Furtwängler: Symphony No.1

Author: 
John Steane

Furtwängler: Symphony No.1

  • Symphony No. 1

Forget that originality was not Furtwangler's strong point as a composer. Forget the Third Symphony (Walter's Marco Polo recording of it was not enthusiastically reviewed in these columns in February 1989)—a classic example of a mighty symphonic edifice erected with fifth-rate building materials (i.e. not a good tune in sight) and thus collapsing under its own weight; here Furtwangler has formed a much more satisfying whole, perhaps by remaining truer to his obvious love of Bruckner.
The symphony was completed in 1941, and its first movement (which reworks material from a Largo written in 1908) is the weakest, with passages of complete stasis as the composer manoeuvres towards the next climax. The scherzo, though, is a delight: it seems to imagine a chance encounter between Bruckner and the neo-classical Stravinsky, who, Furtwangler argues, would appear to have a great deal in common, even if Stravinsky does most of the talking. The passionate strivings of the Adagio third movement are genuinely impressive (the terrifying dissonance at the peak of the final crescendo does not disguise its debt to the one in exactly the same place in Bruckner's Ninth—nor does it suffer too seriously from the comparison), and the 26-minute finale, whilst losing its way in the development, boasts a coda of overwhelming cumulative force and majesty.
It is fair to say that without Furtwangler's evident sympathies for the late romantic masters in general and Bruckner in particular, this symphony would indeed be brief, and those with an aversion to Bruckner should give it a very wide berth. Its 78 minutes are charted with courage by Alfred Walter, and the Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic only sound weak where the composer's inspiration runs at its thinnest. Apart from an extravagant raise of level at the start of the Adagio, the sound is natural, vivid and spacious.'

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