Alex Ross on Furtwangler

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John F
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Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Sat May 04, 2019 6:01 pm

Though I disagree with some of Ross's judgments, I won't argue with him here. I'll just say that listening straight through a set of 22 cds, which Ross has apparently done, is no way to encounter any musician's performances, no matter who he/she is. Depending on the talent, it either wears you out or puts you to sleep. :)

The Disquieting Power of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hitler’s Court Conductor
By Alex Ross
May 2, 2019

The German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler has long held an exalted place among practitioners of the enigmatic art of waving one’s arms in front of an orchestra. A tall, willowy man with the air of a distracted philosopher, Furtwängler led the Berlin Philharmonic from 1922 until 1945, and again from 1952 until his death, in 1954. Many of the recordings he left behind are so charged with expressive intensity that comparing them to modern accounts of the same repertory can be invidious. Consider a performance of Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture, which the Berlin Philharmonic has released as part of a new box set titled “Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Radio Recordings, 1939–1945.” (https://www.berliner-philharmoniker-rec ... ore=rec_en) It begins with an octave C in the strings, followed by a loud, curt F-minor chord in the full orchestra. Few orchestras fail to shake up the audience with this gesture. Furtwängler’s players unleash a sound that falls somewhere between the musical and the geological—a seismic rumbling followed by a concussive crack.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7x8jwzA274

There is no way to avoid thinking about the circumstances under which this recording was made. Furtwängler was Hitler’s favorite conductor, and the Philharmonic’s wartime concerts were taped, according to minutes from a meeting with Joseph Goebbels, “in accordance with the Führer’s wish.” The sound is exceptionally vivid for its period, because engineers used magnetic tape, a relatively recent German innovation. Hitler had been given a Magnetophon system so that he could listen to concerts at leisure. The “Coriolan” recording, which comes from June, 1943, was probably on his playlist. What did the music mean to him? To the audience? To Furtwängler? The conductor’s defenders profess to hear an anguished defiance in his Nazi-era performances. Surely this borderline-deranged account of the “Coriolan” cannot be in accord with Hitler’s ideology. But you could also hear it as a defiance of the enemy—a willingness to fight to the death.

The moral quandary inherent in the Furtwängler box set is addressed forthrightly in the liner notes, which take the form of a hundred-and-eighty-four-page hardback book. The lead essay, by the musicologist Richard Taruskin, is one of the finest things ever written about Furtwängler, who has inspired a shelf’s worth of books, along with a Broadway play and a film (both titled “Taking Sides”). Taruskin, a ferocious critic of the fairy tales we tell ourselves about the autonomy of art, would be the last to argue that we should ignore the context to which Furtwängler belonged. Instead, Taruskin confronts the reader with a quotation from a 1943 Philharmonic program book, one that pits the noble art of Beethoven against the atrocities supposedly being committed by Germany’s enemies: “It is our world that sounds forth when the bows are set in motion, the world of a spirit that no enemy air raid can destroy, nor any bomb.”

Such a statement forces us to consider the possibility that the nimbus of greatness around Furtwängler arises not in spite of the historical situation but because of it. The conductor and his musicians were working “as if there were no tomorrow,” Taruskin writes, in discussing the last item in the set—the final movement of Brahms’s First Symphony, recorded amid the inferno of January, 1945. “The music builds unbearable tension, abjures all ‘Brahmsian’ restraint or relaxation, and its raging subjectivity hits dumbfounding extravagances of tempo at both ends of the scale. . . . The bloodiest of all wars brought the foremost classical musician in the country with the most distinguished tradition of classical music to the pinnacle of his career, setting a standard neither he nor any other symphonic conductor was ever moved to duplicate.”

Most of Furtwängler’s wartime recordings have long been available, in releases of varying quality. The Philharmonic set arranges them in chronological order, across twenty-two CDs, drawing on archival tapes that were long in Soviet possession. Listening to them in sequence does not necessarily increase one’s estimation of the conductor. Indeed, perhaps by intention, the experience is a demythologizing one. Notwithstanding the many electrifying moments, I found myself questioning whether these performances really constitute some sort of pinnacle—although that may be my own way of finessing the quandary.

The set gets off to a rocky start with one of the conductor’s own compositions: the hour-long Symphonic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. In his youth, Furtwängler had high ambitions as a composer, but his productivity dwindled as his conducting career took off. He resumed composing in the late nineteen-thirties, completing this Symphonic Concerto and producing three sprawling symphonies, the last of which was left unfinished. The musicologist Chris Walton has plausibly speculated that the cultural policies of the Nazis encouraged Furtwängler’s return to composition; his ponderous, late-Romantic style, mixing Brahms and Bruckner, was in keeping with the anti-modernist bias of Hitler and the regime.

Furtwängler’s compositions have their admirers; the conductors Daniel Barenboim and Marek Janowski, among others, have revived them. I find them pompous, vacuous, and vaguely enraging. The musicologist Roger Allen, in his recent book “Wilhelm Furtwängler: Art and the Politics of the Unpolitical,” exposes the chauvinism that underpinned not only Furtwängler’s composing but also his conducting. “A true symphony has never been written by non-Germans,” Furtwängler wrote, in 1929. His commentaries are rife with social-Darwinist turns of phrase. As late as 1947, he was declaring that the atonality of Arnold Schoenberg was “biologically inferior”—an incredible thing to say in the wake of the Holocaust. The Symphonic Concerto, whose main theme belongs on the soundtrack of a low-budget Dracula movie, is an inadvertently effective counterargument to these claims of Teutonic supremacy.

The listener must endure two other products of the Nazi era: Ernst Pepping’s Second Symphony and Heinz Schubert’s “Hymnisches Konzert” for organ, soprano, tenor, and orchestra. The former is a well-crafted mediocrity; the latter is a gruesome exercise in ersatz monumentality—the musical equivalent of one of Arno Breker’s nude Aryan heroes. One feels almost compromised by this music, yet it is a necessary piece of the historical picture. Just as revealing are Furtwängler’s murky accounts of Handel concerti grossi—dutiful gestures toward an older, more cosmopolitan German tradition.


Nor are Furtwängler’s legendarily explosive accounts of nineteenth-century repertory beyond criticism. As the hours went by, I found myself tiring of his determination to wring significance from every phrase. The atmosphere is always dire; there is a dearth of pleasure, grace, and wit. Furtwängler often criticized what he called an “American” manner of orchestral playing—soulless, machinelike, monotonous. He associated that style with Toscanini, whose fame obsessed him inordinately. But he, too, was prone to a certain hectoring relentlessness. He brings an astonishing demonic energy to the final movements of the Beethoven Seventh and the Schubert Ninth, but the effect is more battering than it is uplifting.

That said, these recordings are precious documents, from which there is much to be learned. In an age of note-perfect digital renditions, what’s most striking is Furtwängler’s willingness—and his musicians’ willingness—to sacrifice precision for the sake of passion. The conductor had a famously wobbly, hard-to-read beat, which inspired many jokes. A member of the London Philharmonic quipped that one should wait until the “thirteenth preliminary wiggle” of the baton before beginning to play. Furtwängler’s renditions of Beethoven’s Fifth tend to begin not with “bum-bum-bum-BUM” but with “b-bumbumbumBUM.” The inexactitude was by design. It’s the roughness of the attacks at the beginning of the “Coriolan” that provides a sense of catastrophic power. As Taruskin points out, Furtwängler was entirely capable of eliciting unanimity when he wanted to, as rip-roaring accounts of Strauss’s “Don Juan” and “Till Eulenspiegel” attest. One never knows quite what to expect: spontaneity is the rule.

