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LEBRECHT LISTENS | Furtwängler’s Ticket To Ride

By Norman Lebrecht on July 30, 2021

Etching of Furtwängler from 1928
Etching of Furtwängler from 1928

Wilhelm Furtwängler: 1st symphony (CPO)

★★☆☆☆

🎧   Amazon | Presto

In the spring of 1943, with millions being murdered across the continent of Europe, Germany’s wealthiest conductor summoned the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to rehearse a symphony he had written in B minor, his first. Furtwängler had been writing it, on and off, since 1908 and had lately added a fourth movement for which he had high hopes. These aspirations were dashed on first play-through. “Am very depressed,” he told his wife.

Of all things to get depressed about at this darkest moment in modern history, a symphony seems relatively trivial, but such was the size of the maestro’s ego that it occluded most things around him, including the Nazi horrors which he chose to ignore. The symphony was supposed to be his ticket to posterity, and he must have realised, during rehearsal, that it would not buy him a ride anywhere beyond the suburbs.

Furtwängler died in 1954 and, though his cult as a legendary conductor continued to grow, his first symphony did not get performed until 1991. Two recordings were issued soon after, neither of them convincing. I was hoping for more from the Württemberg Philharmonie of Reutlingen, conducted by Fawzi Hamor, on a label that performs noble service to German music, great and small. It soon confirmed my long impression that Furtwängler’s composing talent was too small to be measured on any musical scale.

If Bruckner married Mahler and hired Wagner and Brahms to tutor their backward child, the infant might have doodled something like Furtwängler’s B-minor symphony. This work is not so much composed as collaged. Trademarked themes of other composers are pasted onto a vast canvas of almost ninety minutes, each movement opening with a tune you know you’ve heard before.

The wholesale theft of classical treasures becomes so blatant that, six minutes into the Adagio, Furtwängler starts churning out chunks of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, as if we’d never know. Vanity aside, he repeats himself (or others) over and over again until you wonder how it was possible that so insightful and atmospheric a conductor could be so deaf and senseless to his own emanations. The fine musicians of Reutlingen do their level best to get us through; the fawning sleeve-notes are the most muddled I have read in years.

To read more from Norman Lebrecht, subscribe to Slippedisc.com.

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