Music & Arts CD-790, 75:20 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
All of the surviving performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Wilhelm Furtwangler (1886-1954) are taken from live broadcasts and concerts; for his own reasons, Furtwaengler eschewed a studio realization of what he considered a communal property of the score. This present incarnation (22 August 1954) derives from extremely “present” tapes of the conductor’s last, broadly-conceived performance of the work. The excellent sound (digitally restored, 2007) is almost tympani-heavy, with its rolling figuration emphasized as part of one of Furtwaengler’s most methodical, deliberate evolutions, especially in the first movement. The martial riffs that dominate the oboe and brass well anticipate the janissary motifs that color the last movement. Both the preparation for and the graduated working out of the first movement coda urge a solemn sense of Divine Creation, Shelley’s “creator and destroyer.”
The Scherzo combines resolution with unleashed, primal energy, the trumpet parts and strings aglow from some inner fire. The distinction between the secular and the sacred breaks down in the midst of the ravishing tensile strength of the musical line, the inevitability of the Dionysiac cadences. Lovely bassoon work for the Trio: the flute, French horn, oboe, and strings in light-handed interplay to usher in the broad dance whose lyrical melody achieves an organ sonority. While critics spill much ink on Furtwaengler’s readings of the last movement, it may well be that the real miracle of this performance is the Adagio, whose double-theme-and-variations Furtwaengler took as an emanation of the Oversoul, a Platonic essence of humanity. If ever Furtwaengler came close to leading a slow movement from Mahler, as in the G Major Symphony, it is here.
The last movement, a virtual microcosm of the previous movements and their development–condensed into one integrated gesture that subdivides into four sections–provides Furtwaengler the humanistic forum his great training demanded, the huge choruses arching into inter-stellar space. The final quartet elicits every vocal nuance from the singers, Schwarzkopf and Edelmann at their respective poles of entreaty. The janissary frenzy that ensues, the high-pitched woodwinds, brass, and battery, congeal into a rush to judgment, a great valedictory paroxysm for reconciliation. Wonderful stuff!