Could modern performers recapture Furtwängler’s elasticity of style? Most likely not. Scholars such as Robert Philip and Kenneth Hamilton have shown how the advent of recording permanently changed the way music is played. Effects of rubato and portamento—bending the tempo, sliding from note to note—sounded messy when heard on disc, and they were already passing from fashion in the mid-twentieth century. Taruskin writes, “Most of the performances in the present set would be regarded as far too sloppy for commercial release today.” The recordings bear witness to a pivotal moment: they capture an older musical tradition operating at maximum force, before it became fully conscious of its own sound.

The ultimate contradiction is that this music from an inhuman time has a desperate humanity—an emotional recklessness and nakedness. No one registered such a contradiction at the time. Hitler admired Furtwängler precisely because of his inward conviction, which the dictator valued above the more disciplined approach of Hans Knappertsbusch or Herbert von Karajan. In the end, these recordings make it disconcertingly clear that humanity is a neutral condition, capable of encompassing beauty and horror in the same instant.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultu ... -conductor
John Francis

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by maestrob » Sun May 05, 2019 11:40 am

I just listened yesterday to Furtwangler's last performance of Beethoven IX, recorded in 1954 with the Philharmonia Orchestra at Lucerne, just to remind myself after many years of not hearing it, how much and why I disliked Furtwangler's interpretation. The first movement was slow and heavy, the second also lacked energy, the Adagio crawled along at a glacial pace, and so on. Furtwangler may have been "Hitler's favorite conductor," but he's not mine. I've also recently heard a Bruckner IX from 1944(?) which takes massive liberties with tempo, something that makes me react violently in a negative way. Some may admire him. I do not.

'Nuff said. :mrgreen:

Thanks, John, for posting Alex Ross's most informative review.

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Sun May 05, 2019 12:55 pm

Not quite enough said. For some reason you chose to listen to a Furtwangler Beethoven 9th that's among his worst. He was then both ill - he died three months later - and almost deaf. To do him justice, you should listen to the performance of March 1942, which is here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pszB5Ic2KA&t=708s

I hope you'll listen at least to the first movement, with its cataclysm at the climax of the development - John Ardoin speaks of "cyclonic fury" - and a coda which begins almost at a stand-still and gradually accelerates back to the basic tempo - allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso. You may still not like it - I don't expect you to - but at least you'll have a better basis for that judgment.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by jserraglio » Sun May 05, 2019 3:20 pm

John F wrote:
Sun May 05, 2019 12:55 pm
Not quite enough said. For some reason you chose to listen to a Furtwangler Beethoven 9th that's among his worst. He was then both ill - he died three months later - and almost deaf. To do him justice, you should listen to the performance of March 1942, which is here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pszB5Ic2KA&t=708s

I hope you'll listen at least to the first movement, with its cataclysm at the climax of the development - John Ardoin speaks of "cyclonic fury" - and a coda which begins almost at a stand-still and gradually accelerates back to the basic tempo - allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso. You may still not like it - I don't expect you to - but at least you'll have a better basis for that judgment.
I agree. That is one of the greatest performances of the work I have ever heard, although I cut my teeth on his foil, Toscanini's performance.

barney
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by barney » Sun May 05, 2019 4:07 pm

Fascinating article. Thanks for posting it.

Rach3
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Rach3 » Sun May 05, 2019 5:28 pm

I have this recording on Marco Polo cd, David Lively, pianist, of his "Symphonic" Piano Concerto, first mov. here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ozwQRfub-k
Rest is also at YT.
About 65 minutes total.Not for the faint of heart.

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Mon May 06, 2019 12:30 am

I would think, if anyone wants to hear Furtwangler's Symphonic Concerto, that they'd listen to his performance with Edwin Fischer as the pianist:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DgEFHUqyxY

Back to Beethoven. Toscanini always said that he didn't really understand the 9th's first movement, and he postponed recording the symphony until 1952, two years before his retirement. Furtwangler had no such reservations, but his approach to musical interpretation couldn't have been more different. Like Josef Hofmann and Alfred Brendel, he would at least sometimes have a poetic idea that set the tone. About the first movement of the 9th:

Furtwangler wrote:With this opening interval of a fifth, Beethoven is depicting chaos - the primeval beginning of time, out of which everything evolved. That this fifth should be resolved into accurately measured triplets...is irrelevant for the rendering of the idea as a whole. I once came across a conductor who spent the first ten minutes [of his rehearsal] trying to get as clean and clear a rendering as possible of these triplets [of a fifth] in the strings. The result was that in his rendering of the symphony, one heard this passage exactly as it stands in the score, with matchless clarity. But Beethoven's idea just vanished.

Nowadays people are apt to prize above everything else an accurate version of what is set down in the score. [Without saying so, Furtwangler is obviously referring to Toscanini.] Many conductors work, so to speak, with the technique of Durer or Ingres. Will that do if our task is to render a piece that depends on color, like a picture by Rembrandt or Titian? Can one do justice in a line drawing to a work whose significance lies in its vision of color? The duty of the performer is to go back continually to the style of the work itself and base his approach on that. Each period, indeed each single work of a master has a fresh, individual style of its own, and tht is especially true of Beethoven, who faced in many directions. Not only was he the last of the classicists; he was the first of the romantics. He is not only an architect, he is at least as much a painter. To confine a universal genius like his within the limits of his own time is altogether out of place.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Lance » Mon May 06, 2019 6:23 pm

This is the blurb on the Berlin Philharmonic's own label of Furtwangler's Radio Recordings, 1939-1945. 22 CDs, completely remastered, and a coffee table-like book accompanying the set. I have long been a fan of Furtwangler and have too many recordings, live and commercial, to count. Amazon is listing this at almost $300/USD but the BPO is offering at $229/USD plus post. I truly love these boxed sets, but even with major restoration, this is too high priced to consider given that most of the material performed in this set, near as I can recall, has been issued elsewhere on other labels, and perhaps even DGG. Oddly, the soloiss in concerted works is not shown, but I can already imagine who they are. In the end, I believe I will pass on this release. While Furtwangler may still be considered among the great conductors of the first half of the 20th century, do you believe ideas about his music-making will change more contemporary reviews of his documented recordings. Or would it be safe to say that his name, alone, will continue to give him the esteem he seems to enjoy these days? AND, John Francis, thanks for posting this Ross review.

The blurb: The radio recordings between 1939 and 1945 with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Wilhelm Furtwangler are among classical music's most compelling sound documents. Created at the peak of the collaboration between orchestra and conductor, Furtwangler's artist personality is conveyed more vividly than anywhere else. What can be heard is music in which inspiration and the expressive will know no bounds and in which, not least, the existential experience of the Second World War reverberates. For the first time, the Berliner Philharmoniker are releasing a complete edition of these recordings. Wilhelm Furtwangler is accorded almost mythical status to this day. Biographically and artistically rooted in the 19th century, he embodies a bridge to the late Romantic period and the founding years of the Berliner Philharmoniker, whose chief conductor he was from 1922. Furtwangler's auratic charisma stems from an intriguing basic interpretive concept which avoided authoritarian gestures and deliberately aimed at the blurring of tonal contours. The result was a warm, mixed sound, in which developments and intensifications never appear calculated, but seem to grow organically. This edition not only brings together all surviving radio recordings of the period, but also draws on the best available material in particular, original tapes, which were taken to the Soviet Union after the war and only returned to Germany from the early 1990s onwards. Especially for this edition, the recordings have been carefully restored, digitally sampled using state-of-the-art technology and remastered in 24-bit resolution. A total of 21 concerts are presented here, in whole or in part. The edition's features include numerous historical photos, articles on the history behind the recordings, plus an extensive essay by the American musicologist Richard Taruskin on Furtwangler's art - all of which results in a release which provides an opportunity to discover and relive this great chapter in the history of the Berliner Philharmoniker in all its facets as never before.

