Notes and Editorial Reviews
Wilhelm Furtwängler's conducting recalled that of an earlier era, but his compositions are even more redolent of the 19th century. He began his Second Symphony in the waning days of World War II but it's as if Schoenberg and Stravinsky never existed. This sprawling, lengthy, 80-plus-minute work is firmly in the Bruckner mold, recalling the Austrian master in its rhythmic profile and in its alternations between relaxed song and screwed-to-the-max tension. But there's no mistaking it for a lost work by Bruckner or anyone else, for within the broad Brucknerian model Furtwängler works his own brand of magic. And magic it is, not just in the long-limbed melodies and sustained argument, but also
in masterfully original orchestration and wind writing that truly merits the "magical" label.
The crown jewel among Furtwängler's works, it's hard to account for this symphony's neglect over the years, especially with the current interest in Bruckner, Mahler, and the post-Romantics. As Barenboim's superb performance demonstrates, Furtwängler's Second may not be a masterpiece (and could you prove it one way or the other--and should we even care?), but it certainly deserves to be heard more frequently in concert and on disc, and this smashing release could be the catalyst that makes it happen.
For this is one of those rare recordings pervaded by the conductor's love of the music and the orchestra's flawless rendition of it. Barenboim's always identified with Furtwängler the conductor, but he's never been just a clone. He has his own way of conducting this work, and while it's similar to Furtwängler's, there are numerous differences between them. Here, Barenboim captures the Furtwänglerian long line and arch of the Symphony, fully conveying the mood of nostalgia and sadness that permeates each of its movements. Dynamics are carefully graded and climaxes are placed in their context--the mezzoforte orchestral climax at the center of the second movement isn't overblown, and the megawatt power of this great orchestra isn't unleashed until the last movement, where it belongs. Barenboim elicits playing that's committed and extraordinarily skillful--the critical wind solos are impeccable, the strings lush, the brass forceful without being overly dominant.
The Symphony may have longueurs but it also sustains interest and it's full of highlight passages that linger in the memory. The work's hushed opening in the lower woodwinds is pregnant with a promise fulfilled by the expansive opening theme, the strings weighted with nostalgia and sadness, haloed by lovely wind figures. The second movement Andante has a sighing string theme that passes to brief wind solos, and shortly thereafter Furtwängler screws up the tension with a rising string figure. This movement has an indeterminate quality; the brooding feeds on itself, the regretful mood a flip side to the first movement's more overt dramatics. The third movement is best of all, featuring compelling wind writing that brings out some of the Chicagoans' finest playing. It also illustrates Furtwängler's knack for borrowing elements from other composers and turning them into sounds uniquely his own. So the opening wind solos have a Russian cast to them that recalls the wide steppes; the music modulates into a galloping string figure reminiscent of Sibelius; and there's a Rimsky-like brass interjection. But in the end, it's all Furtwängler. The last movement too, has such unforgettable passages as the mystery-laden opening and, among others, the stirring brass chorales that simultaneously surprise and enchant.
Barenboim's is the clear choice among stereo recordings of this work. Indeed, its only rival is Furtwängler's own live 1953 performance with the Vienna Philharmonic. In terms of orchestral execution, the Chicagoans are hands-down winners; the sour Vienna winds and trumpet bloopers are from a different, lesser universe of orchestral execution. But if you love this symphony, you should hear the composer's interpretation as well as Barenboim's. Overall they share a similar conception and only two minutes separate their timings. But Furtwängler's more clearly etched rhythms consistently prove more telling. Thus, Furtwängler's sharply accented lurching wind figures in the first movement (Barenboim 4:25, Furtwängler 4:35) are more striking, and throughout the work his rhythmic command makes him sound faster (even when he isn't) and lends a stronger contour to the melodic lines. Barenboim's grand climax in the finale is more measured and thus more powerful, but there's no denying the excitement of Furtwängler's headlong rush to the finish line. On the other hand, who would guess until now that the work actually has some extra percussion writing in its finale for bass drum and tam-tam?
Which to get? Barenboim will be the clear first choice for most people. It is a splendid interpretation that fully captures the score and enjoys superlative orchestral playing in modern sonics. But I'd hate to be without Furtwängler's own recording. After all, he was a great conductor, and perhaps (at least for 80 minutes or so) a great composer too. Get them both.
--Dan Davis, ClassicsToday.com
If Furtwängler composed one masterpiece, this is it. His Second Symphony stands squarely in the tradition of Bruckner and Wagner, without sounding quite like either of them. The scherzo, for example, is quite distinctive (and even catchy), while the slow movement is sweetly lyrical. It’s certainly not a “cosmic” German adagio. The biggest movement is the finale (big surprise), a piece that sustains its length remarkably well. Furtwängler himself recorded or broadcast the piece several times (once commercially, for DG), and of course his versions are excellent, but this one is every bit as fine, better played, and of course better recorded.
Barenboim’s Chicago recordings, notable for their dullness in Strauss and Wagner, have been disappointing, but the challenge of a big, complex work in the tradition he loves galvanizes him (and the orchestra) to give their very best. Furtwängler’s versions (either on DG or Orfeo) are of course essential, but if you find yourself intrigued by the work you really do need to hear it in excellent modern sound. There are details evident here that you simply won’t notice on those versions, which only suggest that piece’s true dynamic range. A major release.
-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 2 in E minor by Wilhelm Furtwängler
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1944-1945; Germany
Date of Recording: 12/2001
Venue: Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Illinois
Length: 82 Minutes 8 Secs.
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