Furtwängler Symphonic Concerto
Furtwangler was the performing musican who, more than any other, provided the criteria by which Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, the late Hans Keller and so many others have judged 'greatness' in a performance. The trouble with his own music is its self-conscious preoccupation with 'greatness' of an obvious nineteenth-century, Germanic kind. In the Piano Concerto, more properly Sinfonisches Konzert, a surfeit of cumbersome, sub-Brahmsian piano figuration is grafted on to a Brucknerian symphonic epic with nowhere to go. The questing intellectual spontaneity of his conducting style is here replaced by a severe and frankly unappealing sense of propriety. There is plenty of glowering rhetoric, not a lot of melodic invention and definitely no jokes. Furtwangler recorded the Concerto's second movement with Edwin Fischer in 1939 (HMV—nla), but I did not find this gloomy rumination any more distinctive than the 32-minute opener which at least surprises by including a phrase from Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht in its gestural bank.
Although Furtwangler revised the work in 1954, it could do with some further pruning. The young American pianist David Lively approaches his challenging part with intermittent aplomb, but the orchestra, which has performed well enough on several Naxos discs, is not remotely adequate here. Even before the Concerto gets going there is an awkward edit to splice in a horn entry at 0'57''. It is impossible to believe that the dissonances around 4'43'' are present in Furtwangler's score: the strings sound embarrassed thereafter. The orchestral timbre is perfectly acceptable if a little raw, but the piano sounds wretchedly tinny.
Alfred Brendel has said that, ''All we need to know about [Furtwangler's] compositions is that they helped him to look at the works he conducted from a composer's point of view''. Marco Polo, clearly, do not agree, and it might just be worth sampling the Second Symphony when they get round to it: the only one of his own works actively championed by Furtwangler in his last years, he recorded it himself with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1951 (DG—nla).'