Bruno Walter: The NBC Symphony Orchestra: Five Complete Concerts, Vol. II – Immortal Performances

by | Apr 4, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BRUNO WALTER: The NBC Symphony Orchestra: Five Complete Concerts, Vol. II -1940 – Immortal Performances IPCD 1157-4 (6 CDs; TT: 7:39:370) [] *****:

Having established a fruitful rapport with the NBC Symphony in his 1939 series of concerts, conductor Bruno Walter (1876-1962) accepted a second invitation to lead this esteemed ensemble – assembled by Artur Rodzinski and honed to perfection by Arturo Toscanini – for a series of five concerts from 10 February to 9 March, 1940. In addition to the 1940 concerts, Immortal Performances provides a bonus of unique power: an appearance by Walter with the New York Philharmonic (14 May 1944) leading Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 “Pastorale,” which does in fact complete his cycle with that orchestra left unfinished by CBS, which captured Walter commercially first in 1946 with the Philadelphia Orchestra (ML 4010) and later, 1958, with CBS Studio Orchestra (ML 5284). The reading projects virtually every plaudit attributed to Walter by virtue of a lengthy career of stylistic familiarity with Beethoven: spontaneous warmth of expression, athletic vigor, refined lyricism, and an inner security of formal design. The performance moves rather briskly, with driven phraseology that does not indulge in sentimental excess for the sake of romantic ardor. Walter’s marcato approach to the third movement country dance strikes us as especially pert, while the fierce, elastic tension in the storm movement reveals an admission of existential darkness. We do sense, moreover, that in the second movement Andante molto mosso and the last movement, Allegretto, Walter’s own communion with Nature in its transcendental application has provided him some solace in the face of both world calamity and personal tragedy that beset him prior to his fateful arrival in the United States of America 9 November 1939. Commentator James A. Altena documents the details of Walter’s private and professional life in these matters on pages 9-10 of the excellent accompanying booklet.

Concert 10 February 1940. For his historic return to Studio 8-H, Bruno Walter turns to the music of Haydn and Bruckner: first, to Haydn’s 1786 Symphony No. 86 in D Major. Haydn’s inventive color and hefty humor in this fifth of the “Paris Symphonies” set no less appealed to another master conductor whose work we admire, Carl Schuricht.  Walter walks the slow, Adagio introduction genially, aware that the music will reveal its grandeur shortly, since this work possesses trumpets and timpani, as only two in the set of “Paris Symphonies” do. The ensuing Allegro, vivaciously alert, emanates humor as well as canny structure as it unfolds in circuitous and contrapuntal, harmonic motion before  settling into its properly ordered coda. The second movement, Largo has the designation Capriccio that permits the interpreter a degree of license. Walter molds the slow arpeggio that opens the music so that its periodic return remains palpable to our ears. The NBC woodwinds and strings bask in an especial, melodic luster, while the sudden fortes and pregnant pauses pay homage to the sturm und drang sensibility of the pre-Romantic ethos. Walter’s Menuettto moves graciously, in the manner of an Austrian laendler whose Trio section, colored by the bassoon, projects a rusticity within the confines a courtly dance. The Finale: Allegro con spirito, combines rondo and sonata form, here given a frenetic realization from Walter, the flurry of five eighth notes in constant motion, alternated with a tripping motion that Walter savors at every turn.

The opening Larghetto e affettuoso exhibits a weight and somber dignity that moves intimately between ripieno and concertino elements. The ensuing Fugue: Larghetto retains a singing character despite its “learned” character, its close sonic relation to Corelli. The Musette, conceived in the manner of rustic bagpipes, set in E-flat Major, makes it stand out amidst the other movements in the minor mode. Walter’s keyboard does threaten to sound a mite overpowering in this context. But even granting the Romantic ethos generating Walter’s conception, the performance has sonic bite and decided conviction. A fast minuet defines the final Allegro, brief but resolute.

Walter’s fondness for the music of Anton Bruckner has been amply documented, and the 1881 E-flat Symphony No .4 “Romantic” has a fine recording from Walter and the CBS Orchestra (mostly LA Philharmonic players) from 1960. Here, in 1940 New York, Walter realizes a spurious edition highly bowdlerized by Franz Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe, though contemporary audiences likely did not quibble over “Bruckner authenticity.” The first movement, a combination of Schubert’s lyricism and Wagner’s epic grandeur, moves with a fervent dash, especially when its opening “dawn” motif collides with its own inversion at key points. The sensuous flow between the large periods in the music, the dramatically fluid blend of string tremolos and brass declamations, makes for thrilling music-making. If Bruckner imagined this movement an evocation of knights and gallantry, the intentions are well met. 

