Blast from the past: conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler
Some listeners and even some musicians (they're usually the ones in the back stands) wonder why orchestras need conductors. The players know how the stuff goes anyway, don't they? All they have to do is start and end at the same time, and they could do that just fine on their own, right, even in the biggest, most complex symphonies? Yeah, sure. Good luck with that.
Some conductors never rise above the level of traffic cop, to be sure; they keep everything flowing in the right direction and avoid collisions, but they don't bring the music alive. A great conductor inspires musicians and audiences alike, and takes all of us out of ordinary existence and into some other, higher plane. To me, when it comes to this level of inspiration, it's hard to beat Wilhelm Furtwangler.
Since Jan. 25 happens to be the anniversary of his birth in 1886 (he died Nov. 30, 1954), I thought he should be the latest in my globally in-demand series of blasts from the past.
Yes, I know that Furtwangler raises very difficult, extra-musical issues, because, unlike some notable artists who fled the Nazis, he stayed behind at the helm of his beloved Berlin Philharmonic during the barbaric Reich. That he was cleared after the war (and championed by the likes of violinist Yehudi Menuhin) has not absolved him in the eyes of some people. But I find Furtwangler's music-making of such nobility that I can accept his argument that he, who never joined the Nazi Party (unlike Karajan), remained on the podium primarily to do what he could to serve and save German art.
There is a considerable recorded legacy of Furtwangler's music-making to choose from. I finally decided to focus just on Brahms -- excerpts from a filmed rehearsal of Symphony No. 4 (you get a great look at his strange, fluttery baton style -- he had to be truly inspiring for players to follow that beat); and an audio-only account of the finale to Symphony No. 2. Here, then, is just a sampling of the individuality, drama and eloquence that made Furtwangler's artistry so indelible: