Wilhelm Furtwängler

The work of the controversial conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler

Younger readers will be less familiar with this conductor who died in 1954.  Part of the problem is that he was not keen on studio recordings so those recordings that survive are concert performances.  The other problems are his involvement with the Nazi regime and that he was admired by Hitler.

The Society was delighted to welcome Dr Roger Allen who has written a book on this controversial conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler: Art and the Politics of the Unpolitical (Boydell Press 2018).   Roger is a fellow of St Peter’s College, Oxford.  The conductor left a legacy of recordings made during the turbulent period of the early part of the 20th century culminating in the Third Reich.

The first piece was the third movement of JS Bach’s Bradenburg Concerto No. 3 made in 1930.  It had an unusually large number of players, compared that is with today’s pared down recordings made with period instruments.  Yet the sound was not ‘mushy’ and the parts could be heard distinctly despite it being a mono recording.

Roger then went on to discuss the different approaches between Toscanini

Wilhelm Furtwangler. Pic: larouchepac.com

and Furtwangler illustrated with the first movement of the Eroica Symphony.  Toscanini came to Berlin in 1930 and his arrival was not welcomed by the German.  Beethoven was seen as ‘home territory’ and Toscanini was criticised for not recognising the ‘organic growth’ of the work – a theory propounded by Heinrich Schenker.    I am not sure any of us fully grasped the full import of Schenker’s theory as it applied here, but we were able to distinguish the different approach between the two conductors.  As Roger explained it, Toscanini played what was in the score – seen as being rather un-German – whereas there was a distinct sense of being ‘ushered in’ to the symphony by Furtwangler.

At Bayreuth he performed a production of Lohengrin in the presence of Hitler a keen Wagner fan.   During the war he became a kind of figurehead for the Nazi regime which led to problems when the war ended.  He was part of the denazification programme after the war and did not perform for two years.

Other pieces Roger played included part of Bruckner’s 8th and the whole of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo stringsAnton Bruckner was also popular with Hitler and he had a bust made and exhibited in Walhalla.  Again, Bruckner was much admired by the Third Reich as being an example of ‘blood and soil’ as well as being an Austrian.

Furtwängler poses difficult questions for listeners, similar to those with Wagner, an avid anti-Semite.  His close association with, and support for, the Nazis makes uncomfortable listening.  Many artists had to flee Germany and the occupied lands because of persecution so it was not some kind of passive thing.

The presentation was extremely interesting going beyond the normal music centred evenings we usually enjoy.  In two hours there was not time to explore all aspects and unfortunately we were unable to get the screen to link to his laptop.  Nevertheless, the considerable contribution Furtwangler made to the musical world was well explained.  His legacy of recordings is revered by many.  Peter Horwood, the chair of SRMS, said it had been a ‘fantastic evening’.

This was the last evening before the Christmas break and we shall be back for the second half of the season on 4 February 2019.  We wish all our supporters and members a happy Christmas and we look forward to seeing you again in the new year.

Peter Curbishley

Bernstein: musical polymath

bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein had many talents and at the last meeting of the Society three of them were on vivid display in a presentation by Alan Forshaw.  First was his ability as a pianist was shown in a recording, made in 1946, of Ravel’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra from which we heard the first movement.  It is no surprise Bernstein liked this piece with its strong jazz influences and powerful rhythms.  We also heard him play one of his own compositions, Seven Anniversaries recorded in 1947.

His second great skill was as a conductor for which he was in great demand.  He was the principal conductor for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for many years.  Examples we heard included the second movement from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the NYPO with Bernstein conducting from the keyboard and also the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony.

He was an accomplished composer in a wide range of genres.  Few may of heard of his Clarinet Sonata for example, his first composition.  More familiar perhaps is his Symphony No. 1 from which we heard the second movement with its strong rhythms and echoes of Stravinsky.  We also heard part of his Symphony No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra both recordings with the NYPO.

He was a composer of operas and first was Trouble in Tahiti – an opera in seven scenes – from which we heard scene 2.  Candide did not achieve critical acclaim unfortunately and had to wait two decades before it found a place in the repertoire again.  West Side Story is undoubtedly his most successful work, loved the world over and was made into a film.  Two extracts were played: Tonight performed by Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa, and Somewhere, in a performance conducted by Bernstein himself.

Alan explained that Bernstein was the son of a Ukrainian immigrant and it is perhaps worth reflecting on the enormous contribution east European and Russian immigrants made to the life of the United States.  Not just musicians, but scientists, writers, mathematicians and in many other areas of cultural life.  As the UK is struggling with the ‘threat’ of immigrants fleeing Syria and other war torn areas, it is worth remembering on the benefits that they can bring, as Bernstein did to the USA and musical life generally.

This was an accomplished presentation which gave an insight into the range of talents Bernstein had and the musical legacy he has left behind. A musical polymath indeed.