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Bruno Walter – Mahler
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)

Symphony No.4 +
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor (1901-1904)
Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit – selections *
Scheiden und Meiden
Nicht wiedersehen!
Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald
Ablösung im Sommer
Hans und Grete
Starke Einbildungskraft
Desi Halban (soprano) *+
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Bruno Walter (piano * and conductor)
Recorded Carnegie Hall, New York, 1945 (Symphonies) and Los Angeles, 1947 (Songs)
SONY CLASSIC RECORDINGS 515301-2 [2 CDs 67.33 + 61.04]

Walter’s classic Mahler recordings of 1945-47 are here enshrined in Sony’s slimline double, part of an ongoing and well-titled ‘Classic Recordings’ series. Of the virtues and occasional limitations (in direction, in recording balance and depth) I should think we are by now well aware though a few words wouldn’t go amiss. Since there was no magnetic tape available the symphonies were recorded onto 33 1/3 16-inch lacquers, which allowed greater recording time (but equally had to be interrupted to fit onto 78 sides). The Fourth sounds fine in its latest incarnation here but the real difference is the Fifth. Previous transfers have used tape copies of the original lacquers but for this reissue the producer Dennis D Rooney has utilised those original discs. The result has been to open out the somewhat dim and boxed-in acoustic. As we have seen from a recent reissue (from Cala) of an almost contemporaneous Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony conducted by Stokowski (also issued by Sony), going back directly to the original lacquers can have a dramatic effect on transparency, clarity and depth and the original dynamics are also better revealed. As Rooney says some scratches on the lacquers are unavoidably audible but I can’t say they concerned me greatly. This is a significant advance for admirers of Walter’s Fifth.

His Fourth is an affectionate and light reading, quite lithe and forward moving, as his Mahler could so often be, though never sounding harried and breathless. Phrasing remains utterly natural sounding and in soprano Desi Halban he has a singer with a bit of grit in her voice – though she’s certainly not for those who crave liquid effulgence in their Mahler singing. The Fifth is again on the brisk side (with his famously fast Adagietto) but Walter’s accents are superbly weighted and the sense of propulsive animation infectious – even if we may crave greater relaxation. The orchestral playing is first class, brass and horns especially, and the opening up of the sound perspective a decisive advantage. Walter and Halban join forces for the eight songs from Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit. Here nothing can be done to salvage the skewed balance which means that Walter’s piano is semi audible at best; it does nothing to aid a genuine sense of communing music making though Halban again proves a singer of convincing musicality; the quality of the voice is something else.

As that Stokowski issue showed, aural restoration leaves one with a dilemma. Hang onto your original reissue or trade it in for a sonically improved release? Then I strongly suggested investing in the new release and I’ll do so again if you value Walter’s Fifth highly. Certainly it’s a significant performance and a recording of high historic and musical value.

Jonathan Woolf

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