Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Furtwangler's 2nd Symphony gets sympathetic treatment

Furtwangler: Symphony No. 2
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Euguen Jochum, conductor
BR-Klassic, 2010 (mono recording)

Some music is so durably constructed that it can withstand the poorest performance. If a badly-lead ensemble provided your first exposure to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, I think you’d still be able to determine that the failings were with the musicians and not the score.

But some music requires a little extra love to make it shine. That’s the case with Wilhelm Furtwangler’s 2nd Symphony. Furtwangler -- like Mahler -- was highly regarded as a conductor, but always thought of himself first as a composer. Like Mahler, his works were largely ignored during his lifetime, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike Mahler, Furtwangler’s music has  never really caught on.

For a long time I believed it was completely the fault of the music. Furtwangler thought big – perhaps too big. His orchestral works are massive, and even his chamber pieces tend to push the one-hour mark. Plus, Furtwangler used Bruckner’s technique of gradually building to a dramatic climax, stopping, and then doing it again, giving me the impression that the work never really got off the ground.

In some of the recordings I’ve heard, the orchestra was clearly doing little more than sight-reading, and the conductor seemed to be just trying to get through the thing. As a result, the music never really engaged me. This new release with Eugen Jochum conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a live 1954 performance of Furtwangler’s 2nd Symphony is another matter entirely.

Jochum was a close friend of Furtwangler, and took the time necessary to really get to know the score. The aging Furtwangler had been invited by Jochum to attend the performance, and he sat in on the orchestra’s rehearsals. But Furtwangler died nine days before the concert, and the work was then performed instead as part of a memorial concert.

Jochum (probably aided by Furtwangler’s input) had the big picture, and it shows. Rather than hearing a symphony that started and stopped, with Jochum I senses that the music was actually going somewhere. Although Furtwangler’s melodies still don’t fully stick with me, I was astonished at some of the quite beautiful passages (particularly in the fourth movement) that grew organically out of the material. Jochum knew exactly what to highlight and what to move to the background to make sense of this work.

Is Furtwangler’s 2nd Symphony a great composition? No. But the sympathetic and skillful conducting of Eugen Jochum makes the case that it is a very good work. And one that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to.

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