BRAHMS: Complete Symphonies – Vienna Philharmonic/ NBC Symphony Orchestra/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Bruno Walter – Pristine Audio 

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in c minor, Op. 68; Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73; Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90; Symphony No. 4 in e minor, Op. 98 – Vienna Philharmonic/ NBC Symphony Orchestra/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Bruno Walter – Pristine Audio PASC 512 (2 CDs) 2 hrs 30:15 [www.pristineclasical.com] *****:

The restoration of Bruno Walter’s “first symphony cycle” embraces some potent, even demonic interpretations by a master of the idiom.

In his note for this integral set of the Brahms symphonies by Bruno Walter (1876-1962)—his first cycle, of which three symphonies derive from pre-war recordings—restoration engineer and producer Mark Obert-Thorn finds a bit of anomaly in that EMI held off (until 1934, with the e minor Symphony) capturing Walter in such a basic staple of his repertory; and that, unfortunately, the Anschluss disrupted any possibility of having extended the first cycle with the VPO. For the Second Symphony, Obert-Thorn provides Walter’s appearance before an American orchestra, Toscanini’s NBC Symphony (17 February 1940), in what quickly becomes a super-charged meeting of musical minds.

In spite my life-long appreciation for Bruno Walter—and his Brahms—I have never been fond of any of his renditions of the c minor Symphony, my initial meeting from the 1953 Columbia LP (ML 5124) with the New York Philharmonic. The reading simply lacks the power and passionate, tragic ferocity I find in Furtwaengler, Jochum, and Krips, whose Decca version has not come back. Of course, for a different form of mania, one has Mengelberg. It’s a pity that neither Erich nor Carlos Kleiber recorded this work; and I certainly would be eager to hear Hans Rosbaud here. The Walter work from Los Angeles had even less drive than that from New York; and this 3-4 May 1937 performance, while it has fine discipline, assumes a lyrical, relaxed demeanor that misses the work’s impetus, optimally taken almost directly from the more tumultuous aspects of Beethoven’s Ninth. That the VPO plays affectionately and crisply for Walter remains a fact: the French horn, woodwind, string and tympani work proves elegantly first-rate, the French horn’s standing out – with the flute – for the last movement. The genial, gemuetlichkeit of the “populist” Walter shines through in the Andante sostenuto, which for sheer affection, may worth the price of admission. The sonic restoration, clean and warmly glowing, gives us a VPO whose luster provides its own patent of nobility. By the way, Mark Obert-Thorn kindly included in my edition a CD copy of the Academic Festival Overture (18 October 1937) with Walter and the VPO, meant for download as an extra track for FLAC downloads or as a free mp3 file for purchasers of the CD.

The Brahms Symphony No. 3 has always had an energetic, visceral reading from Walter, and the version here from Vienna (18-19 May 1936) has an immediate athleticism and lyrical resonance that meets our expectations. Having omitted the first movement repeat, Walter drives the moody ambivalence of F Major and f minor forward, reminding us that Brahms inscribes into its frothy energy his frei-aber-froh/ frei-aber-einsam personality, perhaps his equivalent for Schumann’s Florestan and Eusebius. The gem of this symphony has always been for me the autumnal Andante, with its proliferation of nostalgic motives. The deep basses and cellos of the VPO heave and throb with their own, especially vitality. The singing
Poco allegretto – with its own, mournful French horn part—many of us met through the Hollywood melodrama Undercurrent, with Hepburn, Taylor, and Mitchum. The finale, Allegro: Un poco sostenuto conveys an elastic drama that I wish the Op. 68 had enjoyed. A hearty resonance in the VPO low strings, attached to a driving rhythmic impetus—rife with Beethoven’s Fifth – grants this fine reading the conviction to warrant many re-hearings.

The Brahms D Major Symphony with the NBC possesses what restoration editor Obert-Thorn calls “volcanic” power, a forward thrust and drive that quite explodes, again, what Obert-Thorn has identified as the “avuncular” image of Bruno Walter. Still, the lyrical element remains eminently persuasive in the midst of the passing clouds and outbreaks of thunder—notable in the metric irregularities that mimic Beethoven’s Eroica first movement—that very cantabile essence that first attracted me to the New York recording on CBS (ML 5125). The Brahms may have served as the restorative Walter much needed at this period in his life, given the untimely death of his daughter Lotte at the hand of her jealous husband, who had resented her extended love-affair with basso Ezio Pinza. The dark undercurrents in the opening measures of the Adagio non troppo may convey something of tragic mortality. The first two movements, then, establish a tragic atmosphere that the relatively brief two last movements can barely counter in their relative levity of spirit. These latter movements Walter instills with a deliberate, rustic flavor, in the winds’ short phrases and piped responses of the Allegretto grazioso; and in the Allegro finale, itself a Haydnesque Kehraus, a concluding dance. The lulled, even hazy, sentiment of the third movement yields to the high dudgeon of the fourth movement, which Walter hurtles through time and space. Obert-Thorn’s addition of some ambient resonance to Studio 8-H intensifies the effect with the clarity of resolute conviction.

The recording of the e minor Symphony (21 May 1934) with the BBC Symphony transpired while Walter was on tour in London, and Walter arranged for an extended studio session. The Fourth might well have been labeled the Brahms “thirds” Symphony, given its penchant for chains of ascending and descending thirds in the opening movement, little kernels of melody ineluctably suggest a grand tragedy. Walter captures the music’s sense of valediction without undue exaggeration or forced emphasis. The “scholarly” aspect of the music belies its natural sense of progression, its breathed sweetness and restrained melancholy. Walter builds the dramatic tension of the first movement—its moments of lyricism and almost martial pageantry—to a stirringly willful, contrapuntal peroration.

The sense of austere heraldry continues into the E Major Andante moderato, a noble progression in the Phrygian mode that Walter sets to singing in manner that Keats might describe on his Grecian urn. Given the tradition of Brahms interpretation in Britain, we wonder how this finely honed reading of grand breadth affected Adrian Boult, who had learned his Brahms, as had Toscanini, from Fritz Steinbach. The rambunctious Allegro giocoso in C Major serves as a scherzo that Walter urges to his players’ limits, but no less outlines the motive for the finale’s passacaglia. Several commentators have likened this audacious conception of Brahms to the finale of the Beethoven Ninth, which as a movement condenses the four movements of a symphony into itself, given the assignment of variations and their respective tempos, with the last variation’s serving as a coda. Walter takes the composer’s astounding synthesis of antique form and romantic passion and weaves for us a tapestry of tragic dignity and consummate color mastery, a true document for the ages.

—Gary Lemco

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