This is what is in the set:

Wilhelm Furtwängler: Symphonic Concerto

George Frederick Handel: Concerto Grosso, op. 6 no. 5
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

Richard Strauss: Verführung · Waldseligkeit · Liebeshymnus · Winterliebe
_______Don Juan

Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude

Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto in A Minor
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 9

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Alceste: Overture
Robert Schumann: Cello Concerto
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 5

Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde: Vorspiel & Liebestod

Heinz Schubert: Hymnic Concerto
Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 8 “Die Große”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 39

Jean Sibelius: En saga; Violin Concerto

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 (without audience)
_____Symphony No. 4 (with audience); Coriolan, Overture; Symphony No. 5

Ernst Pepping: Symphony No. 2
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4

Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 6 (incomplete)
Robert Schumann: Cello Concerto (incomplete)
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche

Johannes Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn; Piano Concerto No. 2
_____Symphony No. 4

Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto
Richard Strauss: Symphonia Domestica

George Frideric Handel: Concerto grosso, op. 6 no. 10
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 39

Carl Maria von Weber: er Freischütz: Overture
Maurice Ravel: aphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 1 (incomplete)
_____Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale”

Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 7 “Unvollendete”

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1: 4. Adagio – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio

Bonus
Interview with Friedrich Schnapp
Lance G. Hill
Editor-in-Chief
______________________________________________________

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rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Belle » Mon May 06, 2019 6:30 pm

John F wrote:
Sun May 05, 2019 12:55 pm
Not quite enough said. For some reason you chose to listen to a Furtwangler Beethoven 9th that's among his worst. He was then both ill - he died three months later - and almost deaf. To do him justice, you should listen to the performance of March 1942, which is here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pszB5Ic2KA&t=708s

I hope you'll listen at least to the first movement, with its cataclysm at the climax of the development - John Ardoin speaks of "cyclonic fury" - and a coda which begins almost at a stand-still and gradually accelerates back to the basic tempo - allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso. You may still not like it - I don't expect you to - but at least you'll have a better basis for that judgment.
There's a way to describe a wonderful performance!! "Cyclonic fury". Perfect. And I agree that 'compare and contrast' is the most effective way of measuring a great performance. Talk to people about what they already know and let them hear the 'great' version. They may like it or not - as tastes go - but it's a chance to hear something familiar with 'new' ears. That's largely my approach for my program on Thursday with our music group.

Having listened to your link I have to agree with you in the terms so described. As I've said before, I prefer HIP because of its translucent lines and clarity but Furtwangler's is another way of thinking about the 9 altogether. It isn't JUST a large number of musicians when smaller forces would suffice, but something much more.

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Modernistfan » Mon May 06, 2019 8:28 pm

I will not, and cannot, listen to recordings made by a conductor who, AFTER the conclusion of World War II and the Holocaust, would refer to Schoenberg's atonality as "biologically inferior." (Yes, I know that Furtw​ä​ngler actually conducted the premiere of Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, Opus 31, in 1928.) We cannot absolve ourselves of the ethical and social consequences of classical music and its performance. Call me politically correct, if you must, but I will neither buy nor listen to these recordings.

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Belle » Mon May 06, 2019 9:03 pm

Modernistfan wrote:
Mon May 06, 2019 8:28 pm
I will not, and cannot, listen to recordings made by a conductor who, AFTER the conclusion of World War II and the Holocaust, would refer to Schoenberg's atonality as "biologically inferior." (Yes, I know that Furtw​ä​ngler actually conducted the premiere of Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, Opus 31, in 1928.) We cannot absolve ourselves of the ethical and social consequences of classical music and its performance. Call me politically correct, if you must, but I will neither buy nor listen to these recordings.
I fully understand your point of view and you're certainly entitled to it. More than 75 years have elapsed since WW2 but I find I can listen because for me it's always Beethoven, no matter who conducts. Surely the ultimate German paradox is its place in music history and its enormous appetite for world chaos, death and destruction. But isn't this what Furtw​ä​ngler was alluding to in his interpretation of Symphony 9 in 1942? In short, art has helped assuage my feelings of hostility towards Germany, along with the knowledge that there are always good people who remain silent, afraid or disempowered when bad things happen. We can always say we wouldn't have been like the majority of the German people but, as Jordan Peterson says, the chances are high that we would have been on the side of the majority. I agree with that. In a recent documentary it was pointed out that the educated middle classes and public servants were those who supported Hitler in the beginning (doesn't that sound familiar?) and that, of course, would include artists and musicians. A painful fact of life.

We can countenance, to an extent, the notion of Japanese atrocities because - after all - they didn't produce Bach, Beethoven or Mozart!! Today it is unthinkable that these polite people would be our enemies.

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Tue May 07, 2019 3:11 am

Ross doesn't cite a source for Furtwangler's supposed remark, and I can't find it in any of Furtwangler's published writings: "Concerning Music" (1948), "Ton und Wort" (writings 1918-1954), "Notebooks" (1924-1954), and "Briefe" (1894-1954). By dating the "quotation" as 1947 he appears to be referring to "Concerning Music." But I can't find the words "biologically inferior" in the discussion of tonality and atonality with which the book ends. To the contrary, that discussion is considered and even-handed. So I believe Ross is paraphrasing rather than quoting, telling us what he believes Furtwangler meant rather than what he actually said.

What did Furtwangler actually say?
Furtwangler wrote:Atonality appears at its purest in the work of the man who first enabled it to break through, Arnold Schoenberg. It flourished in the period after the first world war. That was the time when it saw the light as a new discovery, as it were, and when great hopes were founded upon it. Today, after the second world war, we seem to be passing through similar times. But the situation has changed. Such leading composers as, above all, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartok, and others, have since experienced a partial conversion to tonality. However that may be, the co-existence of both tendencies is, of course, nothing more than a faithful reflection of the human spirit today, which might wish to exchange the narrow garden of what is merely human (tonality) for the dread liberty of cosmic space, although it feels that it is thus endangering its biological organic nature.
Like many of Furtwangler's abstract pronouncements this is obscure and he doesn't explain what he means, but it really can't be legitimately construed as racist let alone antisemitic. And:
Furtwangler wrote:This battle of the worlds would never have been joined if there had not been genuine reasons behind it. Wherever tonality is really at work, its power remains unbroken. On the other hand, the problems first posed by atonal music have lost none of their force... Neither the attempts of atonal fanatics to exert some sort of spiritual pressure by their publications nor the edicts of authoritarian states can settle a question the answer to which can and must come from the innermost recesses of human nature, i.e. in concrete, musical terms, from the "public."
Speaking for myself, what matters is art, not what an artist or anyone else may say about it or may do in his/her private life. Bad people can produce great art; good people, lousy art. Others may have a problem keeping their focus on the merits of the art for its own sake; not I.
John Francis

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by jserraglio » Tue May 07, 2019 6:52 am

Even accepting the accuracy of the version reported by Ross, I did not read WF's remark as expressing anything but anti-modernism.

