Furtwängler Symphony No 2

Does this insufficiently finished Symphony offer clues about ‘the prophet of the past’?

Author: 
Guest

Furtwängler Symphony No 2

  • Symphony No. 2

Hans Keller’s obituary description of Furtwängler – ‘a composer who conducted instead’ – has always struck me as being faintly damning‚ though clearly not intended as such. Brought up in the culture so graphically evoked in Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus‚ Furtwängler served a teenage apprenticeship as a composer‚ spellbound by Bruckner in general and his Ninth Symphony in particular. But conducting appointments in Lübeck and Mannheim‚ Leipzig and Berlin‚ lured him away into vicarious acts of re­creation. A Mannheim critic wrote of his conducting: ‘It seemed as though he were composing the music itself’.
It was enforced leisure that drew Furtwängler back to composition‚ most productively at the end of the Second World War when the Second Symphony was conceived and completed. Born of the trauma of war and cultural loss‚ it is not a work to set beside Honegger’s Liturgique or Strauss’s Metamorphosen; but it has a subject and a shape‚ and it helps define a mood.
‘A prophet of the past’ was another Keller phrase. The bit about the past is certainly true. For Furtwängler‚ the laws of tonality and the ebb and flow of tension were as natural a condition as the pulse of the heart. Not surprisingly‚ the music is rooted in the language of the late­19th century. Neo­classicism and expressionism seem barely to have touched his style. Where Klemperer’s Second Symphony reflects the influences of late Mahler‚ Hindemith‚ Stravinsky and even Janá¶ek‚ Furtwängler’s looks back to Schumann‚ Wagner‚ Tchaikovsky and Bruckner.
Furtwängler made a studio recording of the Second Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon in Berlin in 1951. It still sounds well‚ though the live 1953 Vienna Philharmonic performance‚ which Orfeo has managed to squeeze onto a single CD‚ has more light and shade and rather more of a sense of the symphony as sound theatre.
Barenboim and the sumptuously recorded Chicago Symphony Orchestra are sympathetic in the slow movement and give a thrillingly assured account of the alla breve Scherzo. I was less happy with the very long outer movements‚ eloquent and impassioned as Barenboim’s reading is. Furtwängler was not at his desk long enough‚ day by day‚ year by year‚ to learn as Bruckner‚ Dvo·ák‚ Tchaikovsky or even Mahler did to sculpt and shape primary material in such a way as to make it both vivid and germane. In performance‚ he could partially alleviate this by further sculpting and shaping the piece on the orchestra‚ as the Vienna account demonstrates.
Barenboim has no doubt studied the recordings as well as the score itself but the problem in the outer movements of being met by climax after climax‚ without quite knowing which is which in terms of the work’s larger hierarchy of effects‚ is not fully resolved.

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