Sunday, February 05, 2012

Furtwangler: Symphony #2, revisited

Some time back, a young violinist (in college as a sophomore, I think) tweeted that he still found it hard to keep the Bruckner symphonies apart in his musical memory.

I’ve long had CD’s of the three Wilhelm Furtwangler symphonies; 1 and 3 are from Marco Polo, and the longest, #2 in E Minor, comes from JVC, recorded in 1985, with the Osaka Philharmonic conducted by Takashi Asahina, on 2 CD’s running just under 80 minutes.  Tonight, I got out the E Minor after the Super Bowl ended, and tried it on my new setup.

The facile comparison is that Furtwangler (whose behavior during WWII is a matter of some controversy beyond this post) wrote three more “Bruckner symphonies”.  But the comparison really doesn’t quite hold.
The first movement starts out with a slow introduction and with a long but straightforward Sonata structure rather like that of late Beethoven. It ends on an abrupt E minor chord, forte, but without the fanfare of our comparison. The second movement is marked “Andante semplice (tranquillo)” and is more quickly paced and “simpler” than a typical Bruckner slow movement. The scherzo, though, is all of 16 minutes and takes itself all too seriously, and doesn’t have quite the momentum of Bruckner’s “scherzos”.

The finale, sprawling to 27 minutes, takes its form queues from late Beethoven.  It has a long slow introduction recapitulating the earlier material from the symphony, and then erupts with a fugal theme for the “Allegro”, rather like an orchestral “Hammerklavier”.  There is a wonderful familiar melody for a second subject, which concludes in a “hymn of praise” theme of descending tetrachords, very similar to the theme in the “completed” finale of Bruckner’s Ninth.  Still, we’re more in the world of Beethoven than Schubert (who leads logically to Bruckner).  The development is fugal, and comes to a crisis in unresolved dissonances (Beethoven’s Eroica passage recalled), when the recapitulation should start. Instead Furtwangler returns to the slow introduction, and imposes a slow fugue with gradually increasing momentum from both subjects.  He reaches one more mighty unsurmountable dissonance, but now he has taken us into the harmonic world of Wagner, taking chromaticism into outright atonality (my ear picks up some motives from Tristan). Then the Hymn of Praise, descending chords, comes back in glorious E Major, with background repeating figures that sound like a direct quote from Wagner’s Gotterdamerung, finally crashing down into Picardy Third chords and one finale “FFF” octave.  This is German romanticism at its summit.  Perhaps some would find it self-indulgent.  But it deserves concert performance.  It seems to me that Lars Van Trier could have used this music as “Melancholia” swallows up the Earth.  Nothing more can follow.

Yet, given the “similarity” of the conclusions (and the same “Hymn of Praise” theme), the “Schubertian” Bruckner Ninth, as completed, is more satisfying. (See March 8, 2011 here.)

The CD set has program notes entirely in Japanese. I obtained these in the late 1980s from a company in Santa Barbara CA called “Records International” which also sold a lot of Marco Polo then.  I do have to say that the sound is a bit tubby, but it make give better results at home if I get everything switched over to HDMI, which may affect how the channels split among the speakers.
By the way, I’m told that owners of CD sets should remove the plastic fluff inserts, as they tend to deteriorate over many years. 

By the way, last night, I dreamed, after acting in a soap opera and living in the world of "Days of our Lives" (changing places and changing bodies with Will), that I was playing a piano trio in F# minor with themes that sounded like Rachmaninoff to me, but then ended with a theme that I think is the second subject in Dohnanyi's First Piano Concerto, in E Minor.  I'll have to play it again, to check.  It's good to be able to remember a theme from a dream.  But what a weird work that would be.  

Also, CD collectors, watch out for this:

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