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Tue May 07, 2019 7:33 am

That would be saying too much. Furtwangler conducted quite a lot of modern music, especially in his younger years but right up to the end. The concert listing published by Tahra includes Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, Hindemith's Harmonie der Welt symphony and Concerto for Orchestra, Bartok's second violin concerto (recorded by EMI with Menuhin) and Concerto for Orchestra, and many other 20th century works by less well known composers in his postwar concerts. When chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in the '20s, perhaps out of a sense of duty, he conducted "Sacre du Printemps" and even Schoenberg's atonal Five Pieces for Orchestra. Furtwangler wasn't anti-modern, then; he was anti-atonal.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by maestrob » Tue May 07, 2019 11:00 am

John F wrote:
Tue May 07, 2019 7:33 am
That would be saying too much. Furtwangler conducted quite a lot of modern music, especially in his younger years but right up to the end. The concert listing published by Tahra includes Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, Hindemith's Harmonie der Welt symphony and Concerto for Orchestra, Bartok's second violin concerto (recorded by EMI with Menuhin) and Concerto for Orchestra, and many other 20th century works by less well known composers in his postwar concerts. When chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in the '20s, perhaps out of a sense of duty, he conducted "Sacre du Printemps" and even Schoenberg's atonal Five Pieces for Orchestra. Furtwangler wasn't anti-modern, then; he was anti-atonal.
Good point. AND, for once, I can agree with the maestro. :mrgreen: :lol:

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by jserraglio » Tue May 07, 2019 5:37 pm

John F wrote:
Tue May 07, 2019 7:33 am
Furtwangler wasn't anti-modern, then; he was anti-atonal.
Agreed, anti-atonal, rather than anti-modernist. But even a confirmed anti-modernist like George Szell could take on a modernist AND atonal work by a special composer on a special occasion and make it sound interesting: the 2nd symphony of his student George Rochberg.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mk74WLg8Iu4


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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Tue May 07, 2019 9:30 pm

We can't hear Furtwängler's performance of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, which he conducted with the Leipzig Gewandhaus and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras in 1922, his first season as both orchestras' music director following the death of Nikisch. He never conducted it again; the only other work by Schoenberg that he conducted, once, was "Verklärte Nacht"; he conducted no music by Berg or Webern. I imagine the Five Pieces must have been pretty bad; decades later, even with committed and skilled conductors like Stokowski and Mitropoulos, performances of Schoenberg were full of wrong notes. And listening to Szell's performance of the Rochberg symphony on YouTube, I have to say it sounds pretty rough in places. But it still communicates, and maybe Furtwängler's Schoenberg did too. We'll never know.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Modernistfan » Tue May 07, 2019 9:59 pm

Subsequently, ​Furtwangler also did conduct the premiere of Schoenberg's Orchestral Variations, Op. 31, a strictly 12-tone piece, as well as the premiere of Bartok's First Piano Concerto in 1927 at the ISCM concerts in Frankfurt, with the composer as soloist. The Bartok First Piano Concerto is not a 12-tone work, but it is pretty harsh and dissonant, and is not exactly easy listening (try Bronfman with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Salonen).

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Tue May 07, 2019 10:39 pm

Right you are - good catch. Furtwängler conducted those works, and Stravinsky's concerto with the composer at the piano, in the 1920s. Later his programs were rather less adventurous.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Heck148 » Thu May 09, 2019 1:25 pm

maestrob wrote:
Sun May 05, 2019 11:40 am
.....Furtwangler may have been "Hitler's favorite conductor," but he's not mine......Some may admire him. I do not.
Thanks, John, for posting Alex Ross's most informative review.


I tend to agree with you, Maestro...when I first started listening seriously to music I was most impressed by Furtwangler, it seemed so "profound",so "deep", so penetrating...but as I listened more, and heard other approaches, the incessant tempo fluctuations, taffy-pulling, exaggerations, began to wear thin....the often sloppy, imprecise execution became distracting as well...also - I'm not convinced that every harmonic half note in Beethoven or Brahms is imbued with some sort of "cosmic" significance
I don't care much for WF's conducting at this point...some things are ok, and they are most always interesting, he certainly had an individual approach, that's for sure.....I just find other conductors more convincing.


Which is the Furtwangler Beethoven 9 that ends in the horrific "train wreck"?? orchestra scattered all over the final measures in utter cacophony?? :mrgreen:

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Thu May 09, 2019 1:34 pm

You may be thinking of the live performance recording at the 1951 Bayreuth Festival, which was published by EMI and is the Furtwängler 9th most people know. He always took the coda of the last movement at a speed I thought was impossible and sometimes it was. :) That summer the orchestra was playing together for the first time and also rehearsing the Ring cycle, Parsifal, and Die Meistersinger; most likely they didn't have much rehearsal time for the 9th. In the 1942 performance which I think represents WF at his best, the sound (from a film soundtrack) is such that it's hard to hear what's going on in that final moment; you can listen for yourself as I've posted a link in this thread.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by THEHORN » Thu May 09, 2019 1:53 pm

Furtwangler may have been an erratic conductor, but at his best, his performances were absolutely transcendent . I don't think orchestras such as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic etc played all that sloppily " for him . But he wasn't concerned with neatness and accuracy .
I've always preferred Furtwangler to his arch rival Toscanini , whose performances , especially in his late years with the NBC symphony were just the opposite of his , in a negative way IMHO .
Most of Toscanini's NBC recordings sound coarse, choppy, hectic ,punchy and nervous to me, despite the all the precision . And his metronomic rigidity of tempo is also something I have never been able to stand . There's a kind of mechanical, joyless and stiffly regimented quality to his NBC recordings .
I prefer his recordings with other orchestras, such as the New York Philharmonic , the Philadelphia orchestra and others .

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Belle » Thu May 09, 2019 5:04 pm

I'm really enjoying all this language used to describe musical performance. If you don't mind, I'm going to plagiarize some of it for future presentations in our music group. :mrgreen:

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Heck148 » Thu May 09, 2019 10:54 pm

THEHORN wrote:
Thu May 09, 2019 1:53 pm
....I don't think orchestras such as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic etc played all that sloppily " for him . But he wasn't concerned with neatness and accuracy.....
for sure...I find that a distraction....I know there was "method to his madness", but it really doesn't click with me.
Most of Toscanini's NBC recordings sound coarse, choppy, hectic ,punchy and nervous to me, despite the all the precision . And his metronomic rigidity of tempo is also something I have never been able to stand . There's a kind of mechanical, joyless and stiffly regimented quality to his NBC recordings .
interesting, I don't hear it that way at all - Toscanini had a marvelous flexibility of tempo, he even described it as such, that tempo always fluctuates, a little faster here,a little slower there, but always moving...His recordings with NBC can be amazingly expressive and beautiful - try the Tristan "Liebestod" [1/52] - remarkable!! absolutely gorgeous string work, never heard it matched, expressive, flowing, flexible, incredible crescendo to grand orgasm....also - try his Manfred Symphony [1/53] - mvt II/2nd theme...wonderfully expressive and supple, just riveting.....I always go back and play that part over a few times, it is so spendidly performed...
And his metronomic rigidity of tempo is also something I have never been able to stand . There's a kind of mechanical, joyless and stiffly regimented quality to his NBC recordings
that, to me, is Stravinsky conducting his own works....metronomic, tick-tock, no phrasing, n little or no attention whatever to the lyrical, melodic expression, which is indeed present in his works....Stravinsky was certainly accurate, he could conduct the mixed, asymmetric meters very clearly, but it is so mechanical, so straight.