The ensuing C Minor Andante, led by the NBC cello choir, conveys a processional atmosphere, a long chorale motif answered by pizzicato strings and subsequent trill. The NBC violas no less extend the serenade, aided by horn and flute colors. The mountain-air sensibility soon assumes a pantheistic ardor, an orison that contains martial elements. Walter reveals a tendency to old-world rubato that actually carries persuasive power. Eminently lyrical, Walter’s second movement enjoys a plastic flow shorn of heaviness and pseudo-profundity. The resonance he achieves belies the often unsympathetic acoustic of Studio 8-H, filling the space with vibrant ardor. 

The third movement Scherzo, an exuberant hunting-scene, muscular in its clipped enunciation of the horn motif and its echoes, rushes ahead with startling fury. The rondo structure gains a potent momentum in its outer periods, while the Trio reverts to Schubert’s Austrian, rustic impulses and invokes a barrel-organ tune and dance to provide respite from the hunt’s breathless demands. Combined clarinets and solo horn proceed, in the last movement Finale, to introduce a three-note, falling figure girded by ostinato strings figures and woodwind punctuations that soon swell into a martial declamation of formidable intensity. Crescendos and fortissimos dominate for this, Bruckner’s answer to Wagner’s Valhalla. The mood shifts just a suddenly to a serenade, a consoling, paean to the power of Nature. The opening motif inverts as the music evolves, with potent, almost savage intrusions that echo the music of movement one. Bruckner rather meanders between bucolic meditation and heaven storming, eventually progressing to his inventive coda, a combination of feverish, earthly energies and religious awe. Walter has carried the Bruckner vision with a directed focus both monumental and nuanced. Despite the occasional appearances of sound deterioration, the performance retains its original impact.

Concert 17 February 1940. For the opening of his second NBC concert, Bruno Walter seated himself at the keyboard to play the continuo for Handel’s Concerto Grosso in G Minor, Op. 6, No. 6 (1739), featuring violinists Mischa Mischakoff and Edwin Bachmann and cellist Frank Miller. Handel’s work derives from a set of 12, published in England by John Walsh, and taking their models from Corelli, Scarlatti exercises, and Gottlieb Muffat’s Componimenti musicali. The four-movement work presents a modification of Handel’s original plan, his having replaced a Gavotte with Allegro sections to balance his extended, contrapuntal second movement. 

For the two latter pieces in this concert, Walter plays his trump cards: the 1782 Mozart “Haffner” Symphony and the Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D Major. The Allegro con spirito that initiates Mozart’s score emanates aspects of C.P.E. Bach’s empfindsamer stile, the “emotional,” often “broken phrase,” style that pre-figures early Romanticism. Even as Walter projects his characteristic, Viennese affability, he does not deny the discords and underlying, fiery tensions in Mozart’s otherwise sunny score. The “rocket” figures emerge with a decisive force. Walter’s Andante projects a regal cal, the strings fluid and eminently operatic, extending a singing line colored by woodwinds we wish would never end. The Menuetto and Trio proceed with courtly refinement, touched by a galant hue. Mozart insists that the Presto be played “as fast as possible,” and Walter explosively obeys, hustling at breakneck speed up to the main melody that resembles Osmin’s “revenge” aria from The Abduction from the Seraglio. The NBC horns and tympani move in full throttle, the strings often a shimmering blur. Nevertheless, the essential Mozart sense of a wonderful, foolish humanity shines through.

I must confess that Bruno Walter’s 1953 studio recording of the Brahms Second with the New York Philharmonic set my personal standard for excellence in articulation and warmth of expression. Equally luminous and generously rich in grand sentiment, this reading of the opening Allegro non troppo moves with figures alternately bucolic and waltz-like. Those moments of relative tension, playful but martial in their agogic manipulations, remain eminently civil despite their passing sense of insatiable yearning and “black wings” in the trombones. The NBC cello line glows, and the trumpets, assisted by the tympani, instill a sense of personal will that Nature may yet assuage. 

