Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bruckner's Fifth

This is my Tuesday Blog post from April 15, 2014.

Anton Bruckner’s Symphony no. 5 was written at a time of much trouble and disillusionment un the composer's life - it is not outwardly a work of storm and stress, yet is one of his most contrapuntally intricate works. The symphony is sometimes referred to as "Tragic", or "Church of Faith". Three of its four movements (1, 2 and 4) begin with pizzicato strings, hence its other nickname, “the Pizzicato Symphony”. The pizzicato figures are symmetrical, in the sense that the outer movements share one figure while the middle movements share a different figure.

Composed between 1875–1876, with a few minor changes over the next few years, it received its first orchestral performance in Graz on 8 April 1894 (Bruckner was sick and unable to attend: he never heard this symphony performed by an orchestra). It was dedicated to Karl von Stremayr, minister of education in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

To many people unfamiliar with the inner-structure of Bruckner’s symphonies, they all seem to feel and sound alike with an ethereal feeling to them. That’s probably because, except the Symphony No. 1, they begin with sections that are like introductions "in-tempo", easing into the main material like the opening of Beethoven's Ninth. The “tragic” symphony is the only one of Bruckner's nine that begins with a slow introduction. 

Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) is a historic figure among German conductors of his time, whose legacy post-Nazi Germany is somewhat unclear, depending on which narrative you happen to subscribe.

Formed as a composer and a conductor, Furtwängler's pre-1920 positions took him to Breslau, Lübeck, Mannheim, Frankfurt, and Vienna. At the age of 35, the conductor took the baton at the celebrated Berlin Philharmonic and concurrently held the same position at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, where he remained until 1928. Furtwängler led the New York Philharmonic from 1927 to 1929, but eventually left to concentrate his career in Europe: it was during those years that Furtwängler was appointed music director of the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as holding various posts with the Bayreuth and Salzburg festivals (1931-1932) and the Berlin State Opera (1933).

When the Nazis came into power in 1933, Furtwängler strongly and publicly opposed the Nazi agenda, despite pride in his German heritage, and refused to give the Nazi salute, even in Hitler's presence. In 1934, when Hindemith's Mathis de Maler was banned by the Nazi party, Furtwängler unilaterally resigned from all of his posts, aided numerous Jewish musicians under Nazi persecution, and refused to conduct in Nazi-occupied areas. Furtwängler eventually fled to Switzerland.

After the war's conclusion, the Allied command cleared Furtwängler of charges of being a Nazi sympathizer, although the American government did not "denazify" Furtwängler until 1946. In 1949, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra courted the German conductor, but its board of directors quickly withdrew its offer under the heavy and largely unjustified criticism from the orchestra's musicians.

Always welcomed in Europe, Furtwängler enjoyed continued success throughout the region and was responsible for countless recordings, most of which were made after the war. Furtwängler's idiosyncratic approach to the repertoire and spontaneous interpretations were unique to say the least. Furtwängler remained a popular artist and kept a busy schedule conducting throughout Europe until his death in Baden-Baden in 1954. According to his second wife Elisabeth Ackermann, he died a darkened and melancholy man, troubled by the atrocious history his beloved Germany had written.

This Once Upon the Internet “live” performance of Bruckner’s Tragic symphony from August 1951 at the Salzburg Festival is considered by Henry Fogel, a noted Furtwangler expert, inferior to the wartime 1942 account in terms of overall tension, calling the Salzburg performance “soft-grained”. Though analog restorations of historic performances usually fare better than this one, my feeling is that one still has to admire such an incandescent interpretation, so free, expressive, and flexible in phrasing – to borrow from a review I read, it is a “powerful, visionary reading”.

Hope you will agree.

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony no 5 in B flat major, WAB 105
Wiener Philharmoniker
Wilhelm Furtwängler, conducting
Date of Recording: 08/19/1951
Venue: Live Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Downloaded from Public Domain Classic, ca. 2011

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