Wilhelm Furtwängler
Symphony No. 2


The Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Warner Classics Compact Disc 0927 43495 2.

We find this work very provocative. First of all, Barenboim has done a terrific job of maintaining developmental tension and clarity throughout -- it is a labor of love. In less sympathetic hands, the piece could easily degenerate into chaos.

It is a lovely work, and yet to a certain extent, a tedious one. Furtwängler is clearly building on the foundation of Brahms' symphonic works, and as much as we love Brahms, it has always seemed to us that there was slightly prosaic quality to Brahms' compositional method. He couldn't seem to quite achieve the kind of transcendental quality that is found in Beethoven's late works, where ideas undergo profound development in a very concise way. Brahms often seems to be bending over backwards to avoid mere sentiment, demanding much of himself and the listener to ensure that there is an ironic point to the idea, where Beethoven didn't seem to have to struggle as much to get from here to there.

Furtwängler seems to be faced with the same dilemma, only more so. His ideas are developed longer and louder than those of Brahms, to the point where he seems almost ready to torture them to death, but not quite. He never abandons rigorous tonal counterpoint.

It is unclear to us why this work is not more popular. It is long-winded, but certainly no more so than better-known works by Bruckner or Mahler, and it doesn't have what seem to us to be the obvious defects of those latter composers: in Bruckner's case, he often lapses into redundancy and outright boredom, while Mahler is marred by a penchant for the cynical and grotesque. It is said that Furtwängler ardently wished to be remembered as a composer, and not only as a conductor; it seems to us that he could easily have written a far more accessible work than this one (we are unfamiliar with his other works, which have also remained obscure), but our hunch is that he had the same stubborn quality as an artist that Brahms did, never taking the easy way out.

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