Get ready for it...it's...it's...it's a hard-to-find Furtwängler recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony ("Choral", Opus 125), played by the Philharmonia Orchestra, and taped live during the Lucerne Festival on August 22, 1954, only available from Tahra Records, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano; Elsa Cavelti, contralto; Ernst Häfliger, tenor; and Otto Edelmann, bass. If you aren't familiar with the recording, it is worthwhile for various reasons. Aside from the historical significance, it is one of the most beautiful, poignant, and transcendent Ninths that I have ever heard.
But first we must know the context of this Ninth, which was just one version of the ninety-six (!omfg wtf!) that Furtwängler conducted during his career. Of those ninety-six, there are only nine complete, live recordings that have survived, and the best sound quality resides in the Lucerne 1954 version.
What makes this Ninth so significant is that it managed to polarize a significant moment of meditation and acceptance during the long span of Furtwängler's life. He told his wife, Elisabeth, that of this particular session: "This time I had one foot in the other world." (To read the excerpt, you'll have to scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page under the description of, "Beethoven: Symphony # 9 Choral)". We also know that Furtwängler was in fragile health, nearing death, and that he passed away just three months later on November 30, 1954.
René Trémine (co-founder of Tahra Records) commented that, “The Lucerne concert is moving on more than one count; it can be considered to be Furtwängler’s legacy, his swan song…in fact he was to die three months later.” Furtwängler appeared in a concert hall five additional times before his death: the 25th of August in Lucerne for Bruckner’s Seventh, the 30th of August at the Salzburg Festival, the 6th of September in Besançon for Beethoven concerts (also the location of Dini Lipatti's last recital on September 16, 1950), and the 19th and 20th of September in Berlin for his Second Symphony and Beethoven’s First.
So it is in this recording that we find a man stripped bare and left to examine his own life of regret, indecision, and guilt. There is a sense of the ethereal, the superlative, and a chilling premonition about something much more sublime that flows throughout this recording; a reckoning of his own mortality.
“Dear Myriam Scherchen, Dear René Trémine,”
“I am very happy to give you my authorization ot publish Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with my husband Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. It is his last performance of this work at Lucerne on 21st August, 1954. Furtwängler was in excellent condition since that same evening, after the concert, he took the night train to Salzburg where he was expected for the filming of Don Giovanni. Furtwängler dedicated all his life to the exploration and interpretation of the Ninth Symphony.”
By contrast, when you listen to the handful of Furtwänglers' 1942 Ninths (April 19, 1942, and the March 22-24, 1942, which are similar in force and interpretation), you can’t believe that something so deep, layered, and sweet as the Lucerne Ninth was drawn from the same mind that produced such a terrible, thundering, crystalline version like his 1942 Ninths, and that a conductor is capable of such diverse readings of the same composition.
You can watch an excerpt of Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic at the AEG factory in 1942, and witness his characteristic "spastic puppet on crack", as Furtwängler had the ugliest conducting idiosyncrasies like for ev4r. The film excerpt comes from the Bel Canto Society's cult DVD, "Great Conductors of the Third Reich", which includes newsreels and archived footage of conductors such as Böhm, Furtwängler, and Karajan amid lots of disgusting Nazi propaganda...as well as a performance during Hitler's birthday party! yay! clowns and cotton-candy and ponies and moon-walks!