The earliest Bruno Walter records reveal a committed Romantic conductor in music in the German tradition.
Bruno Walter – The Complete Columbia Acoustic Recordings – WEBER: Overture to Der Freischuetz; MENDELSSOHN: Nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61; BERLIOZ: Menuet of the Will-o’-the-Wisps from La Damnation de Faust, Op. 24; WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde: Liebestod; Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg: Prelude, Act III; Goetterdaemmerung: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; A Siegfried Idyll; R. STRAUSS: Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 – Royal Philharmonic Orch./ Bruno Walter – Pristine Audio PASC 482, 76:50 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Producer and Recording Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn provides the following remarks concerning Bruno Walter’s first efforts for gramophone recordings: “Although Bruno Walter (1876-1962) claimed late in life that he had made his first recordings around 1900, his earliest documented discs date from 1923 when he began a series for Grammophon/Polydor in Berlin, most of which have been reissued on Pristine PASC 142 and PASC 322. In May 1924, Walter was in London for the first presentation of a German opera season at Covent Garden since the end of the Great War. That month, he conducted Wagner’s Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde, and Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier in enthusiastically-received productions featuring Frida Leider in her Covent Garden début, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr, Lotte Lehmann and Elisabeth Schumann.
On May 22, Walter entered the Columbia studios at Petty France to make the first in a series of discs for a label with which, on one side of the Atlantic or the other, he would be associated for much of the rest of his life. A Siegfried Idyll was recorded that day, followed by the first three sides of Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration the following day; however, neither was approved for release.” Despite my own general aversion to acoustic recordings, the wealth of musical materials under Walter’s direction invites a connoisseur’s appraisal. Walter’s repertory at Covent Garden has good representation here, opening with his 7 December 1924 Der Freischuetz Overture of Weber, rife with the Romantic, Gothic urgency that drives the entire opera. The strings do suffer a pinched quality, but the horns and respond well to Walter’s flexible, expansive tempos. The slides in rhythm conform to the portamentos typical of the style of many of the conductors of the period, barring Weingartner and Toscanini. The Mendelssohn Nocturne – music, like the Berlioz and Wagner Liebestod (11 February 1925) Walter did not later record under improved conditions – reveals less security in the playing, especially the horns. The Berlioz, light and relatively crisp, moves a mite glibly, perhaps to suit the 78 rpm time limits.
The hollow sound of the winds and pinched strings do not evoke my sense of the erotic in the Liebestod, but Walter’s focused intensity on the tremolos with added harp do generate a sense of tragic occasion. Walter urges the Prelude to Act III of Die Meistersinger (11 February 1925) along briskly, so the phrasing occasionally sounds perfunctory. The Siegfried’s Rhine Journey (7 September 1924) appeared only in Britain, and it enjoys good energy despite the obvious cut in the unfolding of the Zu neuen taten teurer held aria-motif. The wind ensemble rustles and whistles in strong syncopations, bursting forth with the Rhinemaidens’ cascades of sound played affectionately. Rather a pleasant surprise, the Siegfried Idyll (3, 5 December 1924), with its reduced means, upholds the intimacy and studied devotion the music warrants. I still admire the later version Walter made of the Strauss Death and Transfiguration with the New York Philharmonic (ML 4650), so I eagerly sought to hear what he accomplished on 5 December 1924. The individual winds (flute, oboe) and harp timbres sound resonant, as does the violin solo in concert with the tympani. The sudden paroxysms and engagements with mortality, though muddy in the bass lines and thin at the top, convey a real sense of terror, and the constructed sound abets the panic. Walter’s performance achieves as much pageantry as it does a valedictory sense of loss and spiritual acceptance.
Obert-Thorn drew upon American and English Columbia pressings “which featured the most (relatively) quiet surfaces available,” and he deserves credit for making these interpretations by a master of idiom sound as athletically as they do.