Furtwängler Symphony No 2
Furtwangler's Second Symphony was of great personal importance to its composer who toured the piece extensively, recorded it for DG in 1951 (nla) and included it in his last public concerts in Berlin. Begun in the difficult last years of the War and premiered in February 1948 (shortly after the de-Nazified Furtwangler had been cleared to resume his career as a conductor) it may thus be seen as his spiritual testament. Furtwangler himself described it as such. A subsequent Third Symphony was never quite finished, and he went on tinkering with the Second until shortly before his death, but the score seems to have satisfied him as a definitive affirmation of the eternal, ineluctably German, verities of the symphonist's art.
Perhaps Marco Polo recognized its special place in his output when they engaged the BBC Symphony Orchestra to play it. If so, they have drawn a short straw with what appears to be a rather substandard BBC studio recording. The musicians, who respond so brilliantly to composer-conductors like Pierre Boulez and Oliver Knussen, sound palpably ill-at-ease here in the work of perhaps the most self-conscious traditionalist among twentieth-century composer-conductors. Under Alfred Walter, ensemble is surprisingly poor: climaxes can be scrappy—strings flailing about, brass wild and harsh. It goes without saying that the score is long and immensely complex, ideally requiring many hours of painstaking rehearsal, but there isn't enough warmth to the sound in any event. This is ruminative, philosophical music which needs both ardent advocacy and a ripe, BPO-style cushion of string sound to keep it airborne.
Despite the tentative playing, the symphony strikes me as a more viable entity than Furtwangler's Sinfonisches Konzert (recently released in the same Marco Polo series, 12/91). The first movement unfolds its material with particular conviction: the meandering opening figure for bassoons lost in outer darkness soon gives way to a splendid, Brucknerian string threnody, riven with harmonic uncertainties yet proceeding to a warmly aspiring second strain. In the Andante slow movement, Brahms almost displaces Bruckner as the primary influence. Less convincing is the curiously Russian-sounding scherzo. In his notes, Keith Anderson detects a Sibelian sense of momentum here and forbears to mention the kitsch. The finale is another immense structure in which the symphony's initial motivic substance is reworked to provide a suitably transcendental resolution. There is a Wagnerian chorale and passages of gutsy, strangely Elgarian nobility. Unfortunately, in this recording at least, the Brucknerian peroration is a chaotic shambles.
How to sum up? Furtwangler's music is not in the least 'original' in any conventional sense. As with a (far less reactionary) symphonist like Rubbra, there is little colouristic embellishment to relieve the insistent focus on unfashionably rigorous harmonic and contrapuntal extrapolation. A less clumsy composer would no doubt have produced a superior symphony from the material on offer—not least by wielding the shears! Even so, Furtwangler enthusiasts may not be alone in finding something to admire in it. Be warned though—you will have to tolerate some sketchy playing, unspectacular engineering and a dispiriting paragraph in the notes on the orchestra which states that the work has not been previously recorded.'