Monday 6 July 2009

Taking Sides - Art, Nazism and Wilhelm Furtwangler

The very title is an invitation to do it, to form a judgement on the protagonists and the rightness or wrongness of their actions. Certainly, there is no shortage of people willing to do so. One in particular sticks in my mind. It comes from a Gramophone discussion a few years back about art and politics between Rob Cowan, Tully Potter and violinist Tasmin Little*. Of course, the subject of Berlin Philharmonic music director Wilhelm Furtwangler's decision to remain in Germany until 1944 came up, and Little made what I regarded then, and still regard now, as a profoundly stupid comment:

If it got to the stage where things were changing so much for the worse in my country, as in Nazi Germany, I would go. For sure.

For sure? You know, know for certain that faced with an unpleasant government, you'd up and leave your life, your job, your friends and doubtless some of your family. Bearing in mind too that what we know now wasn't what was known then (how much exactly Furtwangler and others knew about what was taking place is one of many unanswered questions). Maybe you would. I don't know. I have no idea what I'd do. Certainly I'd like to think I'd do the right thing, but plenty didn't. As they play notes, Klemperer and Walter may have left, but as they were Jewish they had little choice: it was the only way they could continue to work. True Kleiber did take an admirable stand. Others, such as Jochum, remained and became somewhat sidelined through playing music that was disapproved of, others still such as Karajan and Schwarzkopf reamined and joined the party (twice in the case of the former).

I hope it's a choice I never need to make. I hope Little never needs to make it either (though I'll be interested to see if her money resides in the same place as her mouth should that day ever arise). As I said, I have no idea what I'd do and I don't honestly believe anyone really can until they're faced with the choice (except if they have so few ties to their home that they're contemplating leaving anyway).

Many then, of a musical disposition, will go into Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides, which tells of Furtwangler's attempts to pass through the deNazification process and regain his position at the Berlin Philharmonic, with their minds made up. To an extent, I fall into this category too. I'm a big fan of Furtwangler's recordings (many of my favourites were made live in Berlin during the war, some were gifts from a friend who couldn't bear to keep them after visiting a concentration camp). You may think, from the way I castigate Little, that I think Furtwangler did the right thing. I don't. I don't think he did the wrong thing either. I think he made very difficult choices in very difficult circumstances. Decisions which, since I don't feel he committed any crimes, it is easy to second guess with hindsight but harder to criticise. I think he didn't deserve the treatment he got.

That's a lot to say before getting on to the actual business of reviewing the play, but it needs to be said because I don't come into the theatre free from bias at these questions. I have already taken sides.

Set principally on two days in February and July in the office of Major Steve Arnold (the American charged with preparing the case against Furtwangler - it is not clear whether the character is real or fictitious). He is aided by secretary Emmi Straub and young Lieutenant David Wills. Arnold is determined to get Furtwangler, whereas Wills and Straub take the other view. As Arnold tries to build the case, it becomes steadily more apparent that there is no real evidence of wrongdoing.

Yet there are questions. Furtwangler has saved many Jewish musicians, helping them get travel papers to leave, even his own secretary. But as Arnold puts it to him, you only helped the artists, what about the others; all he cares about is art, not the race laws. This is underscored by the story of the widow of someone he helped - after hearing him play Beethoven's Waldstein sonato on an out of tune piano, only then did he choose to help.

Did he stay because he didn't want to give up the instrument that is the Berlin Philharmonic (as conductor Solti suggested), was he worried about being supplanted by Karajan (who was whisked through deNazification with disgraceful speed, who was allowed to conduct Wagner at Bayreuth afterwards and who went on to dominate the 20th century classical recording industry, despite, in my view, being not nearly the artist)? Arnold is, he claims, only interested in the truth. Yet, as another character points out, there is no such thing.

In the end, though, it strikes me that the play is a tragedy for its two central figures. On the one hand you have this great artist, who made some questionable decisions in difficult circumstances. On the other you have a man, profoundly damaged by what he's seen in the concentration camps, unable to countenance the notion that such a prominent figure could be blameless. Indeed, despite disliking Arnold for much of the play, especially as he lays into Furtwangler's personal life, one comes to sympathise with him.

This is aided by stellar performances from Michael Pennington as Furtwangler (not quite resembling but certainly inhabiting him) and David Horovitch as Arnold. The rest of the cast, which includes Martin Hutson as Wills, is fine too (though Sophie Roberts, who plays Straube, did seem to lose her accent a little at the start of the second act). However, the main focus is the confrontations between the leads, played out in the bombed wreckage of Berlin that constitutes Arnold's office.

It is, in summary, a powerful and profoundly moving piece. A must for anyone interested in Furtwangler, but also more generally. In the climactic moments, aided by a performance of Bruckner's seventh that I must track down, I was moved to tears. That doesn't happen all that often in the theatre, nor too do you find that, so fine is the work, you have to pay (the rather steep price) for the text.

Furtwangler's own recordings provide many of the musical cues - we open to the close of one of his Beethoven fifths, act one plays out to the opening bars of the eighth. The adagio from Bruckner seven features prominently in the second half, and Beethoven's ninth plays us out (I am a little curious which recordings were used - all the ninths I have date from the 50s and I find I don't have a Bruckner seven by him; I do have a wartime fifth, but this wasn't made available until comparatively recently).

Harwood himself is scrupulously fair about not taking a judgement one way or the other, leaving that to the reader or viewer. He says in the programme note that he does indeed have a view but, rightly, he'll never say. I have a hunch it may not be a million miles from my own, but only because I wonder if he did really fall at one extreme of the other, I think he would have written a different play. We'll probably never know though.

People have been taking sides on Furtwangler for generations, and will continue to do so. Menuhin chose to work with him again after the war; there was a vicious campaign against him when he was offered the Chicago Symphony. While writing the play, Harwood dispatched his daughter to Tower Records to buy some Furtwangler discs: "We don't keep Nazi recordings in this shop.". An impressive piece of ignorance, given he never joined the party, and, more to the point, their loss. But then, I would say that wouldn't I, I've taken sides.

One final note, I don't find the Duchesss theatre to be a particularly brilliant space. To be sure, on a very hot day it was nicely air conditioned. But the seats were uncomfortable (I'm slim and I found them narrow with arms up so high I cannot readily imagine the physique they were designed for). Front of house management is also lacking, as a steady stream of latecomers, admitted up to thirty minutes into the first half, despite the lack of any suitable break, attested. Anyone looking for how to do this properly should visit the Royal Opera House where it's just tough luck if you can't turn up on time.

*On the off chance anyone from the Gramophone is reading this, I'd just like to thank you for how awful your website is. It took me about an hour and a half to find the article. Searching for articles mentioning Furtwangler in the last ten years did no good. In the end it was only by setting Google to your site and then searching for Nazi Germany that I finally tracked it down. I am especially annoyed that, when working through the issued chronologically and looking at the contents, I missed it because the awards issues are not included canonically.


Ed said...

Worth reading Victor Klemperer's diaries - "I shall bear witness". It gives you an almost incomparable view into the life of a Jewish man embedded in German society, with the changing conditions...

Edinburgh Flats said...

Its rare for me to find something on the internet thats as entertaining and intriguing as what youve got here.

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