Furtwaengler Conducts Beethoven – Piano Concerto #4, Pastoral Symphony

by | May 23, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58; Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 “Pastoral” – Conrad Hansen, piano/ Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Wilhelm Furtwaengler – Pristine Audio PASC 590, 78:31 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

The wartime performances led by Wilhelm Furtwaengler in his native Germany always raise the issue of art and politics, especially made poignant by the fact that Maestro Furtwaengler had achieved the height of his artistic power in the midst of a moral maelstrom, the likes of which the world yet continues to reel.  But assuming the aesthetics concern us here, I must differ with the assessment of John Ardoin, whose commentary accompanies the album, when he asserts that Edwin Fischer protégé, pianist Conrad Hansen, does not qualify as a “peer” of Furtwaengler in his 31 October 1943 performance of the G Major Concerto.  While Hansen’s realization of the first movement cadenza goes “astray,” it seems no more wayward – even less so – than Artur Schnabel’s idiosyncratic, even weird, cadenza digressions in the Mozart C Minor Concerto.  And few auditors of Beethoven would deny, despite Schnabel’s less than precision playing, his status as a “peer” in Furtwaengler’s concert world.

The warm power of the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwaengler at the Alte Philharmonie, here restored by Andrew Rose, enjoys a creamy resonance that makes the orchestral parts a glory to audition. While Ardoin finds Hansen’s phrasing “unaccountably harsh,” we might hear a pointed aggression in the keyboard part that sets a firm contrast and emotional tug of war as an aspect of the composer’s own, dualistic nature. Often, the lyrical passages and arpeggios, crisp and articulate, extend the ripe emotive power of the ideas, so many of which – with their rhythmic impetus – resemble aspects of the C Minor Symphony. Much of the development section of the first movement offers alternative, sweeping power and demure intimacy, established between Hansen and the BPO woodwinds.  Furtwaengler’s periods, his rhetorical landings, become object lessons in themselves – especially in the transition to the recapitulation – on Classical architecture. Hansen’s trill needs no defense, and his long-awaited rejoining of the orchestra at the conclusion of the cadenza has both mystery and romantic girth.

I must concur with Ardoin that the second movement, Andante con moto, bears an extraordinary gravitas, the chords rich with ominous portent that the keyboard attempts to ameliorate. The performance that approaches this in my musical memory occurred when Alexis Weissenberg performed the work in Atlanta.  Hansen’s dynamic progression seems to me quite attuned the Furtwaengler’s dramatic pulse. The trills grow, enlarge, reach upward and then dissolve into scalar arpeggios to which the BPO basses respond. And so we segue through the mists into the Rondo: Vivace, another of Furtwaengler’s miracle first chords.  The robust energy of the movement finds moments of luminous reserve, and the fortes resonate without rhetorical exaggeration.  Both pianist and conductor release the bold passion that can project real menace in this otherwise breezy form, a tragic awareness just beneath the surface: the same terms that Joseph Conrad employed to describe the fragile nature of civility.

Portrait Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven,
by Hornemann

The Beethoven Pastoral (20-22 March 1944) with Furtwaengler resonates with a grand sense of “Paradise Lost,” that we view the wonders of Creation from a point after Adam’s Fall. The 2/4 rhythm of the opening Allegro ma non troppo proceeds moderato, deliberate, often marcato, emphasizing the almost anguished stretti in Nature’s richness.  The homogeneity of string tone testifies to a wondrous control of the sound picture. The lush contours of this F Major paean hardly dissipate before we enter another “Cathedral of Nature” in the 12/8 Scene by the Brook in B-flat Major.  The invocation of a sustained, pantheistic idyll, as Ardoin points out, cements a two-part design in this reading, wherein the first two movements and the last three form a diptych. The reduction in tempo of the first movement coincides with Furtwaengler’s pace (Andante molto mosso) for the Hymn of Praise in movement five, thus invoking a kind of ouroboros. What lies between the two outer movements, notwithstanding the furies of the F Minor Storm sequence, might qualify as Marvell’s “green thought in a green shade.”  Intimate, devotional, seamless in execution, the performance bears the hallmarks of a lush chamber ensemble, here concentrated on building what Paglia calls a temenos, a sacred space, far in time and space from the human, all-too-human verities of 1944.  Beautifully restored sound, courtesy of Andrew Rose and his patented XR process.

—Gary Lemco

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