The only conductor who ever resembled Furtwängler is….

The only conductor who ever resembled Furtwängler is….


norman lebrecht

October 02, 2019

In the second of my videocasts for Deutsche Grammophon’s complete Furtwängler set, out today, I talk about the uniqueness of this conductor and his inimitability. Only one maestro ever came close.



  • Michael says:

    My copy of this set arrived in the mail yesterday. This is a must have for any serious collector. Where is Warner with a complete set? (hopefully remastered!)

    • JohnG says:

      On the remastering front, the sound in the wartime set issued last year by the Berlin Philharmonic is remarkable. Though very expensive, it’s a real labour of love: worth considering if within one’s means. And the circumstances of the music-making often seem to have inspired all to play beyond even the established BPO/Furtwanglerian norm.

  • M McAlpine says:

    “He was tall where all other conductors were short…” Like Klemperer? “….a gaunt giant of a man who presided over his orchestras like a soaring eagle.”

    • Vaquero357 says:

      Hmmmm. Knappertsbusch was something like 6’7″ tall.

      • We privatize your value says:

        No, he was not, he was 190 cm tall, which is something like 6’2,5” (sorry, I use the metric system). Klemperer was between 194 and 198 cm tall, depending of the sources. I think that Furtwängler was a little shorter than both of them, maybe 188 cm.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Knappertsbusch too.

      Richard Strauss also towers over most or all others in his photographs. Maybe he was hanging out with many other conductors.

      In all fairness: there was no shortage of short conductors, and there is no shortage of Lebrechtian hyperbole.

    • Jack says:

      That’s two. Who else?

  • Gustavo says:

    I hope Furtwängler will not be the only mystery and/or myth that persists over such long time.

    Here’s another take on Furtwängler:

    And this one is about precision:

    • We privatize your value says:

      If the über-self-conceited Joachim Kaiser says so, it must be… this vain man’s opinion. And nothing else, or more.

    • Petros LInardos says:

      The clip with Rozhdestvenski is remarkable. Unless we are conductors or orchestral players, we mostly don’t know what we are talking about when criticizing conductors from observation.

  • John Kelly says:

    Gergiev’s waving fingers are a self invented “technique” for sure. Another conductor with a self-invented “non-technique” would be Stokowski, also an artist who subjected the orchestra to spur of the moment inspiration……hence “watch conductor”…

    • Elizabeth Owen says:

      I sat next to an elderly gentleman at a Gergiev concert at the RFH years ago. He had seen Furtwangler conduct and said Gergiev conducting put him in mind of Furtwangler’s. I can’t comment as I never had the luck to see Furtwangler

      • Greg Bottini says:

        That elderly gentleman, sadly, must be pre-Alzhemic.
        Gergiev is a musical phony and a poser.
        Furtwangler was NOT.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        spelling correction: it’s “pre-Alzheimic”.

        • Mike Schachter says:

          Not I think a term in medical use.

          • Willi Philips says:

            Correct. This is not a medical term used by the AAIC nor any medical institutions in N. America or the EU.

          • Greg Bottini says:

            I’m certainly no medical man; I was just using a slang term that was once bandied about at my workplace.
            To say someone was “pre-Alzheimic” was jokingly meant to mean that that someone was beginning to lose it.
            Just workplace dark humor.
            No offense was meant to Mike Schachter or Willi Philips, who are both obviously more well informed than I am about proper medical terminology.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      I never thought I’d read anything where the names of Gergiev (a musical non-entity) and Stokowski (a stupendous conductor, and a giant in the history of 20th c. musical performance and recording technology) are mentioned together.
      One sees something new every day!

      • BrianB says:

        Unlike “fly in, fly by” Gergiev, Stokowski rehearsed assiduously and painstakingly.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          Stokowski knew how to get the sound he wanted from his orchestra. To be fair to Gergiev; he can be good when he takes it seriously. But he habitually tries to do too much and ends up doing much of it badly.

  • I think one should exercise caution before falling too deeply into the Furtwängler cult. As the musicologist Pamela Potter has demonstrated, views of classical music during the last century were strongly shaped by social values and propaganda that promoted a kind of Germanic cultural supremacy in classical music. Unfortunately, the legacy of this thought, though weakened, continues to this day.

    As a historical example, we might compare the ways critics from the generation before Furtwängler wrote about Hans Richter and Mahler. Mahler became the General Music Director of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1898, replacing Hans Richter who had led the orchestra for the previous 23 years. (The Vienna Philharmonic refers to the Richter years as its “golden age.”) Mahler’s tenure was troubled in part by a continual pattern of anti-Semitic harassment and he left the orchestra after three years. Using his own words and quoting those of Max Kalbeck (a prominent Viennese critic,) Wilhelm Jerger, who was the Chairman of the orchestra during the war, draws a comparison of Richter and Mahler that reveals the anti-Semitic attitudes Mahler confronted:

    “A completely different type of personality entered with Mahler, ‘as there’ — to speak with Max Kalbeck’s vivid words — ‘instead of the tall blond bearded Hun, who placed himself wide and calm before the orchestra like an unshakable, solidly walled tower, there was a gifted shape [begabte Gestalt] balancing over the podium, thin, nervous, and with extraordinarily gangly limbs.’ In fact, a greater contrast was really not possible. There the patriarchal Hans Richter in his stolidity and goodness, and his extremely hearty and collegial solidarity with the orchestra, and here Gustav Mahler, oriented to the new objectivity [neue Sachlichkeit] –nervous, hasty, scatty, intellectualish [sic]-the music a pure matter of his overbred intellect.”

    One notes the subtly racist language, (“intellectualish,” “overbred,” “new objectivity,” “gangly limbs,” “scatty” vs. “blond,” “tall,” “stolid,” “wide,” “calm,” and “patriarchal” representing “solidarity”) and how it expresses the hallucinogenic ideologies of anti-Semitism and National Socialist aesthetics. The transparent sub text is one of chauvinistic masculinity and genetic superiority. Jerger’s and Kalbeck’s commentary vividly illustrates how national cultural identity in western art music can be intertwined with sexism, racism, and chauvinistic ethnocentricity.

    And so here we are again in the 21st century witnessing a curiously overblown worship of Furtwangler almost analogous to what happened during the Reich when he was given an official status as a part of the genius-seed of the nation state. And of course, promoted by *Deutsche* Grammaphon. We need to look at these mythologies of greatness and consider their origins and purpose, and how they color our thoughts to this day.

    • john Borstlap says:


      But Mahler’s tenure in Vienna, at the KK opera, was 10 years. So, even if he only held a position at the Vienna Philharmonic for 3 years, he still conducted the orchestra in the opera.

      Concerning Richter: he had been Wagner’s assistent, but Wagner complained about his stolid and inflexible way of conducting, while he himself always preferred quick and lively tempi (!). So, Richter represented a ‘Germanic’ style which was not really ‘truly German’ but a solidification of it for reactionary use. A lot of misunderstandings there.

      Also, the German ‘classics’ could not help it that people of very restricted mental horizon did not understand the profoundly humanist nature of their works. The German ‘classical tradition’ (Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mensdelssohn, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Strauss) represents some of the best music ever written and that does not mean it is nationalistic, but universal and European. (Even Wagner who considered himself the ‘most German of musicians’) preferred to be abroad, loved most of his life abroad, cultivated the French cuisine and French perfumes, and came to despise the reality of ‘the Germans’. A lot of misunderstandings also here.

      • At issue is not the music itself or its performance, but the social forces that shape our perceptions of them. Music is defiled when it is used in the service of chauvinism.

        • david hilton says:

          Why view music through such a politically-laden prism? How is music “defiled” simply because it may be used in the service of a political stance that is out of favour in the william osborne household? The Marquis de Chauvin had, and still has, his adherents. And the many links that have been circulated this week to Jessye Norman’s celebrated performance of La Marseillaise reminds us what a fine tune it is, all the while illustrating how music can just as easily be exalted “in the service of chauvinism.”

          • If one needs to explain how the Nazis defiled music, there’s no point in trying to have a discussion.

          • We also see in some of the above comments that 80 years after the war, the “…yes, but…” rationalizations are as alive and well as ever.

          • john Borstlap says:

            Sorry, but these are not ‘rationalizations’ AT ALL. The music itself cannot be touched by maltreatment, a musical work is not an object. Where music is appropriated by evil regimes, that does not touch the music, the abstraction of which both makes it vulnerable to such abuse and protects it against the same.

            The associations are in the mind of the listener, understandable, but unfounded. What if a criminal correctly explains the pythagorean theoream? Is it then ‘defiled’? It seems to me that the theoream can stand on itself.

            All of this goes straight to the heart of the never-ending discussion about ‘entartete Kunst’ which has unjustly condemned the classical tradition:


        • Eric says:

          So we really shouldn’t be listening to F’s recordings, and if we are naughty and do so it must be with a profound sense of guilt. I suppose we also shouldn’t be looking at the work of Duerer or other northern renaissance artists since the Nazis admired them as well.
          The Kultur-Kommissar has spoken.

      • A Pianist says:

        Wagner also was known to prefer lighter bel canto style singing. Franz Voelker is thought to represent more of the style Wagner actually liked. It was his descendants who preferred the heavy belting and shrieking. No doubt he would be mortified at how his music has been massacred for over a century.

    • Amos says:

      Sorry but for me the worship of Furtwangler is overblown simply due to his insistence on what strikes me as arbitrary tempo shifts and distortions of the musical line. I recently tried to listen to his famous 1942 VPO Bruckner 8th and after a perfectly reasonable 1st movement he begins the 2nd at a tempo which trivialized the music and suggested he had a train to catch. I’m sure he had a sound philosophical reason but for me it destroyed what might have been an interesting performance. Similarly for me his Brahms 2nd performed before fleeing for Switzerland had little to do with Brahms and everything to do with WF.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Strict adherence to the score is really something that came fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s. Before then almost all conductors were much more flexible in their approach to playing the music. Furtwangler wasn’t particularly extreme by the standards of his contemporaries.

        • Amos says:

          Respectfully, I don’t agree. Toscanini wasn’t conducting in the 60’s and had long championed “strict” adherence to the score. I have read accounts of his 1930 European tour with the NYPO which influenced a generation of conductors. There have always been conductors who took liberties with the score like Mengelberg and those who didn’t or did so imo more judiciously.

          • Adam Stern says:

            Just as respectfully: does this include Toscanini’s excision of the fugue section from the finale of Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred” Symphony? (There’s nothing in the score about an optional cut.)

          • Amos says:

            First, strict was put in parentheses and second pulling one example from a lifetime of work is called an anomaly. I suspect that similar to the cut Szell made in the finale of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra AT would have a well thought out explanation that has nothing to do with philosophy and everything to do with music.

          • Amos says:

            Sorry I meant in quotation marks!

          • Adam Stern says:

            I might also direct attention to our blog host’s volume “The Maestro Myth,” pp. 74-75, regarding Toscanini and textual fidelity. Among other things (including Ravel’s and Shostakovich’s ire over Toscanini’s changes to their desiderata), Mr. Lebrecht cites something that Toscanini told his younger colleague Massimo Freccia: “Change what you want, but don’t tell anybody.”

          • Adam Stern says:


            Let me know where the tipping point is between anomaly and custom. Put aside questions of good intentions and supposed necessity — we’re talking “strictness” here.

          • Amos says:

            When every performance by conductors like WF is conducted based on their philosophical approach that day rather than their interpretation of the score. Conductors like AT and GS were never robotic in their approach to a piece but there were well thought out frameworks based on their study of the score.

    • Alexander Tarak says:

      Nothing curiously overblown about the worship of Furtwängler.
      At his best,he was capable of things no other conductor could match.

  • Bonzini says:

    Really, How can you with your background forget Furtwangler the Nazi and the anti – semite he was until the end of his days. Furtwangler had a fit when he learned that Rafael Arie was Jewish, and he had to work with him on his recording of Don Giovanni. As for a Conductor that could create a sound out of an orchestra, or any musical ensemble, and that you would think it is Furtwangler conducting, then you are correct, there is only one :Celibidache.

    • fred says:

      ww, really? Your source for this? So why would he work with Menuhin then etc????

    • Opus says:

      I couldn’t agree more about the last point. The only conductor of modern time who continued the musical style and ideas was Celibidache. Furtwängler shaped the performance by the sound and acoustics of the moment, not the metronome, (re-)creating the piece at that moment, making every performance unique. To even mention Gergiev in the context of Furtwängler to me sounds totally misplaced. Gergiev is incredibly sloppy in his beat and there is no musical insight, unlike with Furtwängler.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    ==He was tall where all other conductors were short…” Like Klemperer? “

    We’ve already seen on these pages John Geordiadis mis-remembering G. Szell as short – when he actually towered over people

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    One of Furtwängler’s greatest achievements, IMO, is his 1953 Rome recording of the Ring.
    He only had one month to teach the entire cycle to a post-war radio orchestra supplemented by local musicians, many of whom did not know the work.
    The results are extraordinary.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Ps: Klemperer said that Toscanini couldn’t have held a candle to Mahler (or words to that effect ).

    • John Kelly says:

      Klemperer didn’t have much good to say about any of his “colleagues”. Barenboim recalls visiting K at his Hyde Park suite and finding him utterly disconsolate and depressed. K says “I’ve just been watching Stokowski conducting on TV” (it was Beethoven 5). B says “Oh was it awful?” K says “no, it vas GOOD.”

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Gergiev comes close to Furtwängler? Hmmm….I beg to differ.
    IMO one of the few conductors who deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Furtwängler is Carlos Kleiber.
    Such a pity he didn’t record more.

  • Edgar Self says:

    John Kelly above notes Gergiev’s strange finger-wiggling when conducting. Yuri Temirkanov extends his arms straight down his sides and swings them back an forth like a double pendulum. How do the players know when to start? Foucault or Hegel himself couldn’t tell.

    I really don’t know any conductors who resemble Furtwaengler or get his results, He is a one-off. I like some other conductors better in certain works, but his average is very high considering the happenstance origin and age of his recordings. Not everything works every time — it doesn’t for anyone — but when it does, I want to hear it.

  • Fan says:

    Nice pants, nice socks and really nice shirt, and you cross your legs beautifully! What a handsome man!

  • John P. Shea says:

    I cannot believe this deal! Furtwangler: the great EMI recorfings… 21 discs worth! Did I really only pay $19.95 (plus shipping) for this amazing set?
    There was no conductor, certainly not in the first half of the 20th century, who stood as tall —figuratively as well as literally— as he did. Even today, his command of the Germanic repertoire is unmatched. Thank you, EMI, for this gift.

    • We privatize your value says:

      Klemperer stood taller, just look at the photographs were they are both standing next to each other. And Klemperer’s command of the Germanic repertoire – at least, as far as Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms are concerned – is also second to none (his Mozart, Schubert, and Bruckner have serious rivals). There is no single conducting god, it’s a whole pantheon!

      • Alexander Tarak says:

        Yes, Otto Klemperer was also second to none in a very different, but IMO, equally compelling way.
        Two titans. Chalk and cheese etc…
        Ps: Klemperer was 6’7″ and weighed 18 stone.
        (At least that’s what I have read somewhere).

