This is the second CD that has emerged this month of
recordings from Bruno Walterís belated return to Germany in 1950. I
have also reviewed the release on Orfeo (C562021B) containing items
from the Munich concert on October 2nd (Schubertís "Unfinished"
and Mahlerís First). This Tahra disc gives us the first chance to hear
the concert that Walter conducted in Berlin the previous week. Like
their Munich colleagues the Berlin players had also lost their concert
hall to wartime bombing. They had been giving their performances in
a converted cinema and if you are familiar with Willhelm Furtwänglerís
post-war radio recordings you will certainly recognise the sound of
the Titania Palast very well.
The Mozart Fortieth Symphony is grand and stately in
the first movement though it is never ponderous. In fact itís the kind
of performance that audiences fully expected as recently as twenty-five
years ago but which have now vanished on the altar of the "authentic
movement". So tempi are long breathed, orchestral sound is beefier,
melodies and themes are sung, facets which describe the rest of the
performance too. The Berlin players seem to have no difficulty giving
Walter exactly what he asks which is not a million miles from what Furtwängler
was asking of them at the time, in this repertoire at least. Perhaps
with Walter there is a touch more elegance, in the second movement especially,
but this is Mozart from another world as valid and important as any
you will hear. The last movement is superb with the wonderful security
of ensemble Walter can rely on used to fullest extent. The string playing
especially has great thrust and virtuosity, and listen to those plangent
woodwinds singing through the texture.
When you hear the way Walter gets the violins to effortlessly
"float" their theme in the first movement of the Brahms Second
Symphony I think you will be convinced that in Berlin Walter had an
orchestra still as great as it was pre-war. The whole of the first movement
exudes huge experience and security and that means the players can deliver
Walterís essentially pastoral, very sunny and soft-grained vision of
the first movement. It is almost as if you can tell they are pleased
for one night to discard the darkness and mystery that Furtwängler
brought to this music. The recorded sound also allows some lovely woodwind
details to emerge but always with that bedrock of lower brass, lower
strings and also very deep timpani that seemed to be such a fingerprint
of the Berliners.
I always feel that when Brahms first thought of the
great opening theme of the second movement a wide smile must have broken
across his face. It always does on mine, especially when it is immediately
repeated. Listen to the way the cellos phrase it here. Itís as though
they are carrying on their shoulders a whole tradition, one that stretches
back to the composer; one Walter was as qualified as any conductor who
has ever lived to represent too. There is the same seamless emergence
of every bar of the music that only orchestra and conductor in total
accord can manage. Amazing when you consider this was Walterís first
performance in Berlin for at least two decades. This is expressive without
being indulgent or losing the thread of the symphonic argument that
The third movement is remarkable for the precision
of the strings and woodwind and then for the way the strings can turn,
in the blink of an eye, to the grander elements that Brahms injects
here and which Walter, in all honesty, always seems more at home with.
The last movement has great lift and propulsion though some might find
that distinctive timpani sound (so beloved of Furtwängler) somewhat
hampering to the rhythm. Walter doesnít hurry here. Rather he wants
to convey the feeling of great kinetic power piled up behind him. Characteristically
the coda doesnít go for empty excitement or rhetoric. Instead there
is a solid, noble sonorous ending marred just a touch by a couple of
sour notes from the horns, but after a long evening they can be forgiven.
The playing of the orchestra is excellent and even
the mono sound has great presence and depth though it is, of course,
limited when compared with more modern recordings. It is, however, a
better sound than that on the Orfeo release already mentioned and the
Berliners show their Munich counterparts what great playing really is.
Tahra, as always, has rendered the best sound from original tapes. As
I said in my review of the Orfeo release I would never recommend recordings
like this as first choice. Neither would I compare them with modern
versions. Issues like these are of historical interest and any musical
value stems from that. However, this is a release that gave me much
pleasure and deserves to be well known.
An important occasion out of the archive that in the
Brahms symphony offers a performance of great stature.