Saturday, December 11, 2004

Furtwangler and Brahms Fourth

Schroeder, of Peanuts fame, once said that when he wanted an uplifting experience, he listened to Brahms Fourth. (For those of you who think Schroeder's a one-composer cartoon character.)

I have a few recordings of Brahms' Fourth Symphony, but one stands out from all the rest: the Berlin Philharmonic's recording under Wilhelm Furtwangler's direction. This is a live recording . . .

I have to interrupt; that moment in the second movement is playing, the one with the swelling strings that is the emotional core of the Fourth's slow movement. Every time I listen to this version of it, this moment, and the one about minute and a half later where the french horn play the movement's theme for a final time, gives me goosebumps, literally. I get warmed up. It's the sound of the orchestra, the commitment of the orchestra. It's a wholeness in the sound. It's something that only Furtwangler seemed to able to do, and only when he was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. It's a moment here and there when it gets to me like this; something similar happens when I listen to the same forces at the beginning of the Unfinished Symphony of Schubert from 1954, where the BPO plays with a darkness that I have not heard equaled by anyone.

And yet, this was most likely made in 1943, in Nazi Germany, in an orchestra purged of its Jews which included its concertmaster, Szymon Goldberg. I feel guilty enjoying it as much as I do.

Furtwangler helped to save the Jews in the BPO, and yet, he is the subject of debate because he chose to remain in Germany during the war. For those who accord the artist responsibility during wartime and tyranny, Furtwangler is a villain who at best allowed himself to be used by the regime. For those who are less demanding, Furtwangler is a man who never became a Nazi, fought the regime as best as he knew how by doing things like standing up for Paul Hindemith in 1934, saving Jewish friends when he could, trying to refuse requests from Nazi leaders to play concerts in Hitler's honor (though he didn't always succeed), getting plainly mistreated by the regime, which sullied his reputation abroad by suggesting that he was a Nazi when he wasn't and by purposely talking up Herbert von Karajan, a real Nazi, in order to dull his prestige, and giving performances that are, frankly, considered some of the greatest performances of basic repertoire there are.

I've always wondered about this paradox. Furtwangler arguably gave his greatest performances during the war. They stretch the music to its limits; the greatest example of this is the 1942 Beethoven 9th, something unique for its blazing intensity, the utter commitment of slowness of the third movement. It's the work of a troubled genius, and more than one critic has speculated that performances like these were in part artistic statements against the regime.


At 10:41 AM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

People have a set of certain expectations; usually because they've never been in the actual situations. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you just don't live up to that reputation. If Furtwangler had fled, he wouldn't have been able to save the Jews.


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