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Thu May 09, 2019 11:22 pm

Toscanini partisans always say that his tempos were flexible, but while that may have been so in the opera house and in recordings before 1936, it isn't really true of most of his NBC Symphony concerts. His tempos may not have been metronomic but I certainly wouldn't call them flexible. However, there are exceptions. In the finale of Haydn's Symphony no. 88, recorded in 1938 (not long after he left the New York Philharmonic), there's a tiny ritenuto at each return of the main theme, and a bigger, witty ritenuto at the transition from the development to the recapitulation.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbiIm-XWiAY

(Incidentally, in his recording of this symphony Furtwängler maintains a steady tempo throughout this movement.)

As for that orchestra's coarse sound, it's mainly attributable to the dry acoustic of NBC's Studio 8H; when the concerts and recording sessions were moved to Carnegie Hall in the 1950s there's more bloom in the sound.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Heck148 » Fri May 10, 2019 10:43 am

John F wrote:
Thu May 09, 2019 11:22 pm
Toscanini partisans always say that his tempos were flexible, but while that may have been so in the opera house and in recordings before 1936, it isn't really true of most of his NBC Symphony concerts. His tempos may not have been metronomic but I certainly wouldn't call them flexible.
Toscanini certainly wasn't into the huge ritardandi, rubato of Furtwangler, but within the phrases, there is wonderfully supple phrasing and nuance - the examples I cited before are perfect examples of this...it's not a matter of huge tempo changes, it's much more subtle and intimate, give and take within a particular phrase...marvelous...the videos really show this
As for that orchestra's coarse sound, it's mainly attributable to the dry acoustic of NBC's Studio 8H; when the concerts and recording sessions were moved to Carnegie Hall in the 1950s there's more bloom in the sound.
yes, good point, the Carnegie Hall recordings have more resonance and fullness. Studio 8H could be pretty harsh...

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by maestrob » Fri May 10, 2019 11:52 am

Toscanini's detractors (Furtwangler among them) called him stiff and metronomic, but I don't find that the case at all. He is disciplined, but certainly not metronomic, for example, in his Beethoven IX, or his Aida video w/Tucker from 1948. I've sung the Amonasro scene with Aida to that recording, and Toscanini's tempi were perfectly comfortable in my voice, as they were with Vincent La Selva in his conducting class at Juilliard. Toscanini knew exactly how to make singers comfortable, that's for sure.

As for metronomic, Toscanini's recording from 1936(?) of Elgar's Nimrod is quite passionate and quite flexible!

As for Carnegie Hall vs. Studio 8H, I agree that there's more "bloom" in the Carnegie Hall recordings, especially in the one experimental stereo CD I have of his final all-Wagner concert. That said, I find myself listening more often to Toscanini's live recordings of the Brahms Symphonies with the Philharmonia, made at the same time he was recording them with the NBC band, than those with the NBC group (wonderful sound quality!), even though someone sets off fireworks during the Fourth Symphony! :shock:

Finally, I agree, Heck148, that Furtwangler's experiments with tempo set my teeth on edge: I just don't relate to his way of thinking. Having grown up listening to both conductors, I fell into the Toscanini camp when I heard his Beethoven, and wanted to make music like that all my life. I've never stood in front of an orchestra, not being qualified to do so, but I do know how to work with tempo effectively while respecting what's on the page, and Toscanini showed me how by example. I don't agree with everything that Toscanini did (The opening to Brahms I should be in 6, not a broad 2), but that's minor compared with my disagreements with Furtwangler's sometimes erratic individualized performances.

No offense meant to those who disagree, of course.
Last edited by maestrob on Sat May 11, 2019 11:13 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Sat May 11, 2019 9:31 am

maestrob wrote:Toscanini's detractors (Furtwangler among them) called him stiff and metronomic, but I don't find that the case at all
Earlier in this thread I wrote, "Toscanini partisans always say that his tempos were flexible, but while that may have been so in opera and in recordings before 1938, it isn't really true of most of his NBC Symphony concerts. His tempos may not have been metronomic but I certainly wouldn't call them flexible."

Mortimer Frank, in "Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years," does his best to make the case, but what he comes up with is telling. "Many musicians who played under Toscanini have told me how remarkably 'free' his rhythm could be, adding that this freedom was governed by such 'good taste' thatits presence was not readily perceived. As Milton Katims, a violist in the NBC Symphony, put it, Toscanini employed 'a rubato so subtle that the listener was almost never aware of it.'" That's rather special pleading. Compared with the performances and recordings of nearly every major musician of Toscanini's time or earlier, that is not flexibility, not really.

Which is OK with me. Like maestrob I grew up in the period when Toscanini's influence was at its height. My parents had his recordings of Beethoven's 7th with the New York Philharmonic, which I've praised in CMG, and the 4th with the BBC Symphony, which is imprinted in me, It wasn't until the 1970s, when some of Furtwängler's live recordings began to appear in the US and David Hamilton reviewed them in High Fidelity and elsewhere, that I bothered to listen to them and discovered what they are about. Each conductor reveals aspects of the music they conducted which the other doesn't; I want to have both.

As for Furtwängler, Toscanini recognized his quality, recommended him as the successor at the New York Phlharmonic, and it was for political rather than musical differences that he broke the relationship off. Furtwängler had a much lower opinion of Toscanini's conducting, on artistic rather than political grounds.

(Furtwängler's performances and recordings were often very individual, as maestrob says, that's one reason I think highly of them, but seldom "erratic." It's Mengelberg whose tempo changes were sometimes erratic if not weird. For me at least, Furtwängler's are usually consistent with the emotional character of the music and its details, and as such they communicate in a different way from Toscanini's text-bound come scritto esthetic. If Furtwangér's interpretive ideas don't communicate with everyone, so be it.)

Toscanini's performance of the Enigma Variations with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which EMI eventually published, dates from 1935, during what I've said was Toscanini's peak period when he was indeed more flexible than in the NBC years. Sometimes oddly:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5u_BYkd9r8

The Brahms symphonies maestrob mentions were not with the BBC Symphony but the Philharmonia, in 1952 at the Royal Festival Hall.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by maestrob » Sat May 11, 2019 11:11 am

The Brahms symphonies maestrob mentions were not with the BBC Symphony but the Philharmonia, in 1952 at the Royal Festival Hall.
Yes, of course! Thank-you John!

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by THEHORN » Sat May 11, 2019 2:44 pm

The main source of coarseness in sound in Toscanini's NBC symphony recordings are the crude, blaring ,vibrato ridden trumpets . The woodwinds also have an unpleasant fluttery rapid vibrato which may have been induced by fear of playing under him for all I know . This interferes with orchestral blend .

