TAKING SIDES: SOUNDTRACK
Review by Brad Green:
In July 2001, conductor Daniel Barenboim defied a 63-year taboo. After a typically faultless concert under his banner, he turned to his audience at the Israel Festival and asked them whether they would like to hear on encore of Wagner.
From the moment reports of Kristallnacht reached British Palestine in 1938 to present-day Israel, the Jewish community has respected an informal ban on performances of any work by the anti-Semitic, nineteenth century composer whose music was so enthusiastically adopted by the Nazis. But, after a 30-minute debate and an invitation for those who were offended to leave, Barenboim proceeded with the Overture to Tristan And Isolde. It received a thunderous ovation.
There’s no Wagner on this soundtrack, however two separate recordings of the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth are its bookends; and the significance of Daniel Barenboim conducting the first and Wilhelm Furtwangler the last is impossible to ignore. Ultimately, worthy works of art, indeed all human achievements, transcend their creation and creators.
Furtwangler, whose moral dilemmas and ambiguous behaviour are the film’s core concern was no Wagner, no Nazi, no anti-Semite. He saved and supported a few Jews when it was safe for him to do so, but he was also no Schindler; and certainly no Raoul Wallenberg. Furtwangler accepted Nazi favours and tempered his ideals; but he was hardly alone. The great conductor Herbert von Karajan was, for a time, a card-carrying member of the Nazi party, as was the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger indeed seems to have been genuinely sympathetic to the cause, yet Hanah Arendt was reconciled with him following WWII. Such are the complexities.
Many extraordinary human beings have compromised their principals for the sake of pragmatism. In 1858, in a speech in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln rattled off a series of overtly racist sentiments. Of course, artists may have different perspectives to political manipulators. It is fascinating to compare Furtwangler’s dilemma to the position of Wladyslav Szpilman, recently portrayed in The Pianist. Szpilman survived the holocaust, but it was more by accident than by a surge of will. Perhaps every onlooker commits an evil when they turn a blind eye, but if a victim like Szpilman can continue to play his piano until the glass walls implode under the onslaught of the Luftwaffe, how can we place any higher standard on the artist than on the rest of humanity?
Art might well reflect life, yet we have seen time and time again that those with the deepest insights into the human drama aren’t automatically imbued with solutions or personal heroics. Here we have a chance to compare Barenboim, the liberally-minded Jew and Maestro; and Furtwangler, the morally fragile German and Maestro. Both elicit quite different and undeniably masterful performances from their orchestras. Barenboim’s is slick and rich and exquisitely measured; Furtwangler’s is heavier, more dramatic, with emphatic phrases and dynamics. Both are intensely emotive; and each conductor in their own way makes Beethoven his own.
Between these performances (and two more Furtwangler-conducted selections of Beethoven and some additional Germanic romanticism with Schubert’s Quintet D) the tracks are filled with a metaphor for the American sweep into Germany--big band swing. There can be no sharper presentation of the polysemous human condition than juxtaposing the witty jazz phrases of Glenn Miller and George Gershwin with the most earnest music of the European classical tradition. It reminds me of Herman Hesse’s alter ego Harry Heller caught between his regard for Goethe and Beethoven and his initial repulsion and then partial seduction by Pablo’s New World jazz.
This is extraordinary music set against a context of intense soul-searching. Furtwangler might have liked to wipe his hands of guilt, but, transfixed for a moment by a recording of one of his own conducting performances, he perceived a different kind of salvation. The sublime mystery of great music is that it gives us a glimpse into a rarefied dimension; a realm beyond our vulnerabilities and fallibilities and tragedies. Treat this soundtrack with respect. It is catharsis for the soul.
Published June 5, 2003
Email this article
TITLE: Taking Sides
ID: 471 564-2
MUSIC BY: Beethoven; Schubert; Glenn Miller; George Gershwin
CONDUCTORS: Daniel Barenboim; Wilhem Furtwangler