German conductor and composer Wilhelm Furtwangler (18861954) remains a difficult enigma in music. Though never a member of Germany's NAZI party he was nevertheless associated with the regime both tacitly and unwittingly through the long-term efforts of Dr. Josef Goebbels' Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Socially and politically naïve, Furtwangler believed that German Art and Politics existed in separate spheres, the former a self-determined forever force-of-nature gift and the latter, in Furtwangler's mind, a temporary convulsion of fascist nationalism that could never outlive the positive German Kultur.
Perspective on Furtwangler is difficult get ahold of, but Peter Gutmann gives it the old college try in his Classical Notes article "Wilhelm Furtwangler: Genius Forged in the Cauldron of War". Gutmann makes much of Furtwangler's dedication to his art and his feeling that he was the keeper-or-the-flame of all thing culturally German. From this vantage, Gutmann observes:
..."Despite all he had witnessed, Furtwangler simply could not accept that the culture which once had produced Goethe and Beethoven had now rotted into a mire of jackboots and crematoria. Fred Prieberg calls this a protective mythology which Furtwangler created to shield himself from accountability in a real world in which civilizations do fail, in which people are held responsible for their leaders, and in which art cannot be so conveniently isolated from politics. Furtwangler's tragedy was that he had to believe this illusion of permanent German cultural merit in order to justify his life's work. Concludes Prieberg: 'Furtwangler sacrificed himself to his own fiction.'"
So what was Furtwangler thinking? Was he trying to make the best of a bad situation? Was he trying to protect himself and his reputation? Or, what he really a creative Pollyanna who saw the world only through his art. Gutmann addresses this directly,
"Speculation as to Furtwangler's state of mind is confusing and inconclusive. Fortunately, though, there is a far more reliable index to his conscience. When we listen to wartime performances by Strauss, Bohn, von Karajan, Krauss, Mengelberg and other Axis amoralists, we hear conductors utterly at peace with themselves, blissfully oblivious to the horrors around them...
But Furtwangler's output of the time is of a wholly different dimension, ranging far beyond the bounds of accepted classical tradition, distended by brutally twisted structures, outrageous tempos, jagged phrasing, bizarre balances and violent dynamics. This is not the expression of a cold-hearted Nazi. Rather it clearly ... signifies a sensitive but deeply troubled man torn by inner conflict... constantly on the verge of exploding...his artistry confers the ultimate proof of his humanity. There is no room for subtlety or doubt. No one sensitive to the interpretation of music can possibly mistake it."
That is quite an apology Gutmann makes on behalf of Furtwangler. But it does bring us circuitously to this: Furtwangler's wartime output at the podium. Specifically, his interpretations of the German repertoire. The story of Furtwangler's wartime recordings is one of sudden transmogrification in the late 1930s to his postwar personal reconciliation.
Between 1942 and 1944, Radio Berlin (Berlin Rundfunk) recorded 20 Furtwangler concerts, amounting to 49 separate compositions. According to Gutmann, The performances were captured via a principal microphone at the podium and mixed at the back of the hall with three additional microphones, all being omnidirectional. The sound was transmitted by telephone to Radio Berlin headquarters, where it was recorded.
Of the 49 pieces reputedly were recorded, many of the tapes were lost. The surviving tapes were confiscated by Soviet occupation forces, who had control of the Radio Berlin headquarters at the time. After generating decades of Russian LP bootlegs (mostly on Melodiya), twenty-two performances were returned to Berlin in 1987. Nineteen of these twenty-two were issued on ten Deutsche Gramophone CDs in 1989 (Wilhelm Furtwangler Recordings 19421944, Volumes 1 and 2). In and out of print on DGG, many of these performances have emerged on the American Music & Arts label.
All of this bringing us to the current collection, Ludwig van BeethovenRecordings during War Time conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler released on Andromeda, remastered and re-presented. First, the sound is better than perhaps the DGG, but not the Music & Arts Furtwangler conducts Beethoven: The Best of the World War II Legacy (1999). However, the Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto No. 4 as well as the Cavatina from String Quartet No. 13 (the earliest recording at 1940) are present, making this an interesting collection.
But does this collection bear out Gutmann's suggestion that these performances are artistically incendiary? In a word, yes. Is it proper to consider the context surrounding these performances when considering their relative merit? Absolutely. Post-modern considerations that it is the work and nothing else to be considered would be as naïve as Furtwangler's conjecture that his art was above social and political concerns. What Furtwangler seeks in his Beethoven is not the pretty or attractive, but the sublime...those elements he derives from the first movement of the Seventh Symphony or the andante of the Fifth Symphony. Furtwangler is not so much ragged as driven.
Furtwangler's performance of the Sixth Symphony is about as far from the conventional wisdom of performance as it can be. Rather than capturing an idealized pastoral picture, Furtwangler summons Beethoven's ideal of struggle, demonstrating that such struggle may still contain beauty, thought that beauty may be haggard and wan in one place and robust and full-bodied in others. While hope exists in this performance, it is tempered with faith, an impossible-to- determine quality lending mystery to the performance.
His final movement from the Ninth Symphony is one of swirling chaos. Abrupt and jarring is the conductor's attack, this is Furtwangler's art fully transformed from before the war. This is music of conflict, not of the militant sense, as I have inferred before, but of the fundamentals: good and bad, right and wrong, love and hate. But not victory or defeat. There is no defeat here; at worst there is continued endurance on the cusp of prevailing, with peace, if not victory assumed.
What is less than acceptable for this release is the almost complete lack of liner notes and commentary. While much has been written about the wartime Furtwangler performances, a fresh perspective would have been appreciated. But that aside, this is an example of where history and creativity meet in a struggle to render something new and vital, reconsidered and seen.