The film firmly places Furtwängler in the context of artistic circles in late 19th century Munich. Furtwängler's father was an eminent archaelogist, his mother a painter. He was home schooled, but absorbed cultural experiences closed to most boys. On a trip to an Italian chapel, in 1902, Furtwängler disaappeared, to be found inside a Michelangelo crypt, inspired to write music that was to become his Te Deum. It's hugely ambitious, with massed choirs : the film shows its first performance, in 1967. (drawing above is by Emil Orlik, 1927)
Furtwängler's first love was composition but his career progressed so rapidly that he became a conductor almost by default. His style was idiosyncrasic. Theres a description of him, complete with action sketches, flailing his arms and legs, expressing the music with his whole being. Fundamental to his style, however, was his conception of what interpretation involved. "The stronger the structure of a piece, and the greater the comnposer's mastery of form", he said "the more clearly defined is the interpreter's task. It is only when he has studied and mastered all the details that his real task begins, which is the weaving of all the particular parts into an organic whole."
Furtwängler's style was controversial. Hans Keller describes Furtwängler at a Toscanini Beethoven 9. After a few bars, Furtwängler stood up, shouting "Bloody time keeper!" and stormed out. Definitely not a troll, but a man who knew his music so well that it hurt him to hear it mangled. Keller then describes the passages from recordings. Toscanini takes the opening sextuplets so carefully that you can hear each note unfold. But Furtwängler smudges the beat so you don't hear the component notes but the "tense, vague beginning before the beginning", as Keller says, expressing their meaning within the context of the passage. There's an ominous rumble, yet nimble and alert, intensifying the outburst when it comes.
Nowadays it's fashionable to judge a performance by tempi alone, but as Keller says, "Tempo in itself is nothing. It is a function of structure", He listens to a recording of Furtwängler conducting Mozart Symphony no 40. In theory, it's so fast that it seems almost impossible to maintain. "I did not believe it possible until I heard it" adds Keller. "You cannot decide tempi unless you experience the structure and understand the phrasing of the interpreter". As for formulaic tempi, Furtwängler himself said simply, "there is no such thing".
Aged 12, Daniel Barenboim worked with Furtwängler. It was mutual admiration. "There was always an element of improvisation and surprise in his work", says Barenboim. A member of the Philharmonia who worked with Furtwängler tells how he communicated with the players. He didn't tell them what to do. If he didn't like something, he'd be thinking why, and the orchestra would do so too. "I don't like the word working "under" a conductor. It wasn't like that with Furtwängler". Not mentioned in this film is the anecdote of how Furtwängler walked into a rehearsal and the orchestra lifted their game even though he wasn't conducting.
What made Furtwängler so good? "He risked a lot, as every great artist must", Keller sums up. "It is the easiest thing in the world to always play well. Composers, too. Mozart excepting, their greatness is in direct proportion to their ability to take risks". Furtwängler admired Arnold Schoenberg and sensed in him something exceptional, though he didn't relate to 12 tone theory. But he played Schoenberg, who admired him in return. "Better than all those Toscaninis". One of my conductor friends was given one of Furtwängler's batons as a gesture of respect. Furtwängler had given it to someone he admired, who then passed it on.