Saturday, 13 October 2012

Furtwängler's Pastoral

Re-united with an old friend this Friday: Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1952 in Beethoven's 6th Symphony, the recording with which I grew up on LP in the 1950s, despite all the forewarning and head shaking of the critics of that period. The recording has been re-transferred and cleaned up by the admirable Pristine Audio, and the sound now is perfectly listenable-to without having to make many allowances.

What comes over in this performance is love: the Vienna Philharmonic obviously loved the work, as did the conductor. The opening allegro ma non troppo is quite definitely non troppo in this leisurely performance and, as critics remarked at the time, it is not much different in tempo from the following andante molto mosso. Who cares? It's a lovely performance in which life is breathed into Beethoven's music; one feels he would have been much taken with this rendition of his Pastoral. A happy day in the Viennese countryside with the Vienna Philharmonic.

The task of the conductor and orchestra, of course, is to breathe life into notes on paper, and to attempt to re-create what was in the composer's head when he wrote it. (It goes without saying that what the composer heard in his head at the time might well not have been the following performance that he awaited with resignation or trepidation: “What do I care about your wretched fiddles when the spirit comes over me?” Beethoven is alleged to have remarked).

Anyway, after 60+ years, this classic recording from another age and another world lives on. In Furtwängler's hands, it lasts for 45 glorious minutes; conductors such as Chailly or Norrington probably dispatch it in half the time and then speed on to the next work on the list.

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