Classical Music: Who's the Greatest of Them All? ; Digital-Age Maestros Are All Very Well, but You Need to Turn Back to the Conductors of the Past for True Genius, Says Rob Cowan. and a New Series from EMI Offers the Perfect Introduction
Cowan, Rob, The Independent (London, England)
Many years ago, while rehearsing the pre-war BBC Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini was heard to remark, in his usual faltering English, "is not Napoleon, is not Hitler, or Mussolini; is `Allegro con brio!'" But was he really being truthful? Is a major symphonic work merely a sequence of written indications awaiting physical performance? And is the conductor - even someone as a celebrated as Toscanini, who always called himself "just an honest musician" - neither more nor less than a message boy?
I would say not. Great conductors are embodiments of musical temperament, which is why thousands of listeners take sides with one or the other. Records and CDs testify to a hundred or more views of the "Eroica" that challenge each other in interpretative principle or detail, whether cool or heated, sluggish or frantic. But why this persistent preoccupation with older performances? Aren't we already spoiled, what with Rattle, Abbado, Haitink and others like them, men who parade their interpretations apparently without compromise? I say "apparently" as a mark of caution. A few hours spent in the company of the latest (and last) batch of "Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century" double-packs from IMG/EMI suggests that the baton wielded greater authority 50 or so years ago than it does now.
Toscanini thought of himself as a political democrat and a musical autocrat, and you sense that stance in his music-making. At around the time of that "Eroica" rehearsal he recorded the "Pastoral" Symphony, also with the BBC band, a lissom performance that takes pride of place in EMI's Toscanini double-pack (5 62939 2 ooooo). With Toscanini, everything is clear-cut: structure, rhythm, the lyrical swell of a phrase, the pistol- shot attack of sudden loud chords, and with even the most complex innards of a piece made mercilessly clear. Hear him conduct Brahms (in this case the Fourth Symphony, a rare 1948 broadcast) and the calories fall away and the music's musculature starts to glow. Toscanini was a con- trolling force who took the composer's exact instructions as his starting point, but his fiery temperament informed everything he conducted. He was, in the best sense, "hot". And just as his Beethoven had refused allegiance with tyrants, his Wagner was heroic and universalised (in this case a blazing wartime Gotterdammerung "Immolation Scene" with Helen Traubel), viscerally thrilling and uplifting.
It is well known that Toscanini refused to perform in Nazi Germany, whereas his arch-rival, the German-born Wilhelm Furtwangler (5 62875 2 ooooo), held fast to the naive but noble notion that he could help save German culture by staying at home. As men and musicians, Toscanini and Furtwangler could not have been less alike. Where Toscanini marshalled his forces like a god from on high, the infinitely flexible Furtwangler unleashed a score as if it were a force a nature bent on its own unstoppable course, a rush of elemental power resistant to human intervention. Not for him the purist's straight-backed stance, but music enacted as a sort of communal rite. Furtwangler's "Eroica" (a previously unreleased live performance from Vienna) is a "happening" where heavy chords thunder rather than snap, where the broad "Funeral March" inwardly grieves and the orchestra's bass- line has the humbling sonority of a low organ pedal.
The Choral Symphony (1937, in less good sound) opens among mists for a panoramic confrontation. But when it comes to the choral finale, the surge of energy will have you gasping for breath. The orchestra's collective body becomes possessed, much as in a slightly later Fifth Symphony where tension runs equally high. Furtwangler hammers each statement of the famous four-note "fate' motif with immense dignity, while the music that follows - the finale especially - takes …
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Publication information: Article title: Classical Music: Who's the Greatest of Them All? ; Digital-Age Maestros Are All Very Well, but You Need to Turn Back to the Conductors of the Past for True Genius, Says Rob Cowan. and a New Series from EMI Offers the Perfect Introduction. Contributors: Cowan, Rob - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: July 5, 2004. Page number: 14,. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.