FURTWÄNGLER: Symphony No. 2.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim.
Teldec 0927 43495 (2 CDs) TT: 82:08

Conductor as composer. One of my least favorite periods of music includes the aftermath of Wagner (excepting mainly Bruckner, Strauss, and Mahler) -- the poor schlubs who had to follow Parsifal and the Ring and who might have done better had they never heard either one.

Wilhelm Furtwängler comes from this tradition. Long recognized as one of the greatest conductors of all time, he nevertheless thought of himself primarily as a composer. Conducting he kind of fell into when his composing career failed to take off. Nevertheless, he continued to compose, essentially an irrelevant relic as the century wore on. It wasn't merely the idiom that consigned him to this position. After all, Strauss continued to work essentially the same vein. Furtwängler had almost all the prerequisites of the great composer: an interesting turn of musical mind, an individual outlook, profound understanding of the craft of musical composition, grand orchestration, and in his own way genius. The only thing he really lacked was the ability to build arguments that grabbed listeners.

The Symphony No. 2 exemplifies this. Filled with terrific moments, its ability to fascinate (it's received a number of recordings over the years, including those led by Eugen Jochum and two by Furtwängler himself, once with Berlin, once with Vienna) strikes me, at any rate, as that of a great possibility unfulfilled. When I came across my first recording of this symphony (Furtwängler, Berlin, 1951) and looked at the timings, my eyes rolled at its gargantuan proportions, symptomatic of the fin de siècle. The last movement alone runs half an hour. Unfortunately, most artists aren't capable of epics, and I've noticed that many really bad writers do tend to go on and on. Not everybody can be Homer, Dante, Wagner, Mahler, or Tolstoy.

The symphony turned out better than I expected without swaying me. It's full of arresting moments, dissipated by the lengthy filler between them. For example, the slow second movement of the symphony opens with a gorgeous melody and then dithers until that melody returns. The third movement -- which greatly resembles a Rachmaninoff scherzo -- again features a gripping exposition and goes slack until that opening material returns. Schumann rhapsodized over Schubert's "heavenly lengths." Furtwängler's very long finale comes over more as purgatorial, an excuse to pile one unearned climax on top of another. More than anything, Furtwängler needed an aggressive editor.

I doubt this symphony will ever receive a finer performance than Barenboim's. The Chicago easily handles Furtwängler's fussy counterpoint and polishes the orchestration to shiny gold. The engineering is well within current standards, although not spectacular. Barenboim, in my opinion, does better than the composer himself, especially the 1951 Berlin Phil performance, but not even he can bring everything together.

S.G.S. (July 2011)