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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jungendzeit*[17’08”]
Erinnerung [2’29”]
Scheiden und Meiden [2’18”]
Nicht wiedersehn! [3’29”]
Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald [3’13”]
Ablösung im Sommer [1’18”]
Hans und Grete [1’45”]
Frühlingsmorgen [1’32”]
Starke Einbildungskraft [1’03]
Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor [60’51]
*Desi Halban (soprano); Bruno Walter (piano)
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Bruno Walter
Recorded: 10 Feb 1947, Carnegie Hall, New York; *16 Dec 1947, Los Angeles ADD
NAXOS
HISTORICAL 8.110896 [77’59”]


 

This famous recording of the Fifth Symphony was the first made of the work, though Bruno Walter had previously recorded the Adagietto live in concert with the Vienna Philharmonic for HMV in 1938 (Dutton CDBP 9722).

In his indispensable synoptic survey of the Mahler symphonies my colleague, Tony Duggan comments “tempos are quick throughout and, though this probably reflects Walter's more astringent approach at that time in his life, you cannot escape the impression that another determinant was the need to fit the recording onto 78rpm sides.” (www.musicweb-international.com/Mahler/Mahler5.htm)  This may be a correct assumption. Walter’s other early Mahler recordings (the Ninth Symphony, Das Lied von der Erde) are also on the swift side, perhaps for the self-same reason. However, I have a suspicion that the tendency towards swiftness may well have to do at least as much, if not more, with Walter’s view of Mahler’s music at the time. It’s interesting to note that in the aforementioned 1938 recording of the Adagietto the movement plays for 8’00” but in 1947 Walter was slightly quicker, clocking in at 7’38”.

What is beyond dispute is that Walter’s recording is one of the swiftest ever made of this symphony and it’s by some distance the fastest that I know. It may be interesting for readers to see a comparison of the timings of some of the versions in my own collection:

Conductor                Movt. 1          2            3              4            5           Total    

Walter (1947)           11’47”        12’32”    15’03”    7’38”     15’42”      60’51”

Rattle (2002)            13’03”        14’23”     16’55”    9’32”     14’52”     69’08”

Barshai (1997)         11’53”         14’26”    18’29”    8’17”     16’18”     69’33”

Stenz (2002)           13’34”         15’56”    17’42”    9’52”     14’37”     71’52”

Tennstedt (1988)     13’38”         15’25”    18’06”  11’21”     14’52”     73’24”

Barbirolli (1969)     13’48”         15’14”    18’04”     9’52”    17’27”     74’29”

Bernstein (1987)     14’32”          14’59”    19’02”   11’13”    15’00      75’00”

I’ve not gone into detail about these timings to suggest that they show us a right way or a wrong way to play this symphony but simply to illustrate the wide variety of approaches. And note, for example, that the conductors who take the longest overall aren’t necessarily the ones who take longest in every movement (Barbirolli in the fourth movement, for instance, or Bernstein in the finale.) There are points of interpretation in each one with which I may mildly disagree but each of these seven performances is of immense stature to which I return frequently when listening for pleasure. Yet there’s 14 minutes difference between the slowest overall (Bernstein) and Walter. Does that disqualify Walter? I don’t think so. Rather, his version shows the symphony in a different and refreshing light.   

I’ve had a copy of this recording in my collection for several years and I’m bound to say that for the most part I don’t feel that the music is unduly pressed (though the New York players undoubtedly feel the pressure at times!) This is as good a time as any to comment on the new Naxos transfer. My existing copy is a 1994 transfer by Sony Classical in their Bruno Walter Edition (actually the same one, SMK 64451, cited by Tony Duggan). That transfer is quite acceptable. However, I prefer the new transfer for Naxos by Mark Obert-Thorn. I’ve played it on two separate CD players (but through the same amplifier and speakers) and I find that the newcomer reproduces more warmly and with better definition, especially in the bass.

Walter’s performance is electrifying. The first movement, the great Trauermarsch, has weight and drama but there’s never any suspicion of Walter overdoing things. There’s not quite the same level of angst and emotion that I find in the accounts by Bernstein (DG), Barbirolli (EMI) or Tennstedt (his live EMI account with the LPO), all versions that I admire enormously. However, I can more than live with Walter’s approach. In fact I like the way he keeps the music on the move. In this performance it is indeed a march that you could step to.