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Heck148 » Sat May 11, 2019 4:44 pm

THEHORN wrote:
Sat May 11, 2019 2:44 pm
The main source of coarseness in sound in Toscanini's NBC symphony recordings are the crude, blaring ,vibrato ridden trumpets . The woodwinds also have an unpleasant fluttery rapid vibrato which may have been induced by fear of playing under him for all I know . This interferes with orchestral blend .
You must consider that the performance style at the time called for pretty fast, pronounced vibrato - this was the style from at least the early decades of the 20th century until the post War late 40s and 50s....you can hear this in many orchestras of the time - NYPO, NBC, Philadelphia, MetOpera...NBC and NYPO shared many of the same musicians over the years - sometimes it almost looks like musical chairs, with prime musicians switching back and forth between the orchestras...
For the trumpets - the NBC section changed radically in 1942 - Bernard Baker, the original principal was replaced [ I think he had a problem with embouchure??], and was replaced by Harry Glantz, who came over from NYPO. Glantz is one of the greatest orchestra trumpeters of all-time, an illustrious career spanning many decades.... He remained with NBC thru to the very end, and played with Symphony of the Air, after Toscanini left....
Glantz' vibrato and tone are wonderful, IMO...he was a great player...the trumpeter who, for me, is difficult to listen is R. Voisin, of the Boston SO - ultra-bright, "nanny-goat" vibrato....didn't blend in at all with the section, or the other brass instruments

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Sat May 11, 2019 5:41 pm

The NBC's principal oboe from the beginning to 1943 was Robert Bloom, an excellent player who was a Tabuteau pupil and sounded like it. Nothing harsh about that. The principal flute was John Wummer, who went to the New York Philharmonic in 1942. The clarinetist Augustin Duques wasn't so great.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Heck148 » Sat May 11, 2019 10:45 pm

John F wrote:
Sat May 11, 2019 5:41 pm
The NBC's principal oboe from the beginning to 1943 was Robert Bloom, an excellent player who was a Tabuteau pupil and sounded like it. Nothing harsh about that. The principal flute was John Wummer, who went to the New York Philharmonic in 1942. The clarinetist Augustin Duques wasn't so great.
Duques had a decent sound, but was not terribly expressive, Toscanini became frustrated with him at times, still he did not let him go for a long time - 1947.....Robt McGinnis took his place, then he went to NYPO, succeeded by Alex Williams, who had been playing Eb Clarinet in NYPO since mid-30s...
Paolo Renzi succeeded Bloom, as oboe principal...he had great technical chops, sound wasn't that great, but he always played the part...the bassoon section was All-Star all the way - some real heavyweights - Bill Polisi, Ben Kohon, Leonard Sharrow, Elias Carmen.
Wummer [fl], McGinnis [cl], Polisi [bn] teamed up with Harold Gomberg [ob], to form the great NYPO WW section of the late 40s - 50s. These guys all played "BIG" - huge sounds with lots of projection.

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Sun May 12, 2019 3:48 am

Great stuff, Heck.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by THEHORN » Mon May 13, 2019 12:54 pm

Heck, the kind of vibrato ridden , blaring trumpet sound may be ideal for Gershwin , but it's grotesquely wrong for composers such as Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss etc .
It's like an actor playing the role of a German or Austrian aristocrat and using a Brooklyn accent .

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Mon May 13, 2019 3:46 pm

That kind of trumpet sound may be suitable for French music. Certainly it's what I hear (or used to hear) in French and French-oriented orchestras like the Boston Symphony. Also, in the old days, in Russian orchestras, whose winds and brass were played in the French manner and for all I know with French instruments or imitations.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Heck148 » Mon May 13, 2019 6:18 pm

THEHORN wrote:
Mon May 13, 2019 12:54 pm
Heck, the kind of vibrato ridden , blaring trumpet sound may be ideal for Gershwin , but it's grotesquely wrong for composers such as Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss etc .
It's like an actor playing the role of a German or Austrian aristocrat and using a Brooklyn accent .
It was the prevailing style of the day...I happen to like a bright, brassy sound for Wagner, Strauss, Bruckner, etc....I really do not care for this present-day tendency to use rotary trumpets for so much of the repertoire...they lack projection and brilliance, and they undo the balance between the cylindrical [trumpet, trombone] and conical [horn, tuba] bore instruments....rotary trumpets, to me, sound wimpy, and undernourished, no balls, really inadequate for the "heavy metal" needed for Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss....the VPO, and CSO seem to get more brilliance out of them than most orchestras...but I still prefer the brighter, more brilliant projection of the piston valve trumpets.

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by maestrob » Tue May 14, 2019 7:44 am

Heck148 wrote:
Mon May 13, 2019 6:18 pm
THEHORN wrote:
Mon May 13, 2019 12:54 pm
Heck, the kind of vibrato ridden , blaring trumpet sound may be ideal for Gershwin , but it's grotesquely wrong for composers such as Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss etc .
It's like an actor playing the role of a German or Austrian aristocrat and using a Brooklyn accent .
It was the prevailing style of the day...I happen to like a bright, brassy sound for Wagner, Strauss, Bruckner, etc....I really do not care for this present-day tendency to use rotary trumpets for so much of the repertoire...they lack projection and brilliance, and they undo the balance between the cylindrical [trumpet, trombone] and conical [horn, tuba] bore instruments....rotary trumpets, to me, sound wimpy, and undernourished, no balls, really inadequate for the "heavy metal" needed for Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss....the VPO, and CSO seem to get more brilliance out of them than most orchestras...but I still prefer the brighter, more brilliant projection of the piston valve trumpets.
Also, it seems that the softer, more elegant sound of rotary trumpets would be more difficult to balance with the other brass instruments in the climactic moments of Bruckner and Mahler. Am I right? Orchestras that use both, such as the Staatskapelle Berlin are a mystery to me.

I recently had a discussion on this topic with my nephew, who plays the French Horn. He shook his head at one point, and wondered how did Vienna manage to play Bruckner and Mahler, sometimes very well for, say, Giulini and not quite as well for Bernstein.

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Heck148 » Tue May 14, 2019 10:21 am

maestrob wrote:
Tue May 14, 2019 7:44 am
Also, it seems that the softer, more elegant sound of rotary trumpets would be more difficult to balance with the other brass instruments in the climactic moments of Bruckner and Mahler. Am I right? Orchestras that use both, such as the Staatskapelle Berlin are a mystery to me.
yes - I think so. A good friend, tuba player, explained to me at length the balance in the brass section between the cylindrical bore [trumpet/trombone] instruments and the conical bore ones [Horn/tuba]....cylindrical are brighter, more brilliant, conical produce a big resonant sound, less centered and more round....maintaining this balance is crucial to a great brass section sound - Chicago, NYPO, Cleveland [Szell], etc...using the more mellow, less brilliant rotary trumpets tilts the sound too much into the more resonant, less brilliant sound, which to me, sounds unbalanced, and lacking in the desired sonority....perfect example within the brass section is the combination of bass trombone and tuba....the bass 'bone providing a powerful center, and bite to the sound, while the tuba can provide a hugely round, resonant sound
I recently had a discussion on this topic with my nephew, who plays the French Horn. He shook his head at one point, and wondered how did Vienna manage to play Bruckner and Mahler, sometimes very well for, say, Giulini and not quite as well for Bernstein.
The VPO seems to get a brighter sound out of rotary trumpets, so do the Chicago guys when they use them...they must use instruments made of harder, lighter metal, which produces a more brilliant sound....the VPO sound is quite unique - smaller in concept than the American, or London orchestras, but very well balanced with lots of color.

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Tue May 14, 2019 11:05 am

Zubin Mehta was trained in Vienna and often conducted the Vienna Philharmonic. He says in his memoirs that when he became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic he had the orchestra acquire rotary valve trumpets and persuaded the players to learn how to play them, and that he has done the same with all the other orchestras he has led. That would include the New York Philharmonic and I have indeed seen them using rotary trumpets, sometimes but not always. Whether this continued after Kurt Masur left the orchestra, I don't know, as I haven't attended that many concerts conducted by his successors.

