Monday, March 5, 2012

Fu fighter

Yesterday I said I would say what I like about Wilhelm Furtwangler as a conductor.

For one thing there is the snotty "shut up" gesture he makes at the start of this film.

For another there was this thing that happened to me when I was, I want to say 12.

My father played me this record he had of Furtwangler conducting Mozart's 39th Symphony. He knew I liked Mozart and so he sat me down and said, you should hear this.

And I loved it. And I decided I wanted to hear it every day. But my dad was possessive about his records and so I needed one of my own. So I went out and bought a recording, with Istvan Kertesz and the Vienna Philharmonic. It was on London's budget label and I could afford it.

I was happy and I went home and opened the record -- remember how it felt and smelled when you opened a brand-new record? -- and I listened to it.

But it was not the same as my dad's record.

My dad's record was better. It just was. I listened to my acquisition again and then I went downstairs and surreptitiously grabbed my dad's record, just to make sure. I tried to deny the difference. But it was there.

I liked Furtwangler's energy. I liked the drive he gave the music. Another thing I remember was the minuet movement. My new record truncated those top notes -- they were cut and dry, and I didn't like that as much as Furtwangler's more lush sound. You could disagree with me. There's a case to be made for either side. The point is, Wilhelm Furtwangler was the reason I learned that not all conductors were equal, not all performances were the same. I am affectionate toward him because of that.

Wow, just now I looked on YouTube and there is Furtwangler, conducting the mighty 39th. Is this one of the great symphonies of world civilization or what?All my life I have thrilled to this music. And I have to say, I still agree with my 12-year-old self. I love Furtwangler's take on this piece.

In the first movement listen to how slowly and luxuriantly the slow introduction melts into the main theme. You hear that from about 2:20 to, yikes, 2:55. Would anyone do it like that now? What bold and wonderful music making.

Here is the minuet movement of the 39th symphony in Wilhelm Furtwangler's hands.

I still feel the way I did when I was 12.

I want to listen to this every day!


  1. I don't want to get into the points of view about Mozart performance. I do think that whenever any music addict (we both are) hears the first performance or recording of a work that makes us love it, that performance remains the gold standard against which any later performance is judged. I know it's true in my case: Beethoven quartets, Hungarian Quartet on Angel. Appassionata and Op. 2 # 3, Rubinstein, RCA. Last 5 sonatas, Schnabel on Angel. I was in my teens and just starting out. Although nowadays, I recognize the technical roughness of Schnabel.

  2. Prof., you might be right. Well, you are always right ; ) I do wonder if the first performance of something that you hear -- and love -- sticks with you. I will always love my Guarneri Quartet renditions of Mozart. I totally understand your examples. It is funny, it might be the way we are wired. And you're right, we are music addicts!