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Furtwängler's heritage



Elisabeth, Andreas & Wilhelm, 1954





Furtwängler's heritage


Vladimir Ashkenazy. Regarded as perhaps the world's foremost Rachmaninov interpreter - "one of them", he insists in his deep, still-Slavic baritone - Ashkenazy denies that it takes a Russian-born conductor to fully bring out the soul of Russian composers. "I remember hearing Wilhelm Furtwangler's Tchaikovsky Four, one of the best I've ever heard. And he was … [He raises his eyebrows] German."

A baton, a scalpel and a lasting bond. Interview published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 22nd November 2006


Daniel Barenboim, the famous Israeli pianist and conductor is a champion of Furtwängler as a conductor and as a composer. He gives his views about Furtwängler in the war time: "Furtwängler is a very complex personality... He's a specific type of German intellectual around the first world war and right after, at a time of cultural nationalism. The problem was that this cultural nationalism led to fascism. But Furtwängler claims he decided to stay in Germany in order to defend German culture. The barbaric aspects of the Nazi regime were foreign to him. I think he was sincere about that. That's really how it was. He was in no way a Nazi. I think he helped many Jewish members of the Berlin Philharmonic. He didn't leave. I don't think it's right to accuse him. He wasn't just someone who played music wonderfully but was unique in that he had a great sense of the philosophy of music. He understood what sound was about. He understood the nature of music, as something that through sound integrates everything - the intellect, the sentiment, the sensuality."

 "Europe has to take the initiative now", an interview in The Guardian, 30th November 2004


Philippe Herreweghe
LeVif.be: It is said that the Ninth Symphony is the culmination of secular music and the Missa Solemnis, the culmination of religious music. Yet it is rarely performed. Why?
Philippe Herreweghe: For various reasons. This is a very difficult music to play and sing. Even the famous conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, a Beethoven's specialist, considered as the best interpreter of his symphonies, always said : "Missa Solemnis, it's too hard. Beethoven was maniac about pushing performers beyond their limits. Moreover, the underlying message of the Missa Solemnis is not easy to read. When hearing it for the first time, it puts you off. Besides, when you ask knowledgeable people about masterpieces of music, they will quote the late quartets of Beethoven or Bach's fugues and never the Missa Solemnis, because they do not know it. Yet it is a legendary monument of intelligence and depth.

Philippe Herreweghe : "Mon rêve, ce serait de devenir cantor à Flagey !", LeVif.be, 14 novembre 2011


Valery Gergiev, the Russian conductor pays his tribute to Furtwängler :

Kaplan: The Third Movement from Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. The Vienna Philharmonic led by Valery Gergiev, my guest on today's edition of "Mad About Music". Now you said that today's conductors are always looking over their shoulders at the giants of the past. Who are the conductors of the past you most admire?

Gergiev: There are a few names, which I cannot ignore, even if I wished. Furtwängler - great German conductor. Not only conducting but also his artistic statement. In a very, very complicated times, of Second World War. Hitler being there, in power. (...).

Kaplan: You know you're not the first to cite Furtwängler for his amazing abilities, but I wonder if you can be a little more specific for our audience. What for example are his musical ideas, or his interpretive ideas that you think makes him such a star?

Gergiev The most difficult thing in conducting is not to slip into mechanical beating. So this restless search for a real tempo, a real pulse, of practically each bar of music, rather than just one tempo for one movement, is something what very few conductors could ever master. Not many conductors will confess, maybe, that it will be something difficult for them to do, but then they will go and compete with Furtwängler, and most probably lose. Because it's kind of God-given gift,a genius quality, which one conductor contributes to the playing of the orchestra - I describe it in the following. You can't possibly imagine this same orchestra play the way they play with Furtwängler if you just remove him from the podium. It is just not possible to imagine they will do the same thing. They will be even maybe more organized, they'll be very focused in a certain ensemble, but they will never deliver this kind of incredible expression which he is able to bring to life once being in front of an orchestra. No matter if it was Berlin Philharmonic or Hamburg Radio Orchestra or Vienna Philharmonic, so that was his incredible quality.

