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

by | Jun 15, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BRUNO WALTER: The Five Complete Concerts = Works by MOZART; WEBER; HAYDN; BRAHMS; CORELLI; BEETHOVEN; MASON; R. STRAUSS; BERLIOZ; WAGNER; MAHLER – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Bruno Walter, piano and conductor – Immortal Performances 1144 (5 CDs, Complete listing below) 391:34 [] *****:

Recorded in concert in New York, March 11-April 8, 1939, these five discs document the appearance of Bruno Walter (1876-1962) before Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony for a series of concerts that essentially celebrate Walter’s rescue from conditions in Europe. A series of abortive efforts to relocate in Vienna, Paris, and London resulted in Walter’s flight to America, where he accepted an invitation to lead the NBC Symphony in a series of five concerts, permitting him to work with the ensemble created for Arturo Toscanini, who had sealed much of his stylistic imprimatur upon the orchestra since his assuming the helm on December 25, 1937. 

Walter begins the series 11 March 1939, opening with his strong suit, Mozart, in the 1777 Divertimento No. 15 for Strings and 2 Horns, a name-day piece for Countess Maria Antonia Lodron. Walter abridges the score, likely to accommodate the NBC restrictions on concert length, but he manages to impart his genial, Viennese style, with its penchant for rubato and portamento, on an organization used to Toscanini’s speeds and clipped phrase-endings. For the most part, these performances reveal Walter in a more driven, focused approach than his reputation traditionally projects. Mozart’s singing line prevails in spite the tendency of the NBC horns to attack their assigned phrases. The D Minor Concerto has Walter’s famous, comparatively genial recording from 1937 Vienna as a model of his playing and conducting from the keyboard; but this performance seems dire and more tragically aware, the sturm und drang element’s having become all too real in world affairs. Those moments of repose that appear in the course of the Concerto, say, in the outer sections of its second movement Romanza, must offer sweet consolation to a suffering humanity. 

The presence of dramatic tension exerts itself most palpably in the opening of the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, a work Walter claimed no conductor should approach before the age of fifty. The polyphonic episodes in the opening Molto allegro project a grim resolve, a weltschmerz we ordinarily miss in the Walter commercial documents. The chromatic half steps of the Andante movement prove especially piquant. The passionate accents in this rendition become equally volatile in the usually comfortable, courtly zone of the Menuetto, here become a contest of tragic energies. The razor-sharp, whip-like phraseology of the Allegro assai finale has much of the Toscanini influence about it, but Walter would have four more concerts in which to assert his unique musical aesthetic on this organization.

For his second appearance at the NBC, 18 March 1939, Walter explores both Classical and Romantic traditions, beginning with Carl Maria von Weber’s spry 1826 Overture to Oberon, the composer’s only opera in English. Briskly driven, the performance demonstrates Walter’s increasing comfort with his NBC players and their capacity to inject warmth into their delivery of this essentially aerial music. The dry acoustic of Studio 8-H notwithstanding, the reading bears easy rehearing. Walter proceeds to Haydn’s 1798 Symphony No. 92 in G, the “Oxford.” Walter had recorded this energetic piece in 1938 Paris, to greater acoustic effect. Still for buoyance and elastic motion, the symphony gains by Walter’s canny sense of dramatic coloration, despite the venue’s tendency to drain the resonance from his low strings. The lovely Adagio cantabile becomes agitated in its middle section, a startling break with its otherwise galant poise, The Haydn sense of wit returns for the Menuetto: Allegro, with its six-bar syncopations and rests. For the finale, Presto, Walter uncharacteristically repeats the first section. The rollicking, good spirits enjoy the benefits of the NBC first flute, John Wummer and Harry Glantz, first trumpet.

The relationship of Bruno Walter with the music of Brahms bears long documentation, and his seven extant recordings of the C Minor Symphony testify to his commitment to a score he cherished. Doubtless, the NBC players had been trained by Toscanini in this score, but here, in its first release on record, Walter manages his own, driven, virile and aggressive, viewpoint on this composition. The motion of the first period of the Allegro section of the first movement become almost virulent in its insistence and urgency, especially given the “fate” motif in the brass and low strings. The lyrical episodes project a true sense of relief from an unbearable tension. In the elegiac second movement, Andante sostenuto, the talent of concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff contributes to the spiritual repose. If the third movement, Un poco allegretto extends the idyll, however tentatively, given the surge of mania that erupts prior to return of serenade-like opening figures, the last movement sets a decisive tone of gripping, ominous dramatic impact. The opening Adagio grinds forward, moving with ineluctable determination to the main section, Allegro non troppo, with a dark recollection of the Black Forest that resolutely addresses its main theme and then proceeds to hang spasmodic fire for the duration. To evince some nobility in the face of chaos may serve as the underlying motive in Walter’s performance, whose sense of the occasion, in retrospect, anticipates a world facing a moral and political crisis.

March 25 has Walter yet more comfortable with his ensemble, here applying his cosmopolitan urbanity to the programming. We find Bruno Walter first seated at the harpsichord, supplying the continuo for Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in G Minor, Op. 6, No. 8, a work he had, fairly recently, recorded in London, 1938. The “Christmas” Concerto enjoys a large sonority, the product of a full body of strings, but an elegiac, romantic grace pervades the reading. The ensuing Beethoven First Symphony represents a true rarity among Walter archives in live performance. A combination of singing expressiveness and muscular energy marks this reading, set at a brisk pace that manages to retain instrumental clarity. While Walter evokes Classical poise from his ensemble, the more vehement passages already adumbrate Beethoven’s later aggressive style.

Walter turns to an American composer, Daniel Gregory Mason (1873-1953) and his five-movement Suite after English Folk Songs, Op. 32, a work competent in its orchestral colors and played with appropriate enthusiasm by the NBC Symphony. Mason served as chairman of the Music Department at Columbia University, where he advocated a conservative aesthetic in the manner of Brahms. His intense antipathy toward Mahler would, to a degree, alienate Walter. The Suite opens with Oh, no John, a playful and flirtatious song also recorded by Paul Robeson. A brisk young sailor projects romance within proper bounds. The longest item, The two magicians, offers some tricky metrics, string pizzicatos, and a woodwind serenade sonority before indulging in a lulling pastoral. Arise, arise has a martial air in softly brash colors. The Suite concludes with The rambling sailor which in Mason’s setting sounds much like Delius, pretty and unthreatening.

This concert ends with the Richard Strauss 1889 meditation after Alexander Ritter, Tod und Verklärung, a work dear to Walter’s heart, by dint of both world events and his strong advocacy of the theory and practice of anthroposophy, as espoused by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Walter has left us seven performances of this tone-poem, of which his CBS account from 1952 stands out among the great documents. The intense atmosphere Walter establishes here in 1939 casts a spell, dynamic and taut, upon the whole, as the protagonist undergoes his earthly trials, memories, and final apotheosis. If the studio acoustic were better, this rendition would be perfect.

Portrait Bruno Walter, 1912, by Wenzel Weis

Bruno Walter, 1912, by Wenzel Weis

As he had for his opening meeting with the NBC in an all-Mozart program, Walter turns on 1 April 1939 to the music of Hector Berlioz, a composer for whom his affection and skills matched those of colleagues Monteux, Mengelberg, Beecham, Harty, and Fried. Inspired by the poetry of Lord Byron, Berlioz conceived his music in 1845, rather dazzled by the picaresque accounts of pirates and their travails. Walter’s rendition here of The Corsair, Op. 21 adds new repertory to his discograhy, beginning with some rough edges – we hear the conductor’s heavily-breathed chugging – but then accelerating with confidence through one of Berlioz’s most spotaneous and captivating scores. The last pages explode with an élan  comparable to the best versions from Beecham.

The 1846 “Dramatic Legend“ after Goethe, La Damnation de Faust, remains a curious hybrid of diverse styles, part oratorio and part operatic tableaux. Walter singles out its relatively transparent fabric, first in the two dance episodes, both inspired by Mephistopleles to beguile Marguerite and Faust, respectively. The Rákóczy March seems a curious insertion, meant to attract Hungarian auditors; but Walter makes its militant, trumpet-illumined patriotism immediately attractive. Kudos to the NBC woodwinds for some mesmerizing gymnastics in the two dances. 

Walter approached the Berlioz 1830 Fantastic Symphony thrice in his career, even sojoiurning to Paris in May 1939 to record the work with the Conservatory Orchestra. He would address it once more after the Paris session, in 1954. Walter takes a broad view of the score, employing slow tempos and avoiding the overt histrionics that can intrude upon the music’s sense of unity. The pacing allows Walter to explore psychlogical nuances rather merely physical dynamics. It becomes obvious qucikly that Walter refined the NBC string tone to accommodate the Berlioz sound. Listen to the wonderful, transparent sheen that opens Un bal. Likely, one of the Berv brothers realizes the excellent French horn work. Robert Bloom’s oboe no less makes a seductive impression upon us. The last two movements thoroughly delight in their propelled, Gothic visions of a scaffold, execution, and Hellish consignment of the protagonist’s soul, as his beloved’s motif transforms into a convulsive nightmare. 

The final concert of this series, that of 8 April 1939, combines two Germanic-Austrian tendencies in a juxtaposition anathema to the Nazi mentality: Wagner and Mahler. Walter made only an acoustic, commercial recording of Wagner’s 1840 (rev. 1855) concert piece, A Faust Overture, a work he cherished throughput his career but did not record by way of modern tehniques. As a Wagner conductor, Bruno Walter enjoyed the status allotted his great colleagues Furtwaengler, Toscanini, Beecham, Coates, and Blech. The surging impulses in the Overture, moving potently from D Minor to its relative F Major, maintain a taut and eminently resonant power. Bruno Walter called upon Wagner’s mesmerizing lyric A Siegfried Idyll multiple times, leaving us thirteen performances divided between live and studio appearances. My own introduction to the work by way of Walter’s CBS recording of 1953 with the New York Philharmonic remains an archetype in my musical experience. Here, with the NBC, Walter effects a glowing color piece, more linear and objective, perhaps, than his later reading and its concomitant warmth, but no less committed to the vision of pantheistic and personal bliss. 

The concluding work of the series, Mahler’s 1888 First Symphony, has a long history with Bruno Walter, who served with the composer in Vienna, and, along with Mengelberg, Fried, Horenstein, and Klemperer, maintained a regal standard of Mahler inerpretation. Given his flight from the grim brutalities and intellectual restrictions of National Socialist Europe, the right to lead Mahler‘s music in America must have had the personal charisma of a man possessed of a divine mission. His CBS recording (ML 4958) with the New York Philharmonic made a profound impact upon my own listening experience, only rivalled later by the various performances left by Dimitri Mitropoulos in Minneapolis and New York, as well as those by Jascha Horenstein. True to this symphony’s dependence on song and the energies of Nature, Walter brings forth a reading of innate, tenderly jubilant charm and often vehement passion. A positive aura of numinous mystery surrounds the first movement’s calls of Nature. Unlike Mitropoulos, Bruno Walter tends to dowmplay the demonic and sarcastic elements in Mahler, so the ensuing Scherzo assumes a lyrical cast, a gemütlichkeit sensibility of health and well being. The third movement, too, despite its parodic element, shifts to the tender, old-world reminiscence of the Songs of a Wayfarer, complete with portamento effects. The last movement, marked Stürmisch bewegt, presents an undeniable emotional allusion to Europe’s sufferings and the heroic resolve of the humane spirit to endure. The potent realization by the NBC players, obviously new to this monument in the repertory, has been thoroughly idiomatic and visceral, a testament to their respect for a musician of acknowledged eminence in his natural milieu. As occurred after the final bars of the Brahms C Minor Symphony, the NBC audience response signaled unqualified adulation.

The entire Immortal Performances production of five CDs (priced as four) proves both striking and informative, with fine photos of Walter and Toscanini, and an expansive essay from James A. Altena of Fanfare Magazine and long-time devotee of the career of Bruno Walter. Volume II, devoted to Bruno Walter’s appearances with the NBC Symphony from 1940, already awaits release. These issues come highly recommended.

—Gary Lemco

Immortal Performances – Bruno Walter, The Five Complete Concerts – NBC Symphony
MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466; Divertimento No. 15 in B-flat Major, K. 287; Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550;
WEBER: Overture to Oberon; HAYDN: Symphony No. 92 in G Major, “Oxford”;
BRAHMS: Symphony No.  in C Minor, Op. 68;
CORELLI: Concerto Grosso in G Minor, Op. 6, No. 8
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21;
MASON: Suite after English Folksongs;
R. STRAUSS: Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24;
BERLIOZ: The Corsair – Overture; La Damnation de Faust: Minuet of the Will of the Wisps; Dance of the Sylphs; Rakoczy March; Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14;
WAGNER: A Faust Overture; A Siegfried Idyll;
MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D Major NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Bruno Walter, piano and conductor – Immortal Performances 1144 

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Immortal Performances - Bruno Walter NBC Concerts, Album Cover

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