BEETHOVEN: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62; Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica” – Vienna Philharmonic Orch. (Op. 55)/ Berlin Philharmonic Orch. (Op. 62)/ Wilhelm Furtwaengler – Pristine Audio PASC 488, 62:07 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
Great performances in the best sound by the great Futwaengler from the World War II era.
Given the extensive commentary and analytical documentation regarding these two wartime performances by Furtwaengler – the Coriolan (27-30 June 1943) and the Eroica (19-20 December 1944) – especially from John Ardoin, I can hardly shed new light upon these recordings. What they do testify to, given their ferocity and intensity, asserts that Furtwaengler’s greatest, humanistic, creative powers emerged at precisely the wrong moment in cultural history, while surrounded by the nadir of political regimes. Perhaps it doesn’t so much surprise us that Furtwaengler meant to suppress legally any document of the occasion, when the Urania label (in 1953) brought out this performance of the Eroica. The terrific tension that suffuses every measure – even more concentrated in the Marche funebre – gives us the impression of an Atlas whose shoulders bear the weight of the world, at least its aesthetic if not its moral, character. The shattering opening of the c minor Coriolan finds its match later in the overture, when Furtwaengler slows the tempo to emphasize the weak beat of the phrase, and the tragic muse entirely subsumes the melody devoted to Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother in the Heinrich von Collin adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.
I find myself missing the first movement repeat in Furtwaengler’s rendition, if only because the majestic scope of his vision and implacable sense of architecture remain so steadfast. Auditors consistently turn to the 1939 Toscanini Eroica for parallels in musical intensity and linear propulsion. I again turn to the Coriolan performance, an agony of orchestral expression, as if the conductor wrings beauty out of an enveloping chaos – and isn’t that the myth – the Birth of Venus from the emasculation of time? The tympanic punctuations deliver hammer blows, as if to reawaken the German nation to its moral and civic duty, asking in the urgent melos, whither our honor as a civilization? With any Furtwaengler reading from this period of cultural atrocity, we tend to pose spiritual, eschatological questions better left to religious pundits. But Furtwaengler, time and again, emerges as staunch. raging defender of our collective conscience – in the sense of James Joyce’s Stephen Daedelus – than any other spokesman of the era. To cite Bernard Shaw, “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints?”
The present restoration by Andrew Rose comes as close to a “definitive” incarnation of these readings as we are likely to welcome into our record collection of the Furtwaengler legacy.