Professor Meyer’s musings on Beethoven’s Ninth. #2 Wilhelm Furtwängler

I played the Ninth with Furtwängler twice. One in the late 1940’s with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, London, and two with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the mid 1950’s at the Kunsthaus during the Lucerne International Festival, Switzerland. They were by far the best performances of the Ninth I’ve ever played.

Furtwängler didn’t have much of a beat. He was lank, bald with a fringe of white hair, had a slight stoop and stuck his belly out when conducting.

His approach was to transmit joy. It wasn’t a “Herrlich” performance as some conductors are wont to make of it, but impressed me with its musicality. Despite not having a very clear beat he could convey exactly what he wanted. It is hard to describe but it was uncanny.

The first movement just flowed. There were no overly loud chords. The same with the second movement. The third was full of fun, not like the usual renderings with the tympani being allowed to play fortissimo like a ton of bricks being dropped.

The last movement, beginning with the recitatives was just as Beethoven described his ideas to Sir George Smart during a meeting in September 1825. And I quote Sir George Smart “Beethoven gave the tempi of various sections of his symphonies etc, while he played them on the piano, including the Choral Symphony, which according to his reckoning took three quarters of an hour,which we know is impossible. In Vienna the recitative was played by four ‘celli and two basses which certainly is better than if one takes all the basses”.

Schindler states that Beethoven required all the basses to play in a singing style, not stiffly but in strict time, not dragged. Thus it was with Furtwängler who segued into the Ode to Joy to make a glorious, joyful Finale.

Link here to read a previous post on Furtwängler that you might care to peruse.

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Herbert von Karajan #1

I was interested to read in the March 2008 copy of the BBC Music Magazine some accounts of Herbert von Karajan.  I knew him very well at first hand having played countless concerts, recordings and tours with him when I was a member of the Legge Philharmonia Orchestra for five years in the 1950’s.

I was engaged to play a five stringed double bass in the Philharmonia Orchestra at the express wish of Walter  Legge and von Karagan.   There had been pieces by Richard Strauss and other composers that called for low notes, but there was only one five stringed bass, Gerald Brooks, in the Orchestra.  We met in a pub near the Festival Hall and he told me that he had been sent as an emissary: They were offering me a position in the core orchestra, extra pay for the five-stringer, and that I would be allowed  to keep my freelance connection within reason.  The terms seemed fine to me so I accepted.

A few days later I played my first recording with him. That would have been in 1953. He was in his mid-forties with jet-black hair cut/ en brosse /in the old German style. He looked aristocratic and well suited to his adopted patrician “von”, (he was born Heribert Karijannis of Persian stock).  He was extremely polite to the orchestra, addressing everyone by name.  He had a good stick technique and his tempi seemed just right. The attack in the entrances was never ragged .  The nuances were all there but, overall, after all those years of playing for him I cannot say that he was one of the world’s “Greats”

Comparisons are invidious, but in the Music Magazine articles his name was linked with Furtwängler, but he was no Furtwängler, I know because I played for him too. The overall impression I got was that he was a good business man first and foremost.  That he was ruthless in his desire to get to the top and that he loved material things.  He had a yacht, a plane, a villa and, too, a beautiful second wife.  He employed an excellent manager, Mattoni, and a Viennese lawyer.

Wilhem Furtwängler, conductor

Not long after WWll I was playing in the London Philharmonic Orchestra and we were told that Wilhelm Furtwängler was coming over from Germany to conduct us.

Let me set the scene: Both Britain and Germany had suffered dreadfully in the war, and to say that there was no love lost between them at that time would be putting it mildly.

Furtwängler had been tried in a de-Nazification court just after the war and was acquitted.  This was only fair, because he was never a member of the Nazi Party, and although he was Hitler’s favourite conductor and conducted many times at Bayreuth, which, during the war had been regarded as a hotbed of Wagnerian anti-Semitism, in fact he put his job on the line in 1934 when he championed Paul Hindemith, who was Jewish, against Goebbels and other Nazis.

He was obliged to resign his conductorship of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra  but was later re-instated.  During the war the Berlin Philharmonic was playing at a factory and many of them were killed in an air raid.

At his first rehearsal with us he ambled onto the stage, mounted the podium and looked around nervously as if he expected us to boo him, but to a man, with no pre-arranged signal, the whole orchestra stood and applauded him.  His face changed into a warm smile and then he said “Bitte, Meine Herren, die Neunte Symphonie von Beethoven”. (Please gentlemen, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). That was one of the most poignant moments in my long career.

In appearance he was fairly tall and lank and was stooped.  He was balding with a fringe of white hair.

On the podium he looked awkward. and stuck his belly out when he leaned back when conducting.  One couldn’t say that he had a clear beat, although he used a fairly long baton, but he was certainly able to convey clearly to us what he wanted.

Beethoven’s Ninth was a revelation. The orchestra, as a sign of great respect stood for him when he came on stage- a rare honour in those days.

He husbanded his energy until the climax in the last movement with astonishing results.  The air seemed to be electrified, and the audience gave him deafening applause, well deserved.

The next concert included the closing scenes from Wagner’s opera “Götterdämmerung”.  It was wonderful, and I thought at the time, novice though I was, that this was the true Wagner.

I came across him again when I was in the Philharmonia Orchestra. It was at the Lucerne, Switzerland, International Festival where he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

I was reminded of the occasion many years later when I was principal bass of the Vancouver Symphony in Canada.  I received a nice cheque for a televised repeat of his Lucerne concert.