‘The life of Furtwängler is a grand improvisation’

‘The life of Furtwängler is a grand improvisation’


norman lebrecht

October 17, 2019

In the latest of my DG videos, I look at the trajectory of Furtwängler’s career.


  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    The most beautiful explanation of how to properly play music is found in the Furtwangler Wikipedia biography within the section entitled “Conducting Style”. It is a quote from “Willy” which begins with these two sentences: “I am told that the more you rehearse, the better you play. This is wrong”. The rest of the paragraph reminds me of how much my teacher Piatigorsky reflected in his teaching what he had learned from WF during his years as principal cellist in Berlin (1924-28).

    • Tamino says:

      “I am told that the more you rehearse, the better you play. This is wrong”.

      Yes, but too simplistic minds might deduct from this a logical fallacy by negation: that one would play better, by rehearsing less. But that is also wrong. 😉

      • Nathaniel Rosen says:

        Dear Tamino—You are certainly correct, but I heartily recommend that you look up the article so that you may enjoy the rest of the paragraph that I find so inspiring. Best wishes.

  • Rob says:

    “A tricky 5/4 movement in Tchaikovsky 5th.”

    That would be tricky because there isn’t one. Come on Norman!!

    Anyway back to Furtwangler. His interpretations have plenty of intellect, but no heart, that’s why he had trouble connecting with Mahler’s music for which you require both. Hermann Scherchen’s Mahler 2 FTW!

    • Bostin'Symph says:

      Fair point, Rob, but the salient issue Norman was making about Nikisch was that he could conduct a Tchaikovsky 5/4 with his eyebrows! (Having seen Nikisch on Wikipedia, I can see that they could have been useful in that respect, but his moustache, one that Nietzsche would be proud of, may also taken over conducting duties!)

    • Novagerio says:

      Rob: Furtwängler’s interpretations “plenty of intellect but no heart?” I see…I find him unique exactly because of the enormous emotional involvement of his reading, his imagination concerning expression, sound and sense of structure, the rich dark and warm sonorities, the perfect balance between spontaneity and control, aswell as his masterful ability to mantain a perfect Legato without emphasizing the barline…not forgetting his wizardry in getting the Furtwängler-sound out of almost any orchestra.

      And you mention Scherchen as a counterpart?…
      Ever tried Boulez in the romantic repertoire?…

    • Tamino says:

      That’s one of the most nonsensical comments I ever read here, that WF’s interpretations lacked heart.
      No idea, how a sensible and observing human being could come to such a conclusion.

    • hcollier says:

      I suspect that Furtwängler, like me, did not feel much affection for the music of Gustav Mahler. Furtwängler stays pre-eminent in Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner, however.

      • Illio says:

        Furtwangler conducted a fair number of performances of Mahler including the 3rd symphony prior to the Nazis came to power.

  • Peter Owen says:

    I recently came across this:
    a performance of Berlioz’s Faust which is so incredibly slow, plodding and lifeless it’s hard to understand what Furtwangler was trying to achieve.

    • Hilary says:

      And a pitiful choice of artwork to boot.

      As regards WF and his choice to stay in Germany we must turn to the sage words of Rob Cowan which were posted on here recently.

      I’m enjoying the way these Lebrecht/DG videos are produced. Nice to see the camera crew at work. I wonder what the thinking was behind this but it’s captivating.

  • Dr. Helga Wall-Apelt says:

    Thank you, Norman Lebrecht, for your excellent comments you provide for the music world. Talking about Furtwaengler and the dinner which Zubin Mehta gave Oct, 17,2019 to his IPO musicians in Herzliya , Israel, make us all aware of our amazing musical History around the world.
    With special thanks from Havah Wall-Apelt, ret MD, in NYC.

  • rob says:

    Furtwangler would have been aware in 1942 of what happened in 1938 as he shook hands with Goebbels – the commander of Kristallnacht, at that Beethoven concert.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Right, Illio, Furtwaengler programmed Mahler’s third symphony, Kindertotenlieder, and Gesellenlieder at the BPO before 1933; and performed and recorded the Gesellenlieder with Fischer-Dieskau and the VPO and Philharmonia respectively in 1952. There’s an air-check of the VPO performance, and the well-known EMI studio recording with the Philharmonia. Both are excellent, though I slightly prefer the live VPO.