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Brilliant Heresy

Bach's Matthaus-Passion by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with Wilhelm Furtwangler (EMI Classics)

Music review, November 24, 1995

Wilhelm Furtwangler was the great live act in classical music. During his decades of conducting the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras, he became famous for his peculiar, improvisatory take on the standard repertoire. He would have had no use at all for the current fascination with "authentic performance," which is to say, using period instruments, period tuning, and a plausible period style to recreate the music the way the original composer must have heard it. Furtwangler didn't give a damn how music used to sound, only how it was going to sound when he conducted it that night.

He pushed and pulled at scores as if they were Silly Putty--ignoring all the composer's markings for how passages were supposed to be played, feeling his way through concerts as though he were making up the music himself. Sometimes you get the feeling the orchestra was alternately struggling to follow him and staring at him in disbelief. When it worked, the results could be weird and spectacular: he could give a Brahms symphony the dark splendor of a Rembrandt painting, he conducted Don Giovanni as though it were the sound track for the apocalypse, and he once turned Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" into an anguished, wailing dirge.

But when it didn't work, the results were so bad the liner notes panned them ("splintered and plodding...painful"--honest self-description of a Furtwangler Brahms CD on the Music & Arts label). There's more suspense buying a Furtwangler CD than there really ought to be.

EMI has now brought out a restored and digitally remastered version of his performance of Bach's masterpiece, the Saint Matthew Passion. It's from 1954, the last year of Furtwangler's life. By then his conducting had become less overtly perverse and more contemplative. But it's still typical Furtwangler: a performance on kazoos would sound more historically informed. The score is severely abridged, and then conducted with his usual waywardness with the tempi (even with 14 substantial omissions and several trims of the recitatives, this performance runs nearly as long as some uncut ones). It's also typical in its tolerance of imperfection in the name of spontaneity: if a singer's voice blew out on the high notes (as happens more than once), Furtwangler wasn't about to go into a studio and rerecord. The background, and sometimes the foreground, is dense with the small-arms fire of coughs and chair creaks, and the pauses between numbers are filled with frantic page flipping, as the performers skip over the mutilations of the score. (Yet this CD is happily untypical in having halfway decent sound--some of his releases are almost inaudible.) But redeeming it all is Furtwangler's imposing vision--not of what Bach meant, exactly; maybe of what Bach would have meant if he'd known what Furtwangler could do for him.

The Saint Matthew Passion--or to give it a fuller, more intelligible title, The Passion of Our Lord, According to the Gospel of Saint Matthew--is Bach's largest and most lavish work. It's an immense oratorio, in which a plain recitative of Christ's arrest, trial, and crucifixion flowers into an endless profusion of arias, ariosos, chorales, and hymns. The first audience must have been stunned by it. No other music from Bach's time is so grandly ambitious or so exquisitely worked. As it sounds in an authentic performance--say, John Eliot Gardiner's widely acclaimed recording on Archiv--Bach's seemingly simple but endlessly subtle and various orchestrations (invariably lost in the vast murk of a modern orchestral performance) surround the familiar story like a halo, as sublime and intricate as the design on an illuminated manuscript.

Furtwangler's version isn't like that. At first it's disconcertingly sluggish: the gigantic opening chorale doesn't unfold as it ordinarily does, like a shimmering, celestial maze; instead it surges up indistinctly in a viscous wave. The early arias are as interminable and unreadable as the presumably tragic ballads you sometimes hear as Muzak in ethnic restaurants. The hymns are dreamily slow; the chorus is sometimes weirdly out of phase (and out of tune). Furtwangler doesn't seem to connect with the score at all--until the scene of the Last Supper, midway through the first part.

Nothing much happens here in most performances I've heard: Jesus might as well be an after-dinner speaker, and his accompaniment is a routine Baroque filigree (all of Jesus' recitatives are accompanied by shifting clusters of strings--the musical equivalent of a red-letter edition of the Bible). But in Furtwangler's version, as Jesus breaks the bread and pours the wine, the strings mysteriously rise and overflow with lovingly abundant, Wagnerian lushness, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's voice soars nobly into crescendo after triumphant crescendo. It's an impossible, wildly operatic scene. Furtwangler's Jesus proclaims the New Testament as though it were a victory speech on a battlefield; he becomes another Siegfried or Parsifal, a mythic hero possessed by a vision of divine grace.

This is the point of Bach's score for Furtwangler: the drama, not the music. I've never heard another performance that gives such weight to the actual story. Most conductors hurry the soloists through the recitatives as quickly as possible so they can get to the next of Bach's glories. But Furtwangler keeps dawdling over them, pushing the soloists into singing the plain, almost minimalist settings as full-blown arias rich with unsuspected emotional nuance. While Bach had to keep his music within the likely range of its first performers--which is to say, amateur soloists with stage fright backed by a scratch orchestra (the two longest parts, Jesus and the Evangelist, are by far the easiest to sing)--Furtwangler had the great Fischer-Dieskau and the Vienna Philharmonic to play with: there was no reason not to shoot for the moon.

