One might as well
borrow from Mahler’s First and title this 13 CD box the Titan.
It enshrines some of Walter’s Mahler, Bruckner and Wagnerian
recordings for CBS so we have the 1961 stereo First, and the
New York Second, Fourth and Fifth (the latter two in mono).
The Ninth is the famous stereo recording. All are or have been
available in multiple transfers over the years, as have the
song cycles and the Bruckner symphonies (with the Columbia Symphony)
and Te Deum (New York). Similarly the Wagner Overtures, Preludes
and the like are much-loved staples of the CBS back catalogue.
All are presented here in Sony’s Original Jacket edition, with
their miniaturised LP jacket sleeves evoking bygone days.
are so well known that specific comment seems unnecessary in
a review of this kind. One should note in passing however that
the Mahler 1 is in some ways superior to the earlier NY Phil
recording of 1954. True there’s not the string weight that we
find in the first commercial recording and Walter’s second theme
(movement 1) verges on the arch but the trio is especially fine
and his handling of the elfin waltz in the Scherzo is superb.
The heart of his triumph is the slow movement, a complete reconciliation
of its elements, and a must-hear for Mahlerians. The finale
is quite measured, more so than 1954 but what it may lack in
electricity is compensated for in terms of granitic truthfulness.
His Second has the same kind of breadth and in the first movement,
at least, a degree of restraint as well. There is a grace to
his music making and a cultivation of wide dynamic variations
that gives his handling of the Symphony weight and cumulative
power. If, in the last resort, I feel about his finale the same
way I feel of the finale of Mahler 1 – that it’s too stinting
of the coruscating and the dramatic – then nothing should diminish
from the overall achievement; the conception remains true to
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
here is 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. These recordings were last available
on Sony Classic Recordings 515301-2, a two CD set with sonically
improved transfer, using original lacquers, which are used here
association with the Ninth, of which he’d given the premiere
in 1912, was profound. His live 1938 Vienna performance is a
touch tauter, its conception realised with just that much more
intensity, at least in the first three movements. But this 1961
recording scores very highly nonetheless in its realisation
of tension building and tempo correlation of long stretches
of music; these are subsumed into an impressive, convincing
and ultimately stoic reading and one entirely in the great lineage
of Walter’s Mahler recordings. Mildred Miller’s Lieder eines
fahrenden Gesellen is very warmly played and thoroughly accomplished
– if not, ultimately, fully characterised vocally speaking,
or at least not by the very highest standards.
Though he may remembered
less for his Bruckner this symphonic trio shows his strengths.
The Fourth is poetic and flexible and notably well balanced
internally by Walter even if the strings do sound a little lacking
in weight in the tuttis from time to time. With fine textures
guaranteed and Walter’s acute perception in matters of pacing
the only thing lacking – for some – is a final degree of heft.
The Seventh is a sovereign example of symphonic control and
makes one appreciate even more Walter’s interview comments on
the composer, which are presented in an appendix (in fact he’s
heard in two interviews and both are sage, valuable and rewarding
documents). What I miss in his Seventh though is a degree of
smoothness in the slow movement; this is taken at a very flowing
and forward moving tempo; there’s little or no digging into
the string or expressive indulgence. As a result the climax
isn’t as overwhelming as it can – and arguably should – be;
no cymbal clash of course in this edition. These considerations
seem to me comprehensively resolved in his Ninth, and what is
probably the greatest of his Bruckner recordings. Once more
there isn’t the tumult and the powerful sinew that others bring
to it; in Walter’s hands we hear instead the powerful nobility
and essential humanity of it. Textures are once more clear and
rather aerated and the symphonic structure is detailed with
especial care and clarity. In the finale we have an overwhelming
grandeur without hysteria, which seems to be Walter’s greatest
characteristic, emotively speaking, in Bruckner. The 1953 Te
Deum was recorded in New York. Whilst the soloists are good
they’re not outstanding; that accolade belongs to the conductor
whose sure sense of pacing and dramatic unity are crowned by
a truly dramatic peroration.
In the light of
these heavy symphonic utterances the Wagner items might seem
to be makeweights. Not so. These are microcosms of great Wagner
conducting - of which the Parsifal extracts are wonderfully
conceived and the Tannhäuser full of evocative drama. Not one
is less than magnificent and that goes for the playing as well.
The big booklet
is tri-lingual – English, German and French – which can get
a little unwieldy in the way the text is laid out but there
are also some fine photographs and full recording details and
they more than compensate. In fact consolidated box sets rarely
come more eloquent than this and the very competitive price
should ensure that Walter’s humane voice is heard anew.