Wilhelm Furtwängler brought passion to the Berlin Philharmonic. (Eddie Worth / Associated…)
There is a photograph of Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler seated at a table warily ignoring each other in Bayreuth during the 1931 Wagner festival. The perfectionist Italian was at the time the most famous conductor in the world. The transcendental German conductor was the most revered. Theirs was perhaps the greatest conducting rivalry of all time, and on it goes.
Now we have the battle of the big boxes. "Arturo Toscanini: The Complete RCA Collection," 84 discs strong, will be released this week. It comes on the heels of last year's "Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Legacy," an even bigger 107-CD collection put out by a German company, Membran.
On the surface, these genius maestros couldn't have been more different. Toscanini developed his technique beating sloppy Italian orchestras into shape with military rigor. Furtwängler put all his attention on spiritual meaning. Toscanini was an uncompromising anti-Fascist who adamantly resisted Mussolini's Italy. Furtwängler was so uncompromising in his mission to preserve German culture that he controversially cooperated with and was co-opted by the Nazis, even though he opposed them.
However, both conductors shared an urgency in their music making that came from urgent times, and with our perspective, Toscanini and Furtwängler now almost seem like two sides of the same mesmerizing musical coin — and both necessary.
He had a fanatic following in his day. He still has a fanatic following, nearly 60 years after his death.
"Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Legacy" is a legacy set, indeed. Its 107 discs contain every work the legendary German conductor is known to have recorded or broadcast. This 1-foot, 2-inch-long box is an obsessive and incomparable monument to spiritual intensity. Priced at barely more than a dollar a disc by some online merchants, it may also be the greatest recording bargain ever.
So what was it about Furtwängler, who was one of music's great enigmas? A small amount of film exists of him conducting, showing his gawky, spastic, self-absorbed movements that made him seem lost in his own world. Yet he was surprisingly athletic — a skiing accident once kept him from conducting for more than half of one year. Nor was he that distracted by head-in-the-musical-clouds dreaminess 24/7. He had two wives, many mistresses (a harem, some said) and five illegitimate children.
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He collaborated with the Nazis, but he wasn't one, and he used his influence to save many Jewish musicians. He had a numinous view toward art which he was willing to protect at any cost. He thought composing a higher, and his higher, calling than conducting, but his epic symphonic and chamber pieces have never caught on. He demanded in his performances unprecedented and unrelenting passion, yet he must have had a lighter side. His nickname, after all, was Fu.
Seeing himself a composer, Furtwängler didn't conduct until he was 20. His wavy-gravy stick technique caused Toscanini to dub him "Il grande dilettante." (He accused Toscanini of having no deep understanding of harmonic meaning in Beethoven or sense of where the music was going.) But Furtwängler was a hypnotist. He created spells that got musicians to channel his mystical ideas. That comes through in the more than 8,000 transporting minutes on this box set, even when the recorded sound is very rough and even when the playing is rough, as well.
Furtwängler concentrated on the core Romantic German repertory — Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner were at the heart of his sensibilities. They are well represented here with many of his most famous recordings. But his repertory was wider than often realized.
He performed, and often premiered, works by many of his most important contemporaries, including Bartók, Schoenberg, Strauss, Prokofiev, Hindemith (whom he particularly championed despite Nazi disapproval), Sibelius and Stravinsky.
Whatever Furtwängler conducted, including Bach and Mozart, he conducted big. He always wanted a large orchestra and demanded a robust sound. But he also had an amazing ear for detail, with vibrancy being his No. 1 concern.
Listen to the pair of staccato chords that begin Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony. They are alive. Each lasts a fraction of a second, yet you can sense their inner makeup, their being. In the first two seconds you already know why you want to listen. Pulling oneself away is not an option.
Furtwängler conducted for the moment, and his performances varied greatly. He was thus never comfortable in the recording studio, where he most worked only after the war (he died in 1954 at 68). His recordings from Berlin and Vienna and London in the '50s are relatively well-proportioned, if probingly urgent. But it is the more erratic broadcasts of live performances, especially during the war, where the Furtwängler magic was often most apparent.