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Monday, March 14, 2011

Furtwängler: The Composer

Wilhelm Furtwängler. Photo  from the archives of the Berlin Philharmonic
 © Wilhelm-Furtwängler-Gesellschaft.
The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) remains a controversial figure today. He was widely criticized for remaining in Hitler's Germany up until 1944. (He left for Switzerland, hours before he was nearly arrested.) However, the maestro never joined the Nazi party, and made successful efforts to rescue Jewish musicians and composers and get them out of Germany.

The years following the fall of Hitler marked the rise of the recording industry, and Furtwängler (following de-Nazification hearings in 1946) became one of its first stars. But he always considered himself a composer first, and a conductor second. His best-known work is the Symphony No. 2 in E Minor. Written during his years in Switzerland, is an enormous four-movement work. Epic in size and scope, it is a cousin to the Bruckner Eighth, but with a distinct voice of its own.

The Second Symphony proves Furtwängler to be a talented, if conservative composer. He eschews the serial techniques of the 20th century, using an old-fashioned structure to work out his musical ideas at length. Not surprisingly, the Second dropped into obscurity after its 1947 premiere. However, in 2002, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra applied itself to performing and recording the work, under the baton of Daniel Barenboim.

Here's the Furtwängler Second, movement by movement.

First Movement: Assai moderato
A stately opening in the bassoons yields to horns, then a slow figure in the strings. The instruments play a soft canon, joined by the English horn. Then, the main theme, building and swelling as clarinets and trumpets add color. The brass surges forth over a river of strings. Quotes from Wagner are audible. The work rises to a climax three times, stops, and surges again.

Second movement: Andante semplice
A questing theme in the clarinets gets handed over to the low strings. This is a slow, surging, pastorale, with bird-twitters in the flutes and gentle rolls of timpani.

Third Movement: Scherzo, un poco Moderato
The third is a meaty Scherzo, with chorales of Bach-like complexity unfolding in the woodwinds and horns over chugging, propulsive strings. The trio section features a slower tempo and extraordinarily detailed dialogue between the woodwinds.

Fourth Movement: Langsam, Allmählich vorwärts/Allegro molto
This one of the longest symphonic movements not written by Gustav Mahler, clocking in on this recording at 30'13". It takes the form of a long climb to a musical summit. The finale opens with a descending figure and a soft hunting call in the horns that will eventually transform into the noble main theme of the finale.

The strings mourn, playing tremolos and shimmering figures. These alternate with the slow hunting calls, providing the entire movement with steady, relentless momentum. Finally, the summit, and a majestic brass coda in the final minute, followed by moretremolos and three loud chords to bring this massive symphony to a close.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats