What Furtwängler thought of other conductors

What Furtwängler thought of other conductors


norman lebrecht

November 13, 2019

Another episode in my videocast series for DG:

He was a frustrated composer who hated most conductors.



  • Cubs Fan says:

    Maybe I have no taste, but for the past 40 years Wilhem’s 2nd symphony has certainly been worth more than two hearings. I’ve collected several recordings and always enjoy wallowing in the music – Barenboim really brings something special. WF may not have been a great composer, but certainly an interesting one.

    • Bone says:

      Totally agree about the Barenboim recording with CSO of Furtwangler’s 2nd. It is the best that orchestra EVER sounded with Barenboim (or anybody else for that matter).

      • Mathias Broucek says:

        It’s special, although so is the WF one with the VPO on Orfeo (much better than his BPO or Stuttgart versions)

      • John Borstlap says:

        Here it is…. a late romantic work:


        … and it should be judged as a work in the context of its tradition, and not for its place in history or for it being a work by WF.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I tried to listen to the whole thing but failed. In spite of some truly beautiful moments, much of it seems to be top heavy pretentious gestures, with badly-written tuttis, and without much musical substance. (And that is while I am in sympathy with the tradition and the style.)

  • Jay Bee says:

    He called Toscanini a mere time beater… Not a very nice thing to say especially when Toscanini himself thought of him as great of a conductor as himself.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Furtwangler was jealous of every other conductor, to (and past) the point of paranoia.
    That famous picture that NL mentioned was taken during Toscanini’s European tour with the NY Phil, which completely blew everybody away. Toscanini’s success on that tour, plus his successes at Bayreuth and Salzburg, must have driven WF absolutely crazy.
    And it’s a shame that WF ignored Mahler. The recording of Songs of a Wayfarer with Fi-Di is tremendous.

    • Kevin Scott says:

      Later on in life Furtwangler ignored Mahler, but early in his career he conducted the first four symphonies and Das Lied von der Erde. I also believe that Furtwangler was closer to Klemperer than any of the other conductors. Perhaps this may be due to the fact that Klemperer’s own career as a composer was in the same vein as Furtwangler’s, as we rarely, if ever, hear his music in the concert hall, and shared a similar approach (on the surface) towards Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner.

      • Alexander Tarak says:

        Even Klemperer restricted himself to a few of Mahler’s symphonies (2,4,7 and 9).
        He wouldn’t conduct the Fifth and admitted to not understanding the Sixth.
        Maybe Mahler’s music wasn’t every conductor’s “cup of tea”. As simple as that.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          Mahler was terribly out of fashion in the 1930s and 1940s and most people thought it wasn’t very good; it was rarely played even in Britain and the US. The Mahler revival only got going in the 1960s and 1970s.

  • sam says:

    Though a failed composer in his own right, Furtwangler composed through his conducting: his distorted readings of Beethoven and Brahms were his rewriting of the masters.

  • Tamino says:

    Is there any scholarly, reality based, credibility and evidence to the fictional idea, that WF’s dislike of Mahler was merely based on a psychological complex of inferiority as a composer-conductor?
    WF wasn’t the only major figure in that time, that thought of Mahler’s oeuvre mostly as megalomaniac Kapellmeister-music. That was pretty much the Zeitgeist. And before Nazi antisemitism banned Mahler in Central Europe effectively.

    • PeterSD says:

      Indeed: George Szell grew up thinking that Mahler was a great conductor and crazy composer; even after he revised his opinion, he refused to conduct several of the symphonies that he considered wildly overblown.

    • Ruben Greenberg says:

      Tamino: Richard Strauss also thought Mahler was a great conductor but thoroughly disliked the latter’s music.

      • Fredrik Wanger says:

        Indeed, and Brahms after being persuaded to hear con Don Giovanni was extravagant in his praise.

      • John Borstlap says:

        That is not entirely true, Strauss had the greatest admiration for Mahler IV and said of its adagio: I could never ever write such an impressive adagio.

        • Ruben Greenberg says:

          John: I’m actually glad I was wrong about Strauss’ low opinion of Mahler’s music. I had read that somewhere though, maybe in Alma Mahler’s memoires.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            Strauss didn’t exactly think Mahler’s music was bad. Rather he didn’t understand it, and had little interest in becoming more acquainted with it.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        Although RS kept the score of the Mahler 2nd Symphony on his desk, claiming he referred to it for questions on orchestrating.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Indeed, not every music lover has to be a Mahlerian. I adore Mahler’s songs but grew out of his symphonies by my early 20s. I never had any interest in composing or conducting.

  • Jonatan Horvat says:

    I remember reading something about how he feared that Karajan would take over the Berlin Phil. and hated him because of that.

    • Tamino says:

      FW was also anything but collegial and friendly to Celibidache, after he returned to the helm of the Berlin Phil after his official de-nazification. One can learn about Celi’s great disappointment with that through the lines in his documented interviews. Celi was very hurt, how WF treated him.

  • PeterSD says:

    One conductor for whom Furtwaengler expressed respect was Artur Nikisch.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:


  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    Yet he overestimated the merits of his compositions. He is not alone in this. Others include Klemperer, Bernstein (as far as his serious music is concerned), Maazel and our contemporary Ivan Fischer.

  • Hilary says:

    An appendix to these excellently produced videos is this interview with the man himself.
    I don’t speak German but maybe someone here will care to add subtitles 🙂

  • Peter Owen says:

    I was intrigued to discover that WF conducted the first performance of Schoenberg’s Orchestral Variations. Does anyone know how this came about and whether WF performed any other serial music?

    • Hilary says:

      The premiere of the Variations op.21 was a debacle according to Schoenberg and Webern due to only three rehearsals.
      In terms of recorded legacy this is the farthest from the norm we have : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XR8KlJ7rLCU
      The spooky duet for piano and trombone at 19:28 foreshadows Stravinsky’s serial period. It’s nicely shaped here.
      “The Fairy’s Kiss” is more natural territory and is also available.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements just sounds awful here, like a school orchestra before lunch time. Which shows how bad an impression music can make if badly performed. When the work is unknown, it is the composer’s fault; when it’s Beethoven, it’s the conductor’s.

        • Hilary says:

          and yet there are worse examples. Karajan’s lumpy/humourless account of “Jeu de Cartes” springs to mind. The same conductor who acquitted himself so well in the Symphony in C, or Bartok’s Music for Strings perc and celesta. All too easy to jump to simplistic conclusions.