A long time ago, I used to shop for classical music by composer. If I wanted music by Beethoven, I shopped for Beethoven without regard for which orchestra or conductor was interpreting Ludwig's music. After all, I reasoned, how much difference can there be between Solti and the Chicago Symphony and the SF Symphony with Serizawa? They're all playing the same notes. Now, which one's on sale???
Furtwangler broke me of that habit. It happened when a friend of mine let me listen to a vinyl recording of Furtwangler conducting Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Of course I was familar with the fifth, (who isn't?), having heard countless recordings of it by then. But this one was unlike any of the others. Right from the opening phrase, the timing was somehow different - some notes seemed to be held too long - others seemed to be cut off too soon. And yet the whole performance was incredibly powerful. At the end, my friend dismissed the recording, saying "it's lousy Beethoven, but it's great Furtwangler"... At the time, I disagreed with him, and I still do. That performance, alas, is not on this album (although I found it on youtube: [...]).
But the live performances on this album are electrifying, and for the same reasons. Furtwangler was a great conductor in the studio, but when you put him in front of a live audience, something astonishing happened. Compare the performance of Beethoven's Symphony 7 on this album to the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra's reading of the same piece (it's part of Amazon's '99 Most Essential Beethoven masterpieces' MP3 collection). Furtwangler is playing all the same notes as the Moscow orchestra, but the phrasing has become... different, somehow. It was almost as if he was trying to trip the orchestra up, taking the tempo up, then down, playing with the dynamics in ways that must have kept the musicians on the edges of their seats.
When you listen to classical music, the last thing in the world you expect to get is unpredictability. And yet that's exactly what you get with Furtwangler. Some people don't like it, but for me it invests the music with just a bit of the energy that one gets from great jazz, or even rock. And when you hang that energy on the framework of a Beethoven Symphony or a Wagnerian opera, you sometimes get something that is incredibly old and profound, but which feels contemporary and astonishing at the same time.
Is there another artist who can do that? I'm not aware of any musician, working in any musical genre who even comes close. Furtwangler is awesome and unique.