The second movement snarls and bites under Walter. The tempo he adopts for the main material is ferociously fast. The New Yorkers hang on for all they’re worth but the struggle to stay with Walter’s white-hot conception is audible at times. It’s not all hell-for-leather though. When Mahler relaxes for the second group (track 10, 1’17”) Walter relaxes with him but the swift overall tempo means that, even at the relaxed pace, the music flows attractively. For the most part I like very much what he does with the music. However, when the great brass chorale is heard towards the end of the movement (10’06”) I wish he had broadened the tempo just a bit more. This moment should be like the clouds parting to bathe the landscape in brilliant sunlight. That doesn’t quite happen here. In fact the treatment sounds a bit peremptory.

The huge Scherzo that forms Part II of the symphony is, for the most part, challenging and successful. Again the basic pulse is swift and the music is pungent and bracing. There were times, however, when I could have wished for a bit more “give” in the music. The important horn solo is well played.

The celebrated Adagietto opens Part III. This movement has, I feel, suffered through its over-exposure as a result of the film Death In Venice. Too many conductors nowadays seem to want to wring out every last bit of emotion in the music and often they put onto the music more than it can bear.(A glance at the table above may give a clue to the identities of one or two that I have in mind!) Mahler added the important diminutive suffix “etto” to the title of the movement and I don’t think he was simply referring to the fact that the movement is quite short (if interpreters will allow it to be so!) I strongly suspect that he was also alluding to the emotional scope of the music. If a conductor will dare to let the music flow and speak for itself the overall structural and emotional balance of the whole work is much more satisfactory. In this Walter succeeds admirably and he makes the movement a little oasis of tranquillity (albeit one not devoid of passion where appropriate) after the catharsis of Part I, the huge canvass of Part II and before the large-scale display piece that is the finale.

The finale is tremendously exciting. It’s a real display piece and Walter achieves brilliance without ever a hint of showmanship. It’s an exhilarating end to a highly stimulating performance. As Ian Julier comments in his interesting note: “In the work as a whole a lean directness and lack of indulgence allow the symphonic structure to register with tautness, logic and considerable power. Purpose and direction never flounder and are substantially enhanced by an orchestra audibly exulting at the top of its form.” I’d take issue only with that last phrase. The players do sound to me to be under some pressure at times. They play with enormous commitment but there are quite a few cracked notes and fluffs in the brass in particular. Listeners should be warned also that in the first movement when the timpanist plays as a solo the fanfare we heard on the trumpet at the opening his drums sound horribly out of tune (track 9, 8’47”)

Thanks to Walter’s swift pacing of the symphony this is the only single CD version I know that has a fill up. Soprano Desi Halban essays eight Mahler songs accompanied by Walter himself at the piano. The same soloist featured in Walter’s 1945 recording of the Fourth symphony (Naxos 8.110876) and neither Paul Serotsky (www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Dec03/Mahler_kinder_Ferrier.htm) nor I (www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Oct03/Mahler_4halban.htm) were terribly impressed with her singing. I concur with Paul’s verdict, confirmed here, that hers is not a pretty voice and the “certain shrillness” that he noted is evident once more. She’s not especially characterful, though there are some nice touches, such as the opening to Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald (track 4). However, Ablösung im Sommer (track 5) sounds rushed and her articulation is sorely taxed. One has only to listen to Dame Janet Baker’s 1983 Hyperion recording (CDA68100) at a virtually identical tempo, to hear how the song can and should be delivered. Geoffrey Parsons, for Baker, is also a better accompanist than Walter. Actually, the singer is placed so far forward in the aural perspective that all too often Walter’s contribution is relegated to the background so it’s a little unfair to judge his qualities as an accompanist from these recordings.

But purchasers will acquire this CD for Walter’s reading of the symphony. It isn’t a first choice, of course, but it’s a tremendously worthwhile and stimulating listen. Anyone who takes Mahler seriously should hear this and Naxos deserve our thanks for making this vivid performance available at a bargain price.

Recommended.     

John Quinn

see also Review by Em Marshall

 

 

 

 

 

 



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