Two Furtwaengler post-War performances remind us of his spiritual commitment to the German tradition.
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major “Romantic”; WAGNER: Parsifal – Good Friday Music – Berlin Philharmonic Orch. (Wagner)/ Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Wilhelm Furtwaengler – Praga Digitals mono SACD PRD/DSD 350 130, 77:32 (3/24/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:
Wilhelm Furtwaengler’s relationship to Bruckner remains intricate and controversial, in that he championed in this music derived from church modes and chorales perhaps as an anodyne to the colossal turmoil of the conductor’s life and times. Praga remasters a live Stuttgart performance (20 October 1951) of the 1874 “Romantic” Symphony, which – typical of Bruckner – underwent revisions until 1888, of which Furtwaengler opts for those of Robert Haas, 1878 and 1880. Despite the genial intent of the composition – perhaps best captured by the various readings by Bruno Walter – Furtwaengler imposes his idiosyncratic sense of tragedy upon the work, providing an epic intensity where bucolic transparency might prove more apt.
The Symphony itself takes its cues from bucolic traditions in Romanticism generally and from Schubert in particular. The “hunt” motif saturates much of the structure, while large, expansive periods congregate and disperse over the course – in the first movement – of a loose sonata-form. Furtwaengler has over seventy measures to unfold the first subject, already rife with French horn, string tremolos, and assorted brass. Bruckner’s sketchy “program” for this movement, wavering as it does between major and minor modes, involves a day’s awakening. The secondary, dance-tune suggests a rural peasant dance similar to the many Austrian laendler that inspire Schubert.
Schubert, once more, asserts his influence in the Andante quasi allegretto, set as a walking motif taken from Schubert’s second movement from the E-flat Piano Trio, D. 929. Furtwaengler elicits the transcendental qualities in the diaphanous passages that might even suggest the famous painting Friedrich painting of The Wanderer Above the Sea of Mist. The combination of prayer and serenade elements, enhanced by the French horn and flute duet, in concert with the other winds and deep strings, adds to the mystery. The procession becomes increasingly exalted and polyphonic, attaining a colossal girth whose color – given the Furtwaengler enchantment in sliding, scalar passages – betrays more than a moment of haunted Ingmar Bergman.
The Scherzo and Trio belong to the world of Breughel, here entitled Hunting Theme and Dance Tune During the Lunch Break prior to a People’s Festival. Even the “hunt” motif arises from a cushion of tremolo strings, though Furtwaengler urges the rhythm faster than some others, Walter and Kertesz, for instance. Still, even in the midst of eighth notes and triplets, the feeling of pantheistic liturgy reigns. Furtwaengler opens the Trio very slowly, balancing the phrases, which end on a chromatic turn rather anomalous in a country dance. The Finale manages to consolidate opposing energies in b-flat minor and E-flat Major with a penchant for what must be construed as a flattened C in order to effect a modality outside the regular chord structure Bruckner borrows from the opening of this “cyclic” work. The entire period-laden progression, for my money, could infiltrate Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal, except that later pages ring with organ sonorities built up for a spectacularly liberating coda. But the De profundis sensibility seems inseparable from the Furtwaengler reading of Bruckner, as epic a feeling of Man’s Fall as of Man’s Hope.
Furtwaengler’s credentials as a Wagner conductor remain intact, an affinity he exhibited as early as his tenure with Berlin Opera Orchestra. This rendition of the Good Friday Music from Parsifal (25 April 1951) derives from the concerts at Radio Cairo that left us a potent version of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. In Act III of the opera, Parsifal has come to recognize his worthiness to receive the Grail, and he proceeds to baptize Kundry. The bright colors of the orchestral excerpt reveal the rich chromatics of Wagner’s scoring, as well as his reliance on the “Dresden Amen.” Furtwaengler had to sympathize with its message of healing and redemption, and his performances glows, as well it should. The Berlin Philharmonic oboe, flute, French horn, and resonant strings make their case for a celebration that surpatheth human understanding.