Naxos Historical 8.111032, 70:35 ****:
More superlatively quiet restorations by Mark Obert-Thorn of inscriptions made by Bruno Walter (1886-1962) prior to and just after the Anschluss in Vienna, 1930-1938. Walter at age 45 had already become a world-class conductor whose strong reputation among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic had engendered a working joke that they charged more for one of his performances than for a comparable reading under Weingartner! Walter’s attention to detail in the Pastoral (5 December 1936) reveals several fine touches, including the string trills in the opening statements of the Andante molto moto, the Scene by the Brook. While not taking the repeat for the opening movement, Walter still manages a movement of unsentimental breadth, with good attention on the pipings from the high winds and bassoon. The miking is a bit distant throughout or unevenly placed near the doublebasses and cellos, but the bucolic warmth of the inscription is assured, with some real intensity of feeling, certainly attributable to the virtuoso flute and string work. The Allegro Thunderstorm proves effective, some real hailstones dropping amid pungent sforzati and thumping pizzicati. The Shepherds’ Song is pure Bruno Walter, sweetly soulful. I freely confess to favoring his two later CBS versions, with the Philadelphia Orchestra (ML 4010) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (aka Columbia Symphony, ML 5284), respectively. The VPO achieves a powerful sonic patina – that “organ” sonority appropriate for orchestral hymns.
Walter’s 21 May 1936 Leonore No. 3 has received mileage from the CD format; it was issued as part of a Legendary Conductors CD on Koch. Walter chooses motion over metaphysical brooding, the linear pulsation quite pointed, urging the tip of the bow for string interplay. Horns are a bit distant. Intense crescendi to the famous clarions of freedom; then strong bass pulses and triplets to the weaving motif and flute and bassoon duet. The intense rush to judgment hurtles forward with abandon amid hints of Leonora and Florestan’s celebratory duet, with tympani and winds and lightning strings full throttle. The Fidelio Overture (21 May 1934) might have sounded like weak tea after the throes of Leonore No. 3, but the performance has girth and dramatic poise. Walter lets the harmonic motion carry us until the horn announces the tune, and the winds and strings ensue. Strong tympani work. The Coriolan Overture (12 September 1938) is the most sanguine piece in this collection, Walter in a vehement approximation of a Toscanini whirlwind. The bass line carries a rough-hewn urgency which adds considerably to the rasping tension of the approach. Finally, the Prometheus Overture (16 May 1930, for British Columbia), the earliest inscription here restored, which after a stately, ceremonial opening with portamento, fairly chugs along until the woodwinds chirp and the string line sings. The play of the light, the deft tripping figures, all attest to Walter’s sympathy for Beethoven at a time when his own capacity for sentiment had not diluted his sinewy musical conceptions.