The heart of this work, its Adagio non troppo in B Major, emerges from Walter as a deep, autumnal song, the NBC cellos in elegant harmony. The sequential development soon soars in avid melancholy. The ensuing fugal section emanates a muscular girth, again colored in resigned hues. The remainder of the movement casts a pathos almost exquisite in its tenderly epic sense of reminiscence. Walter’s Allegretto grazioso in G, with its plucked cello line and Robert Bloom’s oboe, opens an outdoor serenade. The Presto section, rather unruly, disrupts the mood in cut time. Dark clouds emerge momentarily, but the presto impulse returns, this time in a 3/8 equivalent of a country dance wee might ascribe to Dvorak. The last movement, Allegro con spirito, remains perhaps the best Brahms answer to Hugo Wolf’s derogatory remark that Brahms “cannot exult.” Walter captures the effulgent sense of optimistic energies, moving between D and G, with liquid finesse. Even the middle section tranquillo seems impatient to resume the initial impetus, eager to proceed to a recapitulation and coda that “cut the rope” as Zorba feels it, an elemental lust for life that blazes forth with an infectious abandon that neither the NBC audience nor we cannot deny.

Concert 24 February 1940. More adventurous programming marks Bruno Walter’s third appearance before the NBC audience: he performs two French works in addition to the familiar Schubert Ninth Symphony. Vincent D’Indy’s 1896 symphonic poem Istar, Op. 42 , after the Symphony on a French Mountain Air, remains one of his few compositions that receives any consistent attention. Conceived as seven “variations in reverse,” the work derives from a Babylonian legend involving Istar, the goddess of love and fertility, who descends – similar to the Greek Orpheus – to the underworld to retrieve her dead lover. She must pass through seven gates, each demanding she shed an article of clothing or jewelry, until she stands naked before the last portal. The variations proceed from the most complex to the bare, unison statement of the undulating theme. D’Indy, despite some exotic harmonies, seems less interested in purple passagework a la Richard Strauss than in classical, structural logic. Serving as a color preparation for the Ravel Rapsodie Espagnole that follows, the D’Indy exerts a languor and mysticism we rarely experience in a Bruno Walter concert. 

The 1907 Rapsodie Espagnole,Ravel’ first published work for orchestra, demonstrates his flair for Spanish idioms, especially those modal gambits derived from contemporary composer Manuel de Falla. For Bruno Walter, the opportunity to lead the score creates a kind of “rivalry” in French color with his esteemed colleague before the NBC Symphony, Pierre Monteux. The four-note figure opening Prélude à la nuit will recur in the Malagueña and Feria sections, providing a unifying element. Along with the NBC string and brass work, John Wummer’s flute makes a fertile presence. The Feria vibrates with sensuous energy and erotic overtones, spinning like a combination of flamenco dancer and toreador’s flashing cape as he engages an onrushing bull. 

Only having auditioned Bruno Walter’s 1959 CBS recording of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony in C Major, I assumed the slow tempos defined his approach. The fact that the 1942 Willem Mengelberg performance from Amsterdam had served as my first impression of the work no less influenced my perception, since Mengelberg’s willful, impetuous concept infused the music with a remarkable, lyrico-dramatic spontaneity.
Walter, for his part, takes the opening movement horn call  and subsequent string tissue slowly, Andante, before his gradual acceleration to Allegro ma non troppo, and the pace retains a flexible singing style, Orchestral definition and clarity of line, taut and rigorous, move the music forward, slowing down for the lyrical interludes and executing graded crescendos with fierce discipline. The first movement coda resounds with triumphant resolve.

Despite some wobble in oboe Robert Bloom’s tone, the haunted, A Minor Andante con moto evolves nobly, a cross between a march and pilgrim’s chorale, all touched by woodland, folk colors. This music moves in thirds, a later Brahms device, though Schubert proceeds to a climax rife with polyphonic stringency before the da capo oboe tune. The sheer number of texture applications in horn, flute, winds and strings makes a study-guide for Anton Bruckner, who missed not a hint in orchestrating his own thoughts. Walter’s Scherzo enjoys a fertile, bucolically lyrical thrust, without the pregnant pause Mengelberg inserts at the cadence of the opening phrase. Still, the music persists in its own obsessions in rhythm, creating through layering a huge, stratified series of martial cadences. Walter’s Trio section lavishes pomp and ceremony on an essentially rustic topography, the music’s rising in  mountain chorale. With the return of the outer impulses, we realize just how antiphonal Walter’s effects have become, almost a reiteration of Baroque dynamics. The relentless character of the last movement, Finale: Allegro vivace, proves mesmeric, as it should be, with wonderful touches from the NBC trumpet. The obstinate harmonic motion, in twenty-two repetitions in brass and woodwinds, assumes a paradoxical character of stasis and violent motion. Walter applies a wonderful subito to bring back the martial element from  a quiet to a forte statement, the way he might guide a Rossini overture. Having once more courted the whirlwind, Walter returns to the demonic impulses at hand but slowing down the tempo of the low strings for dramatic emphasis. The mystery Walter infuses into the segue into the coda merits the price of admission, the strings and horn in surging equilibrium and then rushing, with appropriate brass fanfare to the bristling conclusion for an aroused audience.

