Classical Reissue Reviews

MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D; Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” – Nadine Conner, sop./ Mona Paulee, mezzo/ Westminster Choir/ New York Philharmonic/ Bruno Walter – Music & Arts (2 CDs)

This performance from the early days of Mahler acceptance—1942—strikes us with dynamic athleticism.

Published on November 29, 2012

MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D; Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” – Nadine Conner, sop./ Mona Paulee, mezzo/ Westminster Choir/ New York Philharmonic/ Bruno Walter – Music & Arts (2 CDs)

MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D Major; Symphony No. 2 in C Minor “Resurrection” – Nadine Conner, soprano/ Mona Paulee, mezzo/ Westminster Choir/ New York Philharmonic/ Bruno Walter – Music & Arts CD CD-1264-2 (2 CDs), 73:28, 58:59 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

With the end of the tenure of John Barbirolli with the New York Philharmonic, the musical organization sought various musicians to serve in the transition period of 1941-1942, including guest appearances by luminaries Serge Koussevitzky, Fritz Busch, and Bruno Walter.  Walter had already introduced the world of Gustav Mahler to the New York audiences in the early 1930s, and Dimitri Mitropoulos had led the D Major Symphony with the Philharmonic in 1941. Even more, Otto Klemperer led a performance of the “Resurrection” Symphony with the orchestra in 1935, so a small but devoted coterie of Mahler interpretation had infiltrated the orchestra’s sense of style.

What strikes us about the Bruno Walter Mahler First (25 October 1942) is the dynamic athleticism of the performance. While Walter always eschewed the “street” vulgarity and folkish coarseness inherent in Mahler – unlike Mitropoulos – he did underline the sudden shifts in tone and color, along with the obvious dependence of the melodic line on Mahler’s mastery of song.  The Scherzo enjoys a potent rhythmic drive and sense of nervous volatility, mediated by a Trio gently Schubertian and touched by soft portamenti and luftpausen. A blatant sadness imbues the ironic third movement and its play on Frere Jacques, the middle section quite nostalgic in its recollection of the Wayfarer cycle, its need for oblivion under the linden trees. The Philharmonic tympani has been particularly active in this symphony to dramatic effect.

Walter noted in a memoir that the Finale fulfills a calamity that the third movement has already presaged. An unfettered passion breaks out in the Finale, as well it might, given the present state of the world in 1942.  The New York Philharmonic strings and brass perform at well nigh the limit of their expressive powers, the battery and kettledrum sealing the paroxysms. The melody that emerges seems to plead for metaphysical intercession, and rarely have we heard it in such plaintive luster.  That some reconciliation can arise from the primal conflict Walter reveals in this often martial music confirms the conductor’s own faith in a resilient humanity. The moments when Walter elicits a hushed, intimate tension in the players – even more than the terrific energy of the Promethean peroration – says volumes about his collegial affinity with this ensemble.

The Mahler C Minor Symphony “Resurrection” takes its opening cue from Wagner’s Die Walkuere’s Act I orchestral prelude, but Mahler adds the element of a hero’s funeral march whose epic counterpoint here (25 January 1942) extends to the throes of a way of life. Colossal strife and torment permeates the course of the music’s evolution; and the recent events of 7 December 1941 certainly impart their own histrionics. The layering of Mahler’s counterpoint, the cross-rhythms, and accented thrusts in the strings and brass intrude with grim ferocity on any sporadic sense of reconciliation.

The Andante moderato under Walter has always communicated a sense of spiritual repose, an idyll of bucolic and heroic pageantry. Wonderful string transparency marks this realization, and the strings’ application of the tip of the bow adds to the color effect while the woodwinds and brass intone a pantheistic orison of sometimes Herculean power. A skittish and askew irony dances its acerbic way through Walter’s movement three, certainly a driven precursor to the music of Weill despite its nods to Schubert. Canadian mezzo-soprano Mona Paulee (1911-1995) invokes the Urlicht (Primal Light) movement, its pious text rendered in alluring English. More storms erupt most volcanically in movement five, marked Kraeftig. Many acknowledge this movement to envision the Apocalypse, and Walter does not stint on the fearsome effects of spiritual desolation. Only in the last two minutes does a distinct sense of consolation insinuate itself into the awesome tapestry, a birdcall pitted against dire trumpet fanfares. Then, Klopstock’s optimistic incantation promises rebirth out of the trials of pain and death. Soprano Nadine Conner (1907-2003) lends her own pathos to the redemptive vision. The majestic string slides, 19th-century-fashion, add to the poignancy of effect rather than detract in the manner of some atavistic mannerism. Conner, Paulee, violin, organ, and male chorus make incarnate the line in Corinthians: “Behold, I show you a mystery,” here in the heroic fusion of poetry and Mahler’s rapturous music. The audience’s gratitude to Bruno Walter has only begun to explode when the CBS announcement intrudes.

—Gary Lemco

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