Kaplan: (...) I think it's time we heard some Furtwängler. What did you bring today?

Gergiev: The "Great" symphony of Franz Schubert. We call it No. 9, sometimes we call it No. 7, but number doesn't matter; the quality of symphony and the quality of interpretation. Amazing. I believe in every movement there are so many changes of tempo. First, fantastic theme with horns are playing, and then, in the Second Movement, also it's very, very, it seems to be very settled but then it becomes so desperately dramatic. And again, the Third Movement, it's not just going like a clock, you know, da-da-da-da-DA-da-da-da-DA, it has the, you know, it has a bite, it has a freedom, it has a fire, and it has a style, so it's very Austrian. Schubert was really a shy man, but hear how this shy man sounds in the hands of Furtwängler.

Mad about Music. Valery Gergiev. Excerpts from an interview published on New York Public Radio, 1st June 2003


Marc Minkowski

I also like very much the extremes, like Hermann Scherchen, who electrifies me in Beethoven and, often, in Haydn, Toscanini, because his conducting brings out an energy, an attack, a biting that I continuously aim at, Fritz Reiner, sometimes Leopold Stokowski, for his curiosity and his excesses, Furtwängler, for the dimension of his extremely deep and extraordinarily taking interpretations, his options so free, so radical that they shed light on the relative stability of the interpretation of symphonic repertoire. One day, I was rehearsing in Germany with a radio orchestra the Symphonie by Bizet. In the initial movement, written by a very young composer, the themes are all very different, each having its own rhythmic cell and its tempo, which I was changing readily during the reading. A musician ask me « But why? », and I reply « But why not ? » Listening to Furtwängler's records, one does not even ask the question , nor, by the way, when you listen a string quartet, un piano quintet.

Le monde de Marc Minkowski, ResMusica, 29 March 2009


Anne-Sophie Mutter

[Beethoven's violin concerto is] a piece she first discovered at the age of five. "It was on an LP which my parents gave each other for their engagement," she says in precise, perfect English. "It was with the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Furtwangler, and it was the trigger for me to really want to play the fiddle."

Anne-Sophie Mutter: 'I'm just a working mother', The Independent, 1st May 2009



Yannick Nézet-Séguin

ResMusica: Could you explain [your] fascination for [Furtwängler] ?
First of all, it is the breathing est la respiration chez Furtwängler ; the ebb and flow, which has unfortunately, when it comes to orchestral music, disappeared nowadays. I regret this, as there is such an obsession with the metronome and by the fact that the respect of the text is opposed to subjectivity, that Furtwängler is considered as subjective. It is estimated today that one does not conduct like that, that he was adding to the score, and so on. And yet, the musical text is a code, we shall not forget that; I try more and more, in my work, to know what is behind "beyond the notes". Really sticking to the notes, to the directions, is like reading a book only by spelling the letters, without the words, and this makes the code meaningless. Furtwängler knew how to make breathing according to the musical phrase. For me this is the greatest respect of the text, contrary to this false respect which consists of taking the score literally, hence making it meaningless.


RM: Have you ever conducted his works ?
No, unfortunately. I know some works, as the Piano Concerto, the Violin Sonatas, and his Symphony n°2. A few years ago in Mexico, conducting its Symphony n°2 was discussed, but it aborted. This remains a project which is still very dear to me.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin : la passion et le talent, tout simplement, ResMusica, 12th May 2007



Paavo Järvi: "I grew up with Furtwängler's et Bruno Walter's recordings. (...) My father, the conductor Neeme Järvi, was bringing these records back from his tours in the West. The search for authenticity by the barocco orchestras  brought a lot to me, and I take that into account, but when I think of the beginning of Schubert's 9th Symphony (...), I think more and more that Furtwängler was right."

Paavo Järvi "L'autorité ne m'intéresse pas", Le Figaro, 28 novembre 2006










The composer | The man | The conductor