In this film of the Berlin Philharmonic playing part of the Brahms 4th symphony in 1948, you can see that the brass are using rotary valve trumpets. Look at 2:20.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leYbb5KZYDg

You can also see that Furtwangler's beat wasn't as indecisive as it's said to have been, not always anyway.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Wed May 15, 2019 7:28 am

By the way, concerning fidelity to the score:

Furtwangler's extremely fast tempo for the very end of the 9th symphony is controversial, and it's not how I'd like to hear that music. But I got out my score and find that Beethoven marked the passage "Prestissimo" as well as fortissimo, and prestissimo means very fast, faster than just fast. It seems that Furtwangler was doing what Beethoven asked for, whether we like it or not, though as with many other things in his 9th, he goes further than just about anybody else.

In the scherzo of Beethoven's 7th symphony, there's a radical difference between Furtwangler and Toscanini over the trio section. Toscanini takes it almost as fast as the outer sections, Furtwangler much slower. So what does the score say? The movement is marked Presto, fast, but the trio is Assai meno presto, which means much less fast. I learned the music from Toscanini's recording, so Furtwangler's tempo doesn't feel right, but it turns out that once again he's doing what Beethoven asked for.

Those scores have been on my shelf for decades but until a friend raised these issues recently, I hadn't really looked at them. And I'm not one to insist that performances follow the score precisely, in matters of tempo and dynamics, so I don't mind if a performer has interpretive ideas of his/her own, I'm all in favor of that depending on the ideas. :) But it's interesting and even surprising that in the 7th, Furtwangler is actually more faithful to the letter of the score than Toscanini, contrary to their reputations.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Heck148 » Wed May 15, 2019 9:42 pm

John F wrote:
Wed May 15, 2019 7:28 am
By the way, concerning fidelity to the score:

Furtwangler's extremely fast tempo for the very end of the 9th symphony is controversial, and it's not how I'd like to hear that music. But I got out my score and find that Beethoven marked the passage "Prestissimo" as well as fortissimo, and prestissimo means very fast, faster than just fast. It seems that Furtwangler was doing what Beethoven asked for, whether we like it or not, though as with many other things in his 9th, he goes further than just about anybody else.
I have no problem with "prestissimo" tempo, per se...I have a big problem with prestissimo that is raggedly played, not together, and sounds like a massive sonic trainwreck. taking a tempo that is too fast, or is impossible to keep things together is , to me, not great conducting or music-making....

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Wed May 15, 2019 10:46 pm

To dismiss a live performance, especially a great one, because of untidiness in the last minute is pretty extreme. There are many recordings of other music by other musicians that are imperfect in one way or another but are nonetheless indispensable, even legendary - one example is Sviatoslav Richter's "Pictures at an Exhibition" in Sofia 1958. In other Furtwangler 9ths, such as Bayreuth 1951, the tempo is the same and the playing is cleaner, but the emotional temperature is lower than in Berlin 1942, not to mention recordings by others that play it safer.
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Thu May 16, 2019 7:56 am

maestrob wrote:I agree, Heck148, that Furtwangler's experiments with tempo set my teeth on edge: I just don't relate to his way of thinking. Having grown up listening to both conductors, I fell into the Toscanini camp when I heard his Beethoven, and wanted to make music like that all my life. I've never stood in front of an orchestra, not being qualified to do so, but I do know how to work with tempo effectively while respecting what's on the page, and Toscanini showed me how by example. I don't agree with everything that Toscanini did (The opening to Brahms I should be in 6, not a broad 2), but that's minor compared with my disagreements with Furtwangler's sometimes erratic individualized performances.
Here's a recording of Bartók playing his "Allegro Barbaro." (Patience, the relevance of this will become clear.)


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpoTxL-uOco

As you can hear, he changes the tempo every few bars. The published score indicates none of this except a few one-bar rubatos (marked sostenuto, not ritenuto) in the middle section. This isn't Romantic music or a Romantic musician, both are as modern as can be. If you didn't know the pianist was Bartók himself, I expect you would dismiss this interpretation as erratic, as you do Furtwangler's, but since it's the composer playing, it can't be erratic but as idiomatic as it can possibly be. (Incidentally, I've never heard any other pianist play this piece this way; they follow the printed text of the music and make their own rubatos.)

We have no recordings of Beethoven playing or conducting his own music, of course, so we don't really know how he did it. We do have this:
Yakov Gelfand wrote:One must not forget the advice of Beethoven expressed in the comment on the metronome marking of the song "North and South:" "100 accordingly to Maelzel; yet this can only apply to the first measures, since feeling also has its beat, which cannot be conveyed wholly by a number (that is, 100)."
https://symposium.music.org/index.php/2 ... vens-music

What applies to a brief song surely applies also to an extended symphonic movement. If you don't like tempo changes such as Furtwängler's, that's too bad, but it would seem that a tempo that changes slightly or not at all is what's unidiomatic, if the composer's preferences are anything to go by.
John Francis

maestrob
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by maestrob » Thu May 16, 2019 10:31 am

John---

I have piano recordings (rolls) of Debussy playing his own music, and it's decidedly NOT in the style of Gieseking, who set today's standard of how to play Debussy's music. The composer's playing is quite idiosyncratic, and very different from Gieseking's approach, yet if a modern pianist took Debussy's approach to his own music, he/she would be laughed off the stage today. Prokofiev's own recording of his Third Concerto also changes tempo with every new musical idea: I don't agree with it, yet I respect it as the composer's wishes. What would Bartok, Debussy or Prokofiev think about today's music-making? Of course we'll never know, but I suspect that they would be pleased that their music is remembered and performed and recorded with such high standards, even if not exactly the same as it was done by them.

I grant that performers of today are grafting modern ideas onto composers that would find the current style quite strange, no question. It all comes down to taste, and what I prefer to listen to is quite different sometimes from your preference. That's really all there is to it. :D

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Thu May 16, 2019 12:29 pm

Well there it is. We probably wouldn't be having this discussion, or it wouldn't have gone on this long, if you and Heck148 didn't dismiss performances I think well of as "erratic," which is also necessarily a challenge to my taste. I hear the difference between Furtwangler's ideas about tempo, which make expressive sense which is a different kind of sense from Toscanini's which are architectural, and Mengelberg's, which are sometimes truly erratic if not inexplicable. :) If we can indeed leave it as a matter of personal taste and not of musical right and wrong, that will be fine.
John Francis

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by Heck148 » Fri May 17, 2019 8:45 am

John F wrote:
Thu May 16, 2019 12:29 pm
Well there it is. We probably wouldn't be having this discussion, or it wouldn't have gone on this long, if you and Heck148 didn't dismiss performances I think well of as "erratic,"
I don't regard Furtwangler's performances as "erratic"...I believe he had what he thought were very sound reasons for the choices he made...it just too often doesn't click with me...the flow of the music is distorted, the pulse disrupted, and often, the execution is less than precise or accurate...again, that's how it affects me, others obviously will disagree.
I certainly don't favor the metronomic, tick-tock, rigid tempo style of conducting - Stravinsky conducting his own works would be a quick example...Furtwangler is rather at the other end of the spectrum in this regard...
I can't remember if it was Bernstein, Boris Goldovsky or Walter Hendl, [all Reiner students] who described Reiner's idea of "vertical and horizontal" approaches [to the score] to conducting...
I'm sure I'm over-simplifying - but it boiled down to "vertical" accuracy in the score - ie - everyone playing precisely, and the same point, the same time at any given moment of a work being performed....if vertical [up and down] view of the score was established, then the horizontal view [the melodic line, pulse and flow] could be altered, sped up, slowed down, halted, whatever....once the rhythmic precision was established, the melodic flow could be altered...
it seems to me, that Furtwangler very much stressed the horizontal view - the melodic line, whereas, Stravinsky was much more concerned with the vertical lineup, and the metric precision.
I like the conductors who are somewhere, in varying degrees, in the middle of the spectrum....I hope that makes some sort of sense... :roll: :wink:

