Beethoven: Symphony no 9 "Choral" / Wilhelm Furtwangler, Berlin Philharmonic
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 • Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond; Tilla Briem (sop); Elisabeth Höngen (alt); Peter Anders (ten); Rudolf Watzke (bs); Bruno Kittel Ch; Berlin PO • MUSIC & ARTS 1276, mono (73:12) Live: Berlin 3/22 & 24/1942
This is the most famous performance of the Beethoven Ninth ever given by a non-traditional, i.e. eccentric, conductor whose work lies mainly outside the musical mainstream. Furtwängler justified his brushing aside written tempos, tempo relationships, and other items within a score that one would perceive as musical by the belief—instilled in him as a young man and reiterated by his carefully-chosen circle of friends—that he was the most spiritual conductor of his time and the guardian of German Art, which he believed superior to all others. Thus in his mind, anything he did with a score was justified by his spirituality, which trumped all other considerations.
Within that set of rules, however, this performance has achieved an almost mythic status. Roughly 40 years ago, I was told (erroneously) that this performance was given in Hitler’s presence to celebrate his birthday, but that Furtwängler in essence hurled Beethoven’s message of joy and brotherhood down his throat with the ferocity of this performance. That, of course, is untrue, but it was true that by 1942 Furtwängler, who chose to remain in Nazi Germany to help preserve German Art in his own way (and help protect Jewish musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic), was not merely disillusioned but disgusted by the actions of his government and depressed by the fact that they went about purging Europe of Jews. Yet although Furtwängler never joined the Nazi Party, wore a swastika armband, or gave the Nazi salute, he tacitly supported the National Socialists because they constantly used his name and image to promote the very “Great German Art” of which he considered himself the high priest. And, according to Fred K. Prieberg’s remarkable book, Trial of Strength: Wilhelm Furtwängler in the Third Reich (Northeastern University Press, 1994), Furtwängler’s fluid and eccentric tempos were already falling out of favor with some German critics by the late 1930s. The conductor even petitioned Goebbels to “remove” certain critics who said negative things about his work because they obviously didn’t understand how great and holy he was. It was a dangerous high-wire act that he walked, and in the end it cost him a few years as Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic.
One of the problems of this recording was that it derived from Russian archival copies of RGG tapes, which contained peak and intermodular distortion. There were also small but discernible pitch fluctuations throughout. I recall a CD copy I once owned on the Price-less label (remember them?) that sounded as if the recording was made on a slab of granite by a stone cutting stylus, with blasting at all peaks of volume. In this pressing, taken from a digital copy newly remastered by Aaron Z. Snyder in 2012 (when Music & Arts issued it as part of 4-CD set 4049), pitch wavering and discernible surface noise have been corrected, but the top range still shows signs of blasting at peak volume and, by and large, the treble end is dull, not at all realistic-sounding—more like Furtwängler’s early Polydor recordings than the clear, translucent EMI recordings of the 1930s.
Within his own odd set of rules, however, it is primarily the first movement that comes off the worst. This seems to have been a constant for him: I’ve heard four Furtwängler Ninths (this one, the 1951 Bayreuth performance, and both of his 1954 performances), and none are convincing here. His intent seems to have been to depict the chaos of creation, or as he put it, “the primeval beginning of time, out of which everything evolved,” but in each performance those opening measures—and several minutes thereafter—sound logy and earthbound, more like something crawling back into the ocean that out of it. Of the four versions I’ve heard, this one is by far the most sluggish; it is not until just before the nine-minute mark that his tempo finally starts to come up to something approaching normal, albeit still slower than score. His second movement, however, is really splendid, and by contrast points out how unnaturally stiff and metronomic Toscanini’s tempo is in the December 1939 Ninth with the NBC Symphony. Furtwängler introduces some beautifully relaxed ritards here and there, and in the middle of the trio section (when the winds are playing) pulls back on the beat. The first time or two, it is exquisite; at the third and fourth points at which he does this, however, it is too slack, causing the music to lose momentum and almost collapse before the syncopated string figure that opened the movement returns, snapping the orchestra back to attention.
This is the slowest of his surviving accounts of the third movement (a little over 20 minutes), and like nearly all of his performances of the Symphony, it contains some of the most hauntingly beautiful playing within a consistently slow tempo, but here Furtwängler reveals his uncanny ability to make the music “float,” a quality much coveted in this movement by Toscanini, who only managed it a few times (oddly enough, one of them being the December 1939 Ninth previously mentioned). This is undoubtedly the one movement that most influenced younger German and Austrian conductors, from Schmidt-Isserstedt to Karajan, as they all emulated him in this regard. Then comes the fiery and electrifying final movement, in which the conductor’s whipping up of tempo is matched by his ability to draw the most astonishing playing out of his musicians—they respond as if possessed, as do the soloists and the Bruno Kittel Choir. Even if he was not really trying to hurl Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the face of Hitler, one definitely gets the feeling that, in his mind on that day, this Ode to Joy had become an act of defiance, almost distorting the music (and words) to produce an almost apocalyptic vision of the score. In short, one gets the feeling that Furtwängler was not certain whether he, or German art, would survive the Nazi horror, the war, and the Holocaust.
Despite my misgivings about tempos and phrasing here and there, this still remains a remarkable document. It is not my favorite Beethoven Ninth—that honor goes to Karajan’s 1975 (or 1976) recording with Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Agnes Baltsa, Peter Schreier, and José van Dam and the Berlin Philharmonic—but it is, on balance, Furtwängler’s best reading of the score. One might, in fact, replace the first movement of this version with the first movement of the August 1954 performance, which is not perfect but a little better, to get this conductor’s best approach to the Ninth. And one should remember that, in spite all of his loose tempos and fluctuations, Toscanini was greatly impressed by the feeling that Furtwängler was able to bring out in his performances, in certain works (Wagner, the Tchaikovsky Sixth, and the Mozart 40th symphonies) being influenced by the younger conductor. This, then, is certainly not a first choice Ninth in my view, but a necessary third or fourth recording to have around for the good things in it, which are many.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Catalog Number: MA CD-1276
Label: Music & Arts Program
Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor: Wilhelm Furtwängler
Orchestra/Ensemble: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Bruno Kittel Choir
Performer: Elisabeth Höngen, Peter Anders, Rudolf Watzke, Tilla Briem