recordings all pre-date Bruno Walter’s emigration to the USA
and they are very well worth hearing.
of the Pastoral was included in the volume devoted to
Walter in EMI’s Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century
series. It boasts a joyous, delightfully fresh first movement.
Walter doesn’t take the exposition repeat but I don’t think
that’s a crucial issue on this occasion. He takes the second
movement at a pretty steady pace. This, it seems, is a view
of a brook on a warm summer’s afternoon. The music sounds easeful
and at ease with itself but it is most certainly not somnolent.
The music making is distinguished by smooth, graceful lines.
Despite the age of the recording the fine quality of the VPO
strings is readily apparent and the wind playing is most characterful,
especially when it comes to the bird song at the end of the
movement (11:00 in this reading.)
The third movement
is sagely paced: the speed is lively enough but there’s sufficient
steadiness to let the phrases breathe and register. The storm
is exciting and after the storm clouds have passed the Shepherd’s
Song simply glows. Walter shapes this part of the symphony beautifully,
just letting the music speak for itself yet guiding it unobtrusively.
The VPO responds keenly to what Ian Julier calls in his notes
the conductor’s “relaxed creative benevolence”.
The whole performance
is splendid and very satisfying. To quote Ian Julier again,
it is “both flexible and energised.” It comes up very well in
the transfer by Mark Obert-Thorn. I compared it with the afore-mentioned
EMI transfer, which sounded to me a little bit more rich and
warm. EMI have eliminated hiss whereas, in the interests of
clarity, I suspect, the Naxos transfer retains a slight, but
not distracting amount of surface noise. The Naxos sound is
a bit more clear than the EMI effort. I have a very slight preference
for the extra warmth of the EMI version but other listeners
may feel that this warmth comes at the cost of a certain tubbiness
in the bass. I doubt anyone purchasing this Naxos release will
find the transfer anything less than fully satisfactory.
And that’s true
of the four overtures that fill out this generous CD. These
are far more than “fillers”. Leonora No. 3 is dramatic
and taut and is captured in sound that is really quite amazing,
given that the recording was made almost seventy years ago to
the day as I write this. The coda in particular is thrilling
and exultant. Fidelio was set down exactly two years
earlier to the day. There’s some more fine playing in evidence
here, this time from the fairly new BBC Symphony Orchestra and
Walter directs them with great purpose. I’ve long thought that
this Coriolan is one of the most trenchant performances
of this gaunt piece that I know, the ending being particularly
bleak. The oldest performance on the disc is The Creatures
of Prometheus, recorded in May 1930 but this reading is
neither disgraced sonically nor in terms of the playing from
the British Symphony Orchestra.
There’s some very
fine and understanding Beethoven conducting to savour on this
CD. I warmly recommend it.