Arthur Bloomfield’s Guest Commentary on mid-20th Century Conductors, Part 4: Wilhelm Furtwaengler

Here’s the latest in our series of Time Machine excursions back to the great days of opera in mid-20th century, the accent on conductors. Guest commentator is Arthur Bloomfield, drawing on material from his new e-book on the styles of the oldtime maestri available at

Arthur as a young GI on leave from Army duties worthy of a comic opera attended the Salzburg Festival in the Fifties and the bravos clearly audible on the Karl Boehm-led broadcast of Ariadne auf Naxos in 1954 are probably his. Alas, his troopship containing a few other hard core opera nuts did not arrive in time for the 1950 Don Giovanni conducted by the great Furtwaengler, but thanks to the long-available broadcast thereof he’s able to comment, as follows . . . .

[Below: the Emil Orlik portrait of Wilhelm Furtwaengler; resized image, from a historical drawing, circa 1923.]

This performance is full of marvels, beginning with the enormous chords launching the overture. Scary! And off the music goes, meandering through murky introductory regions with an almost manic grandeur. Taut and omnivorous it spills from the hi-fi, devouring the air around it. Mozart’s molto allegro comes on a tad slow, but molto energico. The finality of the timpani’s contribution is unquestionable, the whole orchestra is grabbing us by the scruff of our metaphorical necks.

Alas, dear Don, the spirit of retribution is in the air!

Then as the curtain rises Furtwaengler in a twinkling brings his Wiener Philharmoniker down to dramma giacoso earth (that of course being the opera’s subtitle), setting a lighter tone for Leporello’s buffo screed — what a drag, he sings, to work for a 24/7 libertine! Minutes later with the ambiguous scuffle of the Don and his “victim” Donna Anna the conductor’s tempo is spacious, his grip, as if on the Don’s clutching hands, TENACIOUS.

[Below: Wilhelm Furtwaengler conducting; resized image from]

And next, something amazing in the annals of interpretation. With Furtwaengler palpably extending the big fermata on which the Commendatore is run through (ouch!) and summoning from his orchestra a suspenseful Pause, like this . . . . . . . ,  the violins’ innocent arpeggio triplets succeeding such a momentous pileup of high dramatic tension — C major they might seem, only they’re morphing into the dominant of F minor — suggest nothing so much as the blood dribbling out of the poor man’s wound: duhdeedee/duhdeedee/duhdeedee.

It took me years to stop looking for this effect in Fritz Busch’s very different and in its way very wonderful Don Giovanni from Glyndebourne.

And the show continues. The orchestral sound has solidity, yes, but Leporello’s catalog song is playful galore, the chorus setting off the Zerlina scene all a-whirl.

Then aother lesson in interpretation, the posibilities of tempo! Tito Gobbi, Furtwaengler’s Don, leaves aside the snarl of an angry libido and woos Zerlina (La ci darem la mano) in an oily-leisurely andante, following more or less the composer’s prescription — which in any event Mozart would never have sought to lock into some moral velocic imperative. And then, get this, it’s a no-brainer actually: once this country girl is won over and the music vaults a double bar into the 6/8 of a seduction virtually achieved, Furtwaengler has Gobbi and the adorable Irmgard Seefried skipping off into a veritable allegretto not marked in the score.

Only surely it captures their momentary joy only too well . . .

It’s as if some production code had not yet gone into effect to excise this brilliant idea from just about every other Giovanni I’ve heard. Think of how Astaire and Rodgers seem a bit more irreverent in Flying Down to Rio than later on.

A case could be made that Furtwaengler has a soft spot for Zerlina’s music, or certainly the grazioso Mozart asked for in her pair of cuddly arias. (Don’t forget, meanwhile, that old Wilhelm like so many of the stick-waving breed was quite a womanizer). Luminous indeed is Batti, batti, o bel Masetto, the flock of violin trills just before the 6/8 suggesting merry birds in top chirp mode. And Vedrai, carino is dreamy and long-lined, showing off the light cream of Seefried’s soprano to great advantage.

(One more parenthesis to mention that I had the pleasure of interviewing the lovely Seefried and her equally mellow husband the Philharmoniker concertmaster Schneiderhan a zillion years ago in San Francisco).

[Below: a West Berlin stamp honoring Furtwaengler; resized image from the Deutsche Bundespost Berlin.]

But the Don himself is not shortchanged, hear Furtwaengler’s taste for delicacy in the enchanting plink of Deh vieni alla finestra. And then there’s Furtwaengler the ironist, the connoisseur of the loopy. In the first act finale there’s a place where three orchestras, one in the pit, two on stage, proclaim their every-band-for-itself in a mad horse race of thee concurrent rhythms, 3/8, 2/4 and 3/4: A Night at the Opera indeed, even if Harpo-less. No conductor has caught better than the great scholar Furtwaengler the nagging sense that a tri-rhythmic tipsyness is about to run the music right off the rails.

A landmark, this, in the annals of orchestral inebriation.


For the previous commentaries in this series, see: Guest Commentator Arthur Bloomfield: “A Great Time Machine Trip” and also,

Arthur Bloomfield’s Guest Commentary on mid-20th Century Conductors, Part 2: Fritz Reiner and also,

Arthur Bloomfield’s Guest Commentary on mid-20th Century Conductors, Part 3: Gennaro Papi.