Concert 2 March 1940. The fourth of Dr. Walter’s concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra provided a stylistic mix of music by Schumann, R. Strauss, Debussy, and Smetana. The major work, Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120, had been drafted as early as 1841 (and revised in 1851), when Schumann used a “Clara” motif, taken from Clara Wieck’s Romance varié, Op. 3 for solo piano (1833). Schumann intended the work to proceed in one, unbroken movement, through-composed, so the motif would appear often in various phases of the score, similar to procedures in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. 

Walter’s slow introduction, Ziemlich langsam, has the timpani resonant below the yearning strings, and then a furious rush, Lebhaft, with brass prominent. The singularity of affect, tied by essentially the same motives, makes us think of Baroque construction practice. Walter establishes grand pedal points as the music becomes declamatory, the cadences resolute. The lyrical theme, for moments, offers consolation, but the energetic fury regains dominance, the brass enunciations crisp, emphasizing the sweet comfort offered by the string line. After a series of repeated, elongated string phrases, the tension climbs once more to those three punctuations, releasing the solace that itself becomes consumed in a hectic, polyphonic coda in D Major. Walter, attacca, proceeds into the Romanze, a lovely meditation with violin solo. The Scherzo exudes a hefty energy in counterpoint, the themes cyclically derived from movement one. The trio section proves a mere repeat of the violin line in the Romanze. Walter’s da capo has the NBC players quite emphatic, slowing down for grinding transition that explodes into the last movement, Langsam – Lebhaft. Tremolo strings and heraldic trumpets announce the fateful entry into Schumann’s own Valhalla, three potent chords leading the playful contention in antiphons between strings and woodwinds. The allusions to prior motifs suggests the influence of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. The NBC brass relish a field day for exuberant declamations. Driven with fierce precision, the finale has a grand resonance, rushing to another polyphonic moment on thematic intertwining, and a glorious coda. 

Walter had a good rapport with music of Richard Strauss, and the symphonic poem Don Juan, Op. 20 (1889, after Lenau) makes an excellent, virtuoso vehicle for the ensemble. Walter initiates the piece with a decisive thrust, capturing the vehement, if vain, energy of Lenau’s protagonist and his fruitless quest for ideal womanhood. Once more, the NBC brass realize in opulent, vivid colors the alternating conquests and dire, manic dejections in the Don’s character, leading to his willing death in a duel. The NBC tympani is in fine fettle, especially given the music’s spasmodic energies of lust, erotic confrontation and sublimated death-wish. With the added bonus of excellent sonic resolution in the Studio 8-H, this performance contributes greatly to our appreciation of Bruno Walter’s leading heroic, fervent and graphically colorful music. 

The music of Debussy has not extensive representation in Walter’s recorded legacy, although I am familiar with his Philadelphia performance of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1 March 1947) with flautist William Kincaid. The 1894 tone-poem avoids anything like “German” structure, engaging in a vivid dream-fantasy, based on the symbolist poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. Walter’s rendition, with John Wummer’s flute, projects a leisurely sensuality, lyric, poised, and inflamed, as required. The beauty of woodwinds and harp, late in the score, has a transparency worth of the Faun’s diaphanous existence in our collective unconscious. We can hear the bouncing of the NBC strings in appreciation of Wummer’s contribution.

A pity that Walter did not perform or record more of Smetana’s cycle, Ma Vlast, since his various renditions of The Moldau convey a deep love of Nature and respect for the Czech sensibility, so thoroughly betrayed by the pact made to “appease” the designs of Adolf Hitler. The course of the mighty river finds us enthralled by the NBC’s capacity for colors and native Czech rhythms, in the village dance and night-time meditation along the surface of the stream. The resonance Walter achieves bears favorable comparison with the grand master of this idiom, Vaclav Talich. With the river’s ineluctable progress towards Prague, we hear the amazing arrival in vivid colors, as the waters heroically pass The High Castle of the symphonic cycle’s first movement, and proceed, undefeated, into the horizon. The Overture to The Bartered Bride, provides a brilliant, comic foil to the heroics of the The Moldau, with the overture’s opening gambit of village gossip that spreads like orchestral wildfire. Played with robust authority, the music has a fertile charm that belies the occasional dry sense of the Studio 8-H acoustic.  