But in other places Furtwangler gets uncanny effects through restraint or even silence. The Saint Matthew Passion is divided into two parts, which originally framed a sermon; the last recitative in the first part, which tells of Jesus' arrest, ends with the stark line, "And the disciples abandoned him and fled." In John Eliot Gardiner's performance this is only a brief police report holding us all back from the magnificent chorale, which he hits with his full strength. But Furtwangler has his Evangelist, Anton Dermota, draw out the line like a sob, and surrounds it with a prolonged, dramatic hush. For him this one line is the climax of the act--a betrayal too painful for any music.

In the second part the silences grow increasingly drastic as Furtwangler prunes away some of Bach's loveliest music for the sake of an unadorned narrative line. By the time he's done tampering, the confrontation between Jesus and the High Priest has no music at all, other than the bare chords of the continuo, and it ends with only a simple hymn (which, if the cuts had been made for the sake of musical quality, would have been the first thing to go). The result is that the story builds starkly to the crucifixion, while all the music that survived hits with unnatural force. Nothing could be more heartbreaking than when Pilate asks the crowd what sin Jesus has committed, and there floats up out of nowhere the melancholy arioso "For us he has done nothing but good"--the soprano soloist seems to be mourning something unbearably precious that is about to be lost forever. This mood envelops the whole performance by the finale, when Jesus is laid in the tomb and the soloists sing, not the prophecy of his resurrection you might expect, but a slow, mysterious lullaby. It has a transcendent sadness and nobility: an irreplaceable beauty has passed out of the world. The disciples could be knights bidding farewell to their fallen king. I've never heard it played so movingly, and the only fault I can find with it is that it seems to have nothing to do with Bach.

The question you always come up against with the Saint Matthew Passion is: Exactly how did Bach mean us to take the story? I don't know of any music more beautiful than this, but I don't believe the Gospel is supposed to be beautiful, and I have a hard time buying that Bach or his audience thought it was. And yet if the school of authentic performance is to be believed, the original audience was perfectly content to hear Bach transform the ugliest events into something delicate and luminous--to the point where the crowd's hateful cry of "He must be crucified!" comes out as a perky four-part motet. To me, that's a moment straight out of Monty Python. But is this because to modern ears Baroque music tends to make everything sound equally pretty? Or did Bach's audience really want the agony of the crucifixion to dissolve into showers of glittering counterpoint, as lovely and meaningless as a fireworks show? Or maybe even the most lovingly authentic performance still leaves something authentic out.

The more I listen to Bach's music, no matter who performs it, the stranger it becomes to me. I'm sure he was as conventionally devout as any other citizen of Germany, but compared with the solid, comfortable Lutheranism of his neighbors, his internal landscapes seem as Byzantine as an opium dream. His music is so ecstatic and so cold, so fantastically impassioned around the margin and so reserved about its ostensible subject, that I sometimes think I'm witnessing a kind of confidence trick. Maybe I've got it wrong, and the authentic performers have brought me up against an impassable barrier of changing taste and historical convention--Bach's original audience might have found limitless emotional depth in the chilly formalism of the music. But I think Bach's audience might have been getting the Gospel just the way Christians have always been most comfortable thinking about it: which is to say, at a safe and stylized remove. Meanwhile Bach's own strange, secret faith remains undisclosed--hidden somewhere down another turning in his labyrinth.

Furtwangler wasn't capable of giving us that kind of performance. His interest from the beginning was in the visionary and extravagant. So his Saint Matthew Passion is a fantasy of sorts--about whatever it is that Bach has kept hidden behind the frost of Baroque decorum. He keeps distorting the score as though he'll be able to crack it if he just pries at it hard enough (when his chorus cries out for Christ to be crucified, their reading is so slurred and sluggish it's actually sinister). What he ends up with is not a series of lovely, timeless tableaux, but a half-articulated opera swept by vague surges of grief and exaltation, about a mysterious divine hero destroyed by the corruptions of the mortal world. It's something like the mental landscape of Gerard Manley Hopkins's strangest poem, which compares Christ to a falcon falling upon its prey and professes to find in the Gospels not divine meekness and humility but "brute beauty and valor and act."

Is this what was really going on in Bach's secret world? Probably not. In fact, I can't imagine anything that would strike an orthodox Christian like Bach as more alien and perverse than hearing Furtwangler turn the Gospel into a prototype of a Wagner opera. But we are instructed by the first Christian (the only Christian, according to Nietzsche) to trust the spirit, not the letter, and the spirit can look pretty peculiar from the outside. Furtwangler's version may be grotesquely wrong, but it is grotesquely alive, as all genuine faith is: it reminds us that we ought not to accept music this enigmatic as nothing more than an ornate period piece--quaint as an astrolabe and rare and unreachable now as the sight of the Milky Way.