Furtwängler conducts Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
   

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Furtwängler conducts Beethoven's Fifth Symphony

in 1937, 1943 and 1954

 

Introduction

I - Allegro con brio

II - Andante con moto

III - Allegro

IV - Allegro

 

Furtwängler, 1951

 

 

Introduction

 

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 once said.

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.

 

 

 

I - Allegro con brio

 

 

 

1.                                                   

  1954

Principal theme

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 particular cell.

       
 

2.                                                     

  1937 1943 1954

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 :

       
 

3.                                                   

  1937 1943 1954

Ending of Recapitulation (ff)

See above

       
 

4.                                                   

 

1937

regarded by many

as the "ideal" tempo

1943

slower and tenser,

preferred by others

1954

broad tempo,

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.

       
 

5.                                                   

 

1937

1943

1954

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.

       
 

6.                                                   

 

1937

1943

1954

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.

       
 

7.                                                   

 

1937

1943

1954

Peak of the movement (before the final peroration)

       
 

8.                                                   

 

 

1937

 

nobility of conception

(sempre ff)

1943

 

ff, descrescendo, and specta-cular crescendo re-rising to unheard-of heights

1954

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 !

       
 

9.                                                   

 

1937

beautifully lyrical, without undue sentimentality

1943

hushed tension, with a quietly threatening quality

1954

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.

       
 

10.                                                   

 

1937

lyrically serene

1943

incredibly tense on the pp

1954

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”.

       
 

11.                                                   

 

1954

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.

 

 

Movements 1, 2, 3, 4

 

 

The composer | The Man - | The conductor