Furtwängler Celebrates Bruckner = Symphony No. 9 in d minor; Symphony No. 7 in E Major: Adagio – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Wilhelm Furtwängler – Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 350 125, 79:56 (7/7/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] *****:
Praga Digitals restores the famous Furtwängler 1944 Bruckner Ninth with a new, grand intensity not to be denied.
Much ink has been invested into discussions of the famed, live sound document, from 7 October 1944, in which Wilhelm Furtwängler left us his only surviving thoughts on Bruckner’s 1894 Ninth Symphony, prepared for the Bruckner Society in an edition by Orel and further edited by Robert Haas. The date of the performance and its venue clearly place this convulsively agonized reading squarely within the throes of a crumbling Third Reich, the ironic locale for some of the humanitarian conductor’s most fervently passionate concerts. The various prior incarnations of this historic performance on label such as Music & Arts preserved its sonic defects as well as its hyper-romantic virtues: those sonic imperfections seem to have completely disappeared in this marvelously wrought version from Praga, and the cumulative effect has become monumental in its emotional impact.
I do not feel compelled to recount the music’s debts to Wagner by way of instrumentation—the Wagner tubas, for instance—and the various assessments of Bruckner’s essentially “periodic” structure in relation to an expansive rondo-sonata form. Instead, consider the level of orchestral response Furtwängler elicits from his “wife,” the Berlin Philharmonic, at a time of Germany’ most sustained spiritual crisis, when its very sense of cultural legitimacy had been compromised, tarnished, and damned for all humanity.
Whether Bruckner’s impulse had been to expand from Wagner’s Ring or Parsifal, the active quest for spiritual redemption and regeneration has become palpable, from the mysterious opening to the first, shattering climax and beyond. The often sinister Scherzo vibrates with an uncanny intensity, moving with controlled dynamics from piano pizzicato to a feral fortissimo, only to scamper into an unearthly f-sharp minor. Bruckner’s penchant for chorale motives pervades the outer movements, but most exquisitely and tragically in the E Major of the last movement Adagio, a pregnant moment of reflection that invokes the “Dresden Amen.” The flood of light that Furtwängler evokes illumines a shattered world, Adam after The Fall, desperately lamenting Paradise Lost and groping for a reprieve. The bucolic elements—whether meant as consolation or ironic commentary on Nature’s impotence in the face of human foibles—assume a nervous repose that finds a complement in sublime, personal contemplation. The consistent level of the entire procession Furtwängler maintains without any sense of sag: for Bruckner’s music, this alone warrants high praise, given the labyrinthine meanderings of his melodic lines. The stunning Berlin Philharmonic brass—and that includes the manic flute parts—seem to have risen to new heights, if only to convey the agony of spiritual yearning. The last pages, for my imagination, seem to have rent the veil of Maya and survived a long, hard look into the Abyss.
The 7 April 1942 Adagio from the Symphony No. 7 in E Major (1878/1880/1883) affords us another live concert document, from that same year that brought us the most hysterical account of the Beethoven Ninth in my recollection. Once more, the spirit of Wagner looms nigh, but applied not to the pompously heroic spirit immersed in Valhalla, but to an expansive moment of reflection. That this movement shares impulses from the composer’s contemporary Te Deum has been well noted, as a way of asserting a kind of “religiosity” to what had been Wagnerian echoes from the Ring Cycle. The huge climax in C Major has from Furtwängler’s edition a cymbal crash and triangle roll that may or may not invite dispute. Bruckner addends the coda of this movement to honor Wagner’s having passed away in Venice in 1883. But with Furtwängler, we focus on the death of the Great German Tradition, that of Winckelmann, Goethe, Thomas Mann, and Beethoven, those who had upheld art’s deep commitment to morality.