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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888-1894)
Maria Stader (soprano); Maureen Forrester (contralto)
The Westminster Choir
New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. 17 February 1957, Carnegie Hall, New York. ADD
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1199 [79:47]
Experience Classicsonline

Bruno Walter’s CBS/Sony recording of the ‘Resurrection’ symphony has been one of the top recommendations for the work for the last five decades, no mean achievement. However, this performance, newly issued on CD by Music & Arts will be of great interest to Mahler devotees, and especially to those who esteem Walter highly as a Mahler conductor. Its relationship to that long-available commercial recording is interesting and worthy of comment. In relating the background I shall draw on Mark Kluge’s exceptionally thorough and very interesting booklet note for Music & Arts.
 
In October 1956 Bruno Walter had announced his intention to withdraw from regular guest conducting commitments with the New York Philharmonic. By the time this particular concert came to be given he was eighty years old and clearly felt the time had come to wind down a little. The concert of 17 February 1957, which formed a live afternoon broadcast on CBS, consisted solely of the Mahler symphony. Linked to it were recording sessions, during which Walter set down the fourth and fifth movements of the symphony. He also undertook various other symphonic and operatic conducting commitments in New York around this time but on March 9 he suffered a heart attack. His convalescence took some time and it wasn’t until February 1958 – on 17 and 21 February to be exact – that he completed the recording of ‘Resurrection’, by setting down the first three movements.
 
Collectors who have the CBS/Sony recording in their collection may be surprised by the above details as I was myself when I received the Music & Arts CD, for in the Sony booklet the dates of that recording are given as 17, 18 and 21 February 1958. However, Mark Kluge has kindly confirmed to me that the dates he cites in his note are collaborated by the online Walter discography, which supplements the biography of Walter by Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechevsky (Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere. Yale University Press, 2001) It would appear that Sony made a simple – and understandable mistake – by assuming that Walter had been in the studio on three days in the same year. This may appear a small point but it’s very interesting to find that the sessions for this famous recording were split not just over a period of a year but bisected by a life-threatening illness.
 
Having said all that, I must say that over the years I have listened to the CBS/Sony in blissful ignorance of the fact that it was not all recorded in the space of a few days. And, even armed with this new knowledge, I still think the studio recording is a fine one and – more importantly in this context – a consistent one.
 
In the section of his magisterial survey of the Mahler Symphonies on CD devoted to this symphony Tony Duggan, while expressing some intellectual reservations about Walter’s conception of the work, rates his studio recording highly, describing it as “always required listening”. Similarly I’d rate Tony’s description of the recorded performance itself as “required reading.” Really there’s little that I can usefully add to his description of the way the symphony unfolds in Walter’s hands and if you aren’t familiar with Walter’s interpretation and want an excellent guide to it then I refer you to Tony’s comments.
 
Much of what he says about the studio reading applies to this concert traversal also since, as you’d expect, any interpretative differences are fairly minor and any such points of difference surely arose in the heat of the moment during the live rendition. Mark Kluge draws attention to some differences in his notes though these may not be a major issue for most collectors. That said, I don’t think it’s too fanciful to suggest that there’s more than a degree of greater electricity in the live performance. No doubt Walter and his players drew inspiration from the presence of an audience and from the sheer sense of occasion. It’s a great compliment to Walter’s musicianship that his studio recording feels like a complete performance but we know that this Music & Arts CD contains a single complete performance and there is a definite sense of sweep and of cumulative force. One of the most remarkable things is that an eighty year old man was capable of sustaining the intensity and drama of this most theatrical of symphonies. The studio sessions would have offered him some respite but here, on the concert platform, apart from a pause between the first and second movements (though not the five minutes suggested by Mahler), there was no chance for a break.
 
I feel there’s more sense of drama in the live account, especially in the great funeral march that constitutes the first movement and in the huge fresco of the finale. There are one or two slight slips in the playing in the course of the live performance, but these are very isolated and in no way detract from the excellence of the performance as a whole. The last fifteen minutes, in particular, pack much more of a punch in this live version as the performers seem to strain at the leash. Small wonder that the New York audience responds enthusiastically at the end.
 
One important difference between the studio and concert recordings concerns the soprano soloist. Maria Stader sang in the concert performance but, presumably for contractual reasons, she was replaced by Emilia Cundari when the studio sessions took place. Both sopranos are good but I have a slight preference for Stader’s admirably clear tones. Maureen Forrester graces both recordings.
 
As for the recorded sound, well both recordings took place in the same venue, Carnegie Hall, though during the studio sessions the hall would have been empty apart from the performers and the recording team. As you might expect, there’s a bit more detail in the studio recording and there was more opportunity to balance the sound. Mark Kluge makes a very interesting observation that the “soundstage representation [on the studio set] however seems overly wide, not an uncommon situation with early stereo recordings.” He’s also of the opinion that the studio sound imparts some shrillness to the violins and has the horns and trombones set a little backwardly. If you don’t insist on state of the art hi-fi sound then I think you’ll find the sound offered by Music & