The 'Great Composers of the 20th Century' series is
a major project by any standards, so it would have been inconceivable
had Bruno Walter not been included. Born in 1872, he had by the turn
of the century become the protégé of Gustav Mahler, following
his master to Vienna, and his illustrious career continued right through
to the end of his life in the 1960s.
Walter's last recordings therefore benefit from more
modern sound recording techniques and apparatus. However, they were
made for CBS and were therefore problematic as far as this EMI series
was concerned. For the latest recording amongst this collection of performances,
that of Brahms Symphony No. 2, dates from the early fifties. True, it
does have a richer and more truthful sound than is found elsewhere on
the two discs, but compared with what can be achieved on record it is
still decidedly poor in quality. That, alas, is the tale of the whole
enterprise. For these performances were recorded for 78 shellac recordings,
and while some effort has been made to 'clean them up', they still classify
firmly in the 'historical' department.
That sums up the whole affair, to be frank. How much
you will enjoy Walter's undeniably urbane and civilised musicianship
depends on how much you are able to suspend your disbelief and tolerate
the thin string sound, the lack of richness in tuttis, and all the other
limitations of recordings from the pre-LP era. Nor are these recordings
of the best in any case.
If all that represents the bad news, what of the good?
Walter operates in these performances with some fine orchestras, most
notably the Vienna Philharmonic either side of the Second World War.
The ill-starred British Symphony Orchestra, which did not survive into
the post-war era, performs overtures by Mozart and Wagner in the helpful
acoustic of the Kingsway Hall, but there is a lack of detail in the
textures which loses much of the music's impact.
The scene from the Second Act of Wagner's Die Walküre
features some of the leading singers of the thirties, in particular
Lotte Lehmann and Lauritz Melchior as Sieglinde and Siegmund. As such
it is an interesting historical document. Walter's pacing and phrasing
always seems entirely right, as it does also in Beethoven and Brahms,
whose Sixth and Second Symphonies respectively are the largest pieces
on offer, together occupying the first of the two discs.
As with other issues from this source, the packaging
is excellent, with a stimulating essay about the conductor and some
useful insights into the music. However, more than with other issues
in the series, this one must be placed firmly in the 'historical' category,
with all that description implies.