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by jserraglio » Fri May 17, 2019 9:35 am

John F wrote:
Thu May 16, 2019 12:29 pm
Well there it is.
. . . in a nutshell. Furtwangler derided Toscanini as a "bloody time-beater." I like both.

maestrob
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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by maestrob » Fri May 17, 2019 12:20 pm

Heck148 wrote:
Fri May 17, 2019 8:45 am
John F wrote:
Thu May 16, 2019 12:29 pm
Well there it is. We probably wouldn't be having this discussion, or it wouldn't have gone on this long, if you and Heck148 didn't dismiss performances I think well of as "erratic,"
I don't regard Furtwangler's performances as "erratic"...I believe he had what he thought were very sound reasons for the choices he made...it just too often doesn't click with me...the flow of the music is distorted, the pulse disrupted, and often, the execution is less than precise or accurate...again, that's how it affects me, others obviously will disagree.
I certainly don't favor the metronomic, tick-tock, rigid tempo style of conducting - Stravinsky conducting his own works would be a quick example...Furtwangler is rather at the other end of the spectrum in this regard...
I can't remember if it was Bernstein, Boris Goldovsky or Walter Hendl, [all Reiner students] who described Reiner's idea of "vertical and horizontal" approaches [to the score] to conducting...
I'm sure I'm over-simplifying - but it boiled down to "vertical" accuracy in the score - ie - everyone playing precisely, and the same point, the same time at any given moment of a work being performed....if vertical [up and down] view of the score was established, then the horizontal view [the melodic line, pulse and flow] could be altered, sped up, slowed down, halted, whatever....once the rhythmic precision was established, the melodic flow could be altered...
it seems to me, that Furtwangler very much stressed the horizontal view - the melodic line, whereas, Stravinsky was much more concerned with the vertical lineup, and the metric precision.
I like the conductors who are somewhere, in varying degrees, in the middle of the spectrum....I hope that makes some sort of sense... :roll: 😉
Yes, Heck, of course that makes sense and I agree with you.That said, I happen to like Stravinsky's recordings of his own works: he got what he wanted, and that suits me fine (even if Robert Craft did much of the preparation in the later recordings). I still admire Stravinsky's stereo recording of Firebird as my go-to listen when I want to hear that work.

When I said erratic about some of Furtwangler's performances, I meant that he has a tendency to make extreme tempo choices that are nowhere indicated in the score, for example in a 1944 version of Bruckner IX, or his rewriting of Schumann IV for DGG. It may be interesting intellectually to hear these, but this willfulness just rubs me the wrong way. NOT how I want to make music. Sorry, John. De gustibus, and all that.

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Re: Alex Ross on Furtwangler

Post by John F » Sat May 18, 2019 5:15 am

maestrob wrote:When I said erratic about some of Furtwangler's performances, I meant that he has a tendency to make extreme tempo choices that are nowhere indicated in the score, for example in a 1944 version of Bruckner IX, or his rewriting of Schumann IV for DGG. It may be interesting intellectually to hear these, but this willfulness just rubs me the wrong way. NOT how I want to make music
Your last sentence I can't take exception to. What you want is your affair, a matter of your experience and surely also your personality, and it's improper to discuss that. But I'm afraid I'm not done yet.

Stravinsky may be the only important composer who didn't want his music interpreted, just read from the score. Any number of other composers have played their music with all kinds of details that aren't in their scores at all. I've posted several examples, and you yourself have mentioned Prokofiev's recording of his own concerto, saying that he "changes tempo with every new musical idea: I don't agree with it, yet I respect it as the composer's wishes." That won't do. If the score as written and published by the composer does not embody all his wishes for its performance, as is clearly the case with Prokofiev, how can we deny other musicians the right to make of the score what they can, according to their own understanding of it and feeling for the style? Which may be quite different from the composer's, expecially when the music is 200 years old.

Here's another Prokofiev piece, first played by the composer and then in a computerized realization of the score, which is conveniently provided. It's his gavotte, op. 32:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yte4Efwfjqc

That's far from how he wrote it. Here's a recording generated by a computer from the score, which is conveniently on the screen - starts at 4:22:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfDWPi03fqM

Whoever made the audio edited it, adding some nuances of his own which incidentally don't always agree with Prokofiev's, such as the big ritenuto in the final bars which Prokofiev plays in tempo. The score gives no instructions to the pianist other than the tempo at the beginning, which Prokofiev ignores (he plays it allegro, not allegro non troppo) and a single ritenuto at the end of the middle section. The second recording is as correct as possible and utterly boring, isn't it? Prokofiev certainly could have played it that way, but I'm glad he didn't. Prokofiev's recording vividly conveys the spirit of the music by not playing it literally.

One might ask, then, why Prokofiev didn't write all these nuances into the score. One answer is, how could he? Another might be that he left the score plain so that he - and anyone else performing this music - could vary it as the mood of the moment takes him. Of course I can't actually know that, but you can't know that it isn't so.

There's a story about Prokofiev's recording of the gavotte. The musician and critic Richard Taruskin once prepared the piece for a lesson with his piano teacher, reproducing the nuances of Prokofiev's recording. The teacher told him to play the notes as they are written. "But this is how Prokofiev himself played it!" "That doesn't matter, it's wrong."

According to Stravinsky (and Toscanini, though as you say he didn't always do as he said), the written score is the last word and any perceptible departures from it distort the music. You call such departures "erratic." Many other musicians feel likewise. But for most of music history, and in my opinion, the written score is only the first word, which the performer was expected not only to play expressively, often with tempo changes of his own, but even to add notes, such as the ornaments in stylish performances of Handel and Mozart, and cadenzas here and there.

This liberty, or actually it was more of an obligation, was suppressed in the 20th century in the name of Werktreue, but I'm one of those who thinks that while it may be faithful to the score, such literal strictness is often not faithful to the spirit of the music and therefore not really true to the work. And many great musicians of previous generations as well as some of our time would agree with that, Leonard Bernstein for one, if not in words then definitely in some of his performances.

So who's to decide which departures from the written score are faithful to the music and which are distortions of it? First of all the performer, who certainly doesn't sit down at the piano or take up the baton with the intention of violating the music but to do it as well as he can. You and I in the audience have the right to judge what we hear from the performer. How about the composer? Most often he's dead and has nothing to tell the performer or us. Sometimes he's a skilled performer and can show us, but nowadays this is rare, and what we learn from his performances may complicate matters rather than simplifying them - cf. Prokofiev and Bartók. Even when the composer is still alive, he may OK a variety of interpretations of his music, which may have more in it than he realized when he was composing it. He himself may play it differently on different occasions.

So your and my views of the score, what it is and how to use it, are pretty much opposite, and I'm sure never the twain shall meet. So be it!
John Francis

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