Truly great music can survive mediocre performances. Beethoven symphonies make their impact to some degree no matter how unskilled the conductor and orchestra. But music that is less than great needs help from performers. That is particularly true with long, late-Romantic symphonies that can sprawl shapelessly unless led with a very firm hand. Another factor is that experienced listeners know Beethoven’s symphonies and can fill in what is missing, which is not the case when encountering a rarely performed work like Wilhelm Furtwängler’s First Symphony.
I raise this issue because the performance on this CPO release has caused me to re-evaluate a work I have not admired very much. Furtwängler’s Second Symphony is his finest work in that form. While it is no masterpiece, its attractions are evident not only in the composer’s own recorded performances of it, but also in recordings by Daniel Barenboim, Eugen Jochum, and Takashi Asahina. There is a level of melodic inspiration and coloristic imagination, along with a certain gravitas, that makes that work welcome if we encounter it from time to time.
The First Symphony has the same influences (Bruckner and Strauss predominantly, and Mahler as well), but a somewhat lesser degree of inspiration. Prior recordings have not been able to overcome the score’s weaknesses, but finally, an American conductor who has built his career largely in Europe, Fawzi Haimor, brings enough commitment and passion to the music to make clear its value.
One might think that in such a sprawling, loosely constructed symphonic work, faster tempos would help to overcome its deficiencies. In fact, Haimor demonstrates (as has been long known) that tempo is not the most important aspect of a performance. This performance is 11 minutes longer than Alfred Walter’s deadly dull recording for Marco Polo with the Slovak Philharmonic, and five minutes longer than George Alexander Albrecht’s similarly faceless reading with the Weimar Staatskapelle on Arte Nova. By taking his time to shape the music, by enjoying the long phrases rather than rushing them, Haimor makes the music come alive. Add sharp rhythmic definition and attention to matters of balance and color, and you have the best case that can be made for the piece.
All three of Furtwängler’s symphonies have now been given good representative recorded performances. I wrote above about the Second Symphony. For the Third, Joseph Keilberth’s Berlin Philharmonic account is stunning, but he recorded only the first three movements; Furtwängler had not completed the finale at his death. It has been completed and recorded, but not very persuasively. I’ll venture that this new recording of the First is impressive enough to spark a reappraisal of the score. CPO’s recorded sound strikes the right balance between warmth and clarity.