Bruno Walter Rarities: American Columbia Recordings, 1941-1955 = MOZART, SCHUBERT, J. STRAUSS, BRAHMS, DVORAK, MENDELSSOHN – Pristine Audio

by | Nov 11, 2015 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Bruno Walter Rarities: American Columbia Recordings, 1941-1955 = MOZART: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, “Jupiter”; SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 8 in b minor, D. 759, “Unfinished”; Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485; J. STRAUSS II: Emperor Waltz, Op. 437; BRAHMS: Song of Destiny, Op. 54; DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88; MOZART: Così fan tutte – Overture, K. 588; MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61 – Scherzo – New York Philharmonic/ Philadelphia Orchestra (“Unfinished”)/ Columbia Sym. Orch. (Schubert 5th)/ Bruno Walter – Pristine Audio PASC 452 (2 CDs) TT: 2hr, 18:46 [] ****:

Bruno Walter (1876-1962) used to impress me with his frequent appearances on “The Sound of Genius,” produced by CBS for TV distribution. “The conductor of humanity” often led a Mozart or Beethoven score, urging and encouraging his studio players with affectionate insistence. Producer and restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has gathered eight inscriptions whose distribution has had scant exposure – if any at all – in the CD medium. Several of these recordings I could recall myself in either their original 78 rpm format or in their LP incarnations – like ML 4119 – my old but visceral version of the Dvorak Eighth with Walter, recorded 28 November 1947. Mendelssohn, for instance, received little attention from Walter on records: here, we enjoy a peppy Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (from 10 May 1945), though we may remember that in 1948 CBS issued its first official LP, ML 4001, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Walter and soloist Nathan Milstein.

As Obert-Thorn explains, the scarcity of these readings lies in Walter’s having recorded most of these works later, in improved sound. The Mozart “Jupiter” Symphony (23 January 1945), his first American inscription of this work after his interpretation with the Vienna Philharmonic, imbues the music with forceful, patient energy, attentive to Mozart’s interior lines. The reading, sober and lyrically declamatory, would be followed by yet two more inscriptions, from 1956 and 1960. The Cosi fan tutte Overture, from the same session, stands as Walter’s first recording – spirited and cannily sophisticated – and he would revisit it in the studio twice more, in 1954 and 1960.

Walter had a good relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra, inscribing a Beethoven Pastoral Symphony with the ensemble in 1947 (ML 4010), and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony the same year, 2 March. The Schubert appeared on LP (ML 4880), after having had an existence in 10” format (ML 2010). The mystery of the music evolves, brisk, energetic, driven.  While my favorite reading rests with Furtwaengler and the Vienna Philharmonic, Walter leads a thoughtful, tenderly etched account, rife with pedal points and stretti intimations of Bruckner. The tense lines Walter creates belie the overly “grandfatherly” persona he often projected in later years, doubtless attributable to failing health. The Philadelphia bass and brass tones enjoy the luster in which we had luxuriated under Stokowski, with a decided “organ sonority” in the second movement.

Taking the opening movement at a decidedly marcato pace, Walter’s reading of Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 (5, 6 and 8 October 1955) bears a statuesque grace and dignified lyricism we do not often hear. The pick-up ensemble for CBS plays with a deep responsiveness, with the same attention to rhythmic and timbre detail Walter elicited in his East Coast reading of the 1958 Pastoral Symphony for ML 5284. Walter’s rendition of the second movement, Andante con moto, brings a breadth and leisure to the score that I might have attributed to Celibidache. The Menuetto enjoys a rustic energy that Walter’s later recordings on the West Coast too often enervate. A wonderful brio permeates the last movement, Allegro vivace, although the tempo seems more piu moderato than vivace.

In several respects, the two earliest inscriptions – those of Johann Strauss and Brahms – beguile me more than some of the others, excepting the consistently engaged Dvorak Eighth. The Emperor Waltz (18 April 1942) allows Walter to return enthusiastically to his native soil, when political events had made such national fervor an act of creative imagination. The grand noblesse of the occasion may not quite – for me – reach the devastating, tragic pathos Furtwaengler achieves, but the performance remains epic.  The Brahms Song of Destiny (15 December 1941) – sung in English from a text by Hoelderlin – comes only a week after Pearl Harbor, so the valedictory atmosphere runs thick. The New York Philharmonic opens with an orchestral introduction whose grieved anguish palpably adds a mysticism to the occasion. John Finlay Williamson’s Westminster Choir injects into the Stoic lament a piercing resolve.

—Gary Lemco

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