Concert 9 March 1940. The last of the Bruno Walter programs opens with a return to the conductor’s familiar, Viennese roots, with Schubert’s 1816 Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, a work most directly obligated to Mozart. Genial, in a fluid, dotted rhythm, the first movement Allegro proceeds in sunshine mixed with bucolic impulses. A serene calm defines the first measures of the Andante con moto second movement, set in Mozart’s own key of spiritual serenity, E-flat Major. Despite a slight digression into G Minor, this music avoids the tragic clouds that often beset Schubert’s large works. The absence of clarinets, trumpets and tympani maintains a transparent texture that lavishes us with a consoling melos whose smile veils whatever tears must be shed. The emotional tenor of the performance alters in the G Minor Menuetto: Allegro molto, which has become insistent and martial, an affect that carries through to the last movement, Allegro vivace, imparting an anxious, hectic tension to the occasion. 

Walter then stays in Austria with a collection of Mozart Minuets and German Dances, very much the forerunners of Schubert’s contributions to the forms. For the ten minutes’ duration of these assorted, salon bon-bons, we bask in a musical atmosphere without the cloud of the Anschluss over Austria. The presence of the NBC horns adds a touch of outdoor nuance to the easy suasion of the two German Dances, while No. 3 exerts more fervent, resolute energy and a late section that sings in a folkish idiom, the “sleigh ride” motif clear and perhaps a touch ironic.

To conclude his series of NBC concerts, Walter opts for the Fifth Symphony of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, that in E Minor, Op. 64. Often considered to be Tchaikovsky’s “Fate Symphony,” the music of movement one proceeds, Allegro con anima, under Walter with an ardent, flowing, forward motion, its waltz impulses aroused by flourishes in trumpets and tympani. Walter does not belabor the militant aspects of the score, nor does he over-sentimentalize with gratuitous rubato. There are some passing slides, small concessions to an outdated sense of style, but eminently musical. Walter increases the driven tension of the first movement to the breaking point, so that the coda literally whistles by in the manner of an express train. 

Walter reveals more rhythmic flexibility in the famous Allegro cantabile second movement, with its famous French horn melody, soon augmented by the oboe. A degree of marcato characterizes the melody as it surges through the orchestra, tutti, and assumes epic status. Here, in this music’s developmental pages, is the romance we seek in this composer of Romeo and Juliet. The tempest swells and reintroduces the brass “fate” motif over a thunderous tympani. A funereal tempo restrains the urgent energies of the melody, as though sincerity alone could overcome fate. The breadth of Walter’s final peroration has all the glorious Technicolor, triumph and tragedy we expect from Koussevitzky. The Valse enjoys a thoroughly balletic approach, spry and light in texture, almost a Mendelssohn scherzo. The NBC strings alternately whisper and sigh their respective phrases while the woodwinds add the requisite color to this temporary respite from the assaults of destiny, which at the last, seems to knock at the door.

The last movement, however, will forever breed controversy. Unlike Mengelberg and Sargent, who infuriate me with their decision to abide cuts in the finale, Walter opts for a glacial tempo for the second subject and in the latter part of the proceedings, having decided to abandon the otherwise fine impetus he had established. Whether the tempo suits Walter’s notion of classical structure or emotional balance, the leaden effect does not work for me. Those brought up on colossal last movements, from Koussevitzky and Mravinsky, for instance, will balk at this reading. Maestoso it may be, but it should not have become a momento mori. The last pages, however, reclaim some of the vital energy of our expectations.That the NBC Symphony has responded to Walter’s unorthodox demands testifies to their discipline and artistic loyalty, which must have been a bane to Toscanini, who thereafter did not invite Walter to lead the orchestra on 24 February 1951, when Walter appeared as a substitute to an ailing Toscanini. When Walter led the ensemble on 3 February 1957, the “Symphony of the Air,” it was in memoriam for the now deceased, universally esteemed, Italian maestro.     

—Gary Lemco

Bruno Walter: The NBC Symphony Orchestra: Five Complete Concerts, Vol. II
CD 1 Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 “Pastorale” (14 May 1944)
Haydn: Symphony No. 86 in D Major (10 February 1940)

CD 2  Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major “Romantic”

CD 3  17 Feb. 17, 1940
Handel: Concerto Grosso in F Minor, Op. 6, No. 6
Mozart: Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385 “Haffner”
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73

CD 4   24 February 1940
D’Indy: Istar Variations, p. 42
Ravel: Rapsodie Espagnole
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944

CD 5 2 March 1940
Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120
R. Strauss, Don Juan, Op. 20
Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Smetana: The Moldau
Smetana: Overture to The Bartered Bride

CD 6  9 March 1940
Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485
Mozart: 2 Minuets, K. 568/12 and K. 599/5
3 German Dances, K. 605
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64

Album Cover for Bruno Walter, NBC Complete Concerts Vol 2

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