December 26, 2013

The Emperor's old recordings

Recently I had to do several hours worth of mind-numbing paperwork.  I didn't want to do it in complete silence, but neither did I want to play music interesting enough to undermine my resolve to get through the necessary drudgery.  Which is why I settled on Bruckner.  I figured Buckner's stupefying repetitiveness would relieve my angst by proving that music can be as boring as the work I had to do.  And since all but two Bruckner recordings in my collection are conducted by Furtwangler, I ended up listening to Furtwangler's take on  five Bruckner symphonies.

It all worked out very well with regards to Bruckner (though, admittedly, not much better than if I were to play Philip Glass' music at a fraction of the normal speed).  But not with regards to Furtwangler and his famous orchestras.  Since I wasn't listening to music as such (once you've heard the movement's opening triad, you've heard pretty much everything Bruckner has to offer for the next 20 minutes or so, with the laendler-derived second theme being as certain as death and taxes), most of what registered in my mind was the orchestral playing.  And this time I was struck by just how ugly the orchestral playing was, primarily from the brass and the woodwinds.  Almost every chorale episode - so crucial to Bruckner's organ-based conception of orchestral sonorities - was badly marred by sour intonation and lack of cohesion (in addition to numerous mangled solo passages from the French horn.)  And too often the strings and the brass/woodwinds could not play together, despite the primitive level of complexity of the music involved. Whether the orchestra under Furtwangler's baton was the vaunted Berlin Philharmonic or the hyped Vienna Philharmonic, the amount of atrocious ensemble playing pouring from my speakers seemed to be roughly the same.

Given the exalted reputation of this conductor and the two orchestras, the natural question to ask is: What the fuck?  Here are some possible excuses I find unconvincing:

1.  Furtwangler's beat was notoriously ambiguous (because he felt that this kind of beat was necessary to produce flowing, organically shaped musical lines.)
     Well, these two orchestras had about 20 years to get used to this beat, and they still played worse in the above recordings than the supposedly inferior La Scala orchestra, which Furtwangler guest-conducted in the 1950 live recording of Wagner's Ring.  (In fact, the even more inferior orchestra of the Italian Radio in Rome somehow managed to be more consistent under Furtwangler's direction in matters of intonation and ensemble.)

2.  The playing of these two orchestras under Furtwangler was affected by the ravages of war.
     So was the playing of the English orchestras.  Yet when Toscanini guest-conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Brahms symphonies - only a year after Furtwangler's cringe-inducing amateurish performances of Bruckner's 4th (Vienna PO) and 7th (Berlin PO) in Stuttgart and Cairo respectively - the Philharmonia's playing was vastly superior.

3.  Even great orchestras can have an off night.
     True.  But not this often and in the music they had been playing for decades under the same conductor.  And anyway, a great orchestra is not one which occasionally plays with superlative instrumental craft.  It is one which consistently plays with security and tonal refinement.  Taking these live Bruckner recordings (and quite a few other live recordings of Furtwangler) as random samples from a decade of performances (1942 - 1951), consistency of instrumental craft is certainly not something one would expect from these two orchestras.  (Heard against countless live recordings of Toscanini's NBC Orchestra from the same decade, the Berlin and Vienna orchestras often sound as a bunch of inspired, badly under-rehearsed amateurs.)

I am not surprised that Furtwangler put up with this kind of inconsistent orchestral execution.  As with his good friends Alfred Cortot and Edwin Fischer, Furtwangler's music-making was all about the deep concepts, the big line, the metaphysical grandeur in the music he conducted.  To these musicians, matters of pure technique seem to have been of marginal importance at best.  Which is why I am inclined to hold Furtwangler responsible, at least in part, for the abominable technical lapses I hear in many of his performances.
     But I think the principal reason for such poor orchestral playing is that the two orchestras in question were simply not good, at least at the time when they were playing for Furtwangler.  And I think Furtwangler was aware of this.  I vaguely recall that he once gave a speech at some jubilee celebration of the Vienna orchestra, in which he claimed defensively that American orchestras, although superior in matters of instrumental craft, cannot produce music with the emotional (spiritual? metaphysical? or some other Schopenhauerian) quality of the Vienna orchestra.
     Oh well...  If sour intonation, poor ensemble, and hollow fortes are signs of spiritual music-making, then who needs the Vienna Philharmonic?  Furtwangler could have gotten this kind of music-making from any semi-professional regional American orchestra.


sasha said...

Mmmm That'll teach those dastardly nazi's!! Getting rid of all their jewish musicians didn't exactly help the cause of their beloved Anton B now did it?!? A little tongue in cheek I confess but you get my drift..Yes yes quite agree Boom..The advocates for Furtwangler always seem to avoid these points you raise..Not to say I haven't been captivated by a recording or two of the esteemed Herr F. but what about Walter, Klemperer and countless others??..They never seemed to get this strange Messiah meets God-like praise that was seemingly the province of Furtwangler alone..The emperor and his new clothes indeed!! Always good to read your provocative thoughts on music..

andy ulyate said...

Yes, the Furtwangler/Bruckner is impossible in 1949-54. The concert halls are gone, the acoustic is wrong. And, contrary to your assertion, the music is very difficult. Your comments highlight your bad taste. Your fascination with the piano is not much of a surprise - that machine can kill normal musical sensibilities.