cular crescendo re-rising to unheard-of heights
full power, slight decres-cendo, and
impressive re-rising to full level, with special emphasis on the horns: Michelangelo a statue out of marble...
Starting from the peak of the movement, every single note shall be made of iron, while we witness the theme
falling down, only to be reborn of its embers and rise in the spectacular way that only a Beethoven could have achieved !
beautifully lyrical, without undue sentimentality
hushed tension, with a quietly threatening quality
supremely serene, senza troppo espressione
We must not omit the Second Theme ! Stemming organically from the cell on the horn solo, it is always
performed by Furtwängler at a slightly more moderate tempo than the main theme. This Furtwängler constant allows him proper equilibrium between the Dionysiac and the
Apollinian. However some variables differentiate the three performances.
incredibly tense on the pp
on the brink of an abysmal depth
Other variables can be observed in the Adagio solo of the oboe, brought on quite “naturally” by the
strings, with more pronounced rallentando in 1943 and 1954. Thanks to the insight that Wagner had obtained by the proper execution of this passage, he claims to have
“gained a new point of view, from which the entire movement appeared in a clearer and warmer light, so entirely remote from a movement solely based on inexorable arithmetic
rythmics or digital gymnastics”.
Finally, let us draw the listener’s attention to the impressive silence which follows the last recurrence of
the main theme, just before the coda : the length of this silence has always varied, depending on the emotional intensity expressed all through the movement.