Furtwangler Conducts BEETHOVEN = Leonor Ov.; Sym. No. 7 & No. 8 – Vienna Philharmonic – Praga Digitals

by | Feb 9, 2017 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Praga gives us three Beethoven performances by the veteran Furtwaengler.

BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 3 in C, Op. 72a; Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92; Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93 – Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Wilhelm Furtwaengler – Praga Digitals mono-only SACD PRD/DSD 350127 (1/6/17) 79:22 [Distr. by PIAS] ****:

Assembled from Vienna concert and studio performances, 1944-1954, Praga revives three extremely potent readings of Beethoven by Wilhelm Furtwaengler (1886-1954), of which the Beethoven Eighth Symphony (8 August 1954) from Salzburg eluded – as had the performance of the Second Symphony (10/3/48 from Vienna) – collectors for many years. The disc opens with a June 2, 1944 reading of the Leonore Overture No. 3, a symphonic poem of 1806 in its own right that precludes any need for stage drama. Besides possessing a grand leisure, the performance moves with regal authority in all parts, as luminous as it can be sudden and fraught with intimations of the abyss of Florestan’s unjust imprisonment.  Furtwaengler builds a terrific tension that at first culminates in the famed trumpet call that resounds with the urge to political and personal freedom, certainly an ironic commentary on the climate of the occasion of June 1944.  The conversation between flute and bassoon incurs the rising figures in the Vienna basses and cellos, and veritable firestorm of torrential emotion.  The last pages swell and explode in a hurricane of festive jubilation, uncanny in the fever pitch of exultation that might just be a plea to let Germany’s and Europe’s peoples go.

Furtwaengler’s studio reading of the 1813 Seventh Symphony (18-19 June 1950) casts a warm glow over the three divergent tonalities – A, C, and F – that announce the unusually slow, broad progression of the Poco sostenuto opening of the first movement. Once the ur-rhythm establishes itself, the musical continuity moves, Vivace, with rollicking, relentless force. As much as the VPO strings dominate our consciousness, the horns and tympani no less resound with equally dramatic and lyrical authority. The rhythmic definition virtually erases the distinction between rhythm and melody, as had the Fifth Symphony. The coda becomes another development section, marked by a pulsating ostinato figure that perpetually crescendos. Virgil Thomson once called the Allegretto in a minor “the most tragic music Beethoven ever wrote.” Its rhythmic likeness to the second movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet has been well noted. Furtwaengler imbues this “walking motif” with a ghostly hue, almost a dirge for a bygone epoch. It might be appropriate to play this recording in tandem with Furtwaengler’s reading of the Richard Strauss Metamorphosen. We feel conductor and orchestra in perfect harmony, the unanimity of feeling and control of a vast, grave panorama. The fugato procedure does not diminish the solemnity of the occasion, and the subsequent layering of the materials proves exceptionally valedictory. The last two movements conform to Wagner’s assessment of the work as “the apotheosis of the dance.” The F Major Scherzo with its Austrian pilgrims’ hymn bursts forth with robust energy and a kind of rustic elegance. The finale, Allegro con spirito, appears as contrived mania, obsessive, unrelenting, and wild in its structural ambitions, collapsing on pairs of notes to a low E and D-sharp and then expanding the coda to almost 60 measures. Furtwaengler may not be Toscanini, but he manages to whip his forces into the requisite Dionysiac sensibility, into which the high winds instruments and whirling strings contribute their own, divine madness.

The 1814 Eighth Symphony – live from Salzburg captures Beethoven at his frothy best, having literally reinvented his tried and true Classical forms. The opening movement has Furtwaengler’s driven, marcato emphases on the latter beats of the phrases. Still, the opening Allegro vivace e con brio moves with a startling ease and fluency that belies its conformity to sonata-form tradition. The Vienna strings achieve a haunting facility of line that must be heard, especially in tandem with the percussive motions of the tympani and ascending scalar patterns of the horns. An oceanic sense of sonority emerges that casts a hefty, epic light upon this often humorous and irreverent music. The remainder of the performance proves equally rambunctious, from the Maelzel-based metronome second movement – with its own nods to Haydn – to the antiquated Minuet of the third movement, here performed with galant poise. The jabbing accents and harmonies of the Allegro vivace finale contain all sorts of slaps at convention, usually in the form of a loud, unison C-sharp.  Even some darker moments intrude into this wild maze of a dance, and it becomes Beethoven’s self-imposed task to “rescue” us from the throes of f-sharp minor. Verve, delicacy, and musical cunning inform the Furtwaengler rendition first to last, a striking testament to what he could achieve in a Beethoven score he had not addressed in the more manipulated confines of the recording studio.

—Gary Lemco



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