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Furtwängler: Symphony No. 1

Wurttembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen/Fawzi Haimor (CPO)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0
555 377-2_Furtwangler

Symphony No. 1 in B minor
Wurttembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen/Fawzi Haimor
CPO 555 377-2   88:14 mins (2 discs)

Furtwängler said that he was a composer who conducted, rather than a conductor who composed, although he had little spare time for writing music. But in the 1930s, he took some of the ideas from a symphonic movement which he’d abandoned in 1908, and reworked them as the opening of what became his First Symphony. Even that didn’t please him, and he put it in the bottom drawer after one performance in 1943.

It’s hard to disagree with his verdict. Ghosts of composers he most admired haunt the score, with Bruckner, Beethoven and Wagner looming large. This distracts from the work’s overall shape, nor does its tendency to fall into foursquare phrasing help. A dramatic opening builds an expectation that the music will take off, but it comes to a halt after a minute, and heads off into a meandering Largo, where there’s too much reliance on sequential writing. The Scherzo doesn’t completely escape this trait, but its light scoring and perky articulation make it more effective overall.

The Largo reaches an emotional high at the central climax, but I was longing for some memorable melodic substance to go with the rich harmonies and detailed scoring, and even more so in the finale, which comes in at just under half an hour, but has no clear trajectory. The performers do as much as they can with the symphony, and the recording is warm and detailed, but it’s as a conductor that Furtwängler will rightly be remembered.

Martin Cotton