Bruckner Symphony No. 5
Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony was always for Furtwangler one of music’s great defining experiences. There are echoes of it in his own First Symphony which he began when he was 17 and set aside, after too many troubled days and anguished nights, for the best part of 40 years. Furtwangler saw the Ninth as a religious work, a spiritual quest that ends in catastrophe and stunned acquiescence. He himself was deeply stirred by a performance he conducted in the Bruckner church at St Florian in Austria on October 10th, 1944. Curiously, in view of the importance of the work to him, there is only one extant Furtwangler version, a Berlin performance recorded three days earlier on October 7th, 1944.
“After such knowledge what forgiveness?” the poet asks. That is the question Furtwangler seems to be asking himself here at a political and spiritual nadir. There have been many great performances of the Ninth on record but none that registers the hell of the Adagio’s final C sharp minor climax as terribly as this. The rest is very fine, too; and well recorded for its time.
It is odd to find historical material of music as difficult as this being reissued in this essentially popular, mass-market two-for-the-price-of-one format. What will the unsuspecting buyer make of it, one wonders? (There are no notes whatsoever.) The Cairo Berlin PO Bruckner Seventh which completes the package is not so special. It is a performance that, by Furtwangler’s standards and by DG’s, has always sounded rather boxed-in musically as well as technically. But this hardly matters when the package is worth acquiring for the Ninth alone.
In the case of the Fifth Symphony, we have a choice of two recordings by Furtwangler: the Berlin BPO of 1942 (DG, 9/89 – nla) or Salzburg VPO of 1951. I would happily settle for the latter, especially in the new EMI remastering, which tidies up the slightly pock-marked recording far more conscientiously and effectively than the various extant ‘unofficial’ CDs. Furtwangler’s performance is a cunning amalgam of quick-witted symphonic argument, old-world dignity and bucolic ease. The Vienna Philharmonic understand him perfectly. Compare this with Karajan’s live 1954 account with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Orfeo, 3/91) and it is game, set and match to Furtwangler, the Young Pretender’s performance effortful and long-drawn but ultimately strangely weightless and lacking in character in comparison with the Furtwangler.'