  • marinetti says:

    There is no more obvious expression of power than the performance of a conductor. Every detail of his public behavior throws light on the nature of power. Someone who knew nothing about power could discover all its attributes, one after another, by careful observation of a conductor. The reason why this has never been done is obvious: the music that conductor evokes is thought to be the only thing that counts; people take it for granted that they go to concerts to hear symphonies and no-on is more convinced of this that the conductor himself.

    • john Borstlap says:

      A conductor is organizing the separate parts of the work into a coherent whole. It is not power but the authority of responsibility. Where conducting becomes a demonstration of power, something went very wrong.

  • marinetti says:

    Berlin. October 7, 1944. A typical day toward the end of the Third Reich. Soldiers die. Civilians suffer. Jews are murdered. Nothing special.

    In the Beethovensaal a concert is about to begin, Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting but the theater is empty, relieved of its usual audience studded with Nazi elite seeking a brief cultured respite from the stresses of war. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is on stage, awaiting its cue. Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler stands awkwardly on the podium. The vague meandering of his baton summons the first shadowy note of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. A Radio Berlin engineer starts his Magnetophon. The most extraordinary orchestral recording of the century has just begun.

    • Jean-Claude Velin says:

      Could you please go on and make your point. So far, your statment could be understood in different ways….. Thanks a lot.

      • Hilary says:

        The absence of a point is what makes this a distinctive contribution to the discussion. Perhaps it could be turned into a film?

  • We privatize your value says:

    I could have sworn that the conductor who came closest to WF was… Sergiu Celibidache! And with good historical and musicological reason.

  • Jack says:

    Gergiev? Kind of a low rent Furtwangler at best.

  • Jack says:

    “Being a famous archaelogist in the 1890s was quite close to being a rock star”

    Anyone pick up the unintended humor there?

  • Rob says:

    Furtwängler’s Beethoven interpretations cannot touch Toscanini’s. With Toscanini, I feel so much closer to the composer any other versions.

  • Don Ciccio says:

    Apart from Celibidache, whose style is actually different from that of Furtwangler, Peter Maag can be said to resemble Furtwangler in certain aspects, while also being his own man.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    It is said that a live recording was made of Furtwängler and Wilhelm Kempff performing Beethoven’s fourth Piano Concerto.
    The result would/could have been out of this world.
    (There is a photo of them playing piano music for four hands together which would suggest an affinity between the two).
    Does anyone know anything about the existence of such a recording?
    (Or maybe it’s just a musical urban myth.)

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Comparing Gergiev and Furtwaengler is like comparing Norm van Brocklin to Tom Brady or Dak Prescott.

  • Peter Phillips says:

    Most of the above refer to conductors working in the west before the iron curtain lifted. Perhaps we should also think of Mravinski, Abendroth, Suitner and Konwitschny

  • Richard Bloesch says:

    I’m surprised that no body has mentioned the Furtwangler recordings now available from Pristine records ( They have wonderfully remastered recordings not only of the wartime recordings, but also of the post war recordings.

    Richard Bloesch

  • Elliott Spanier says:

    Ferenc Fricsay

  • Rob says:

    Herbert Blomstedt has said his conducting hero was Furtwängler.

  • Peter Phillips says:

    Jascha Horenstein, who was for a time assistant to WF.

  • Chris Hartley says:

    Furtwängler perhaps did not beat, but maintained a strong inner pulse ( any good professional orchestra does not need someone to beat every bar of a classical or even a romantic symphony) . Gergeiev has no inner pulse-merely improvising gestures to cover not studying the score. His approach is purely to whip things up in the concert, resulting in performances which rarely together and invariably forced. Check out the results he gets from the Münich Phil. I played in his first concert in Holland after he left the USSR- a dismal experience. He has charisma, but it stops there.

  • Plush says:

    I have just received the DG set and done some preliminary listening. The 1950’s recordings sound quality is rather poor in comparison to other early 1950’s recordings. These sound dull and are very soft. I am knowledgeable about analog tape recordings and some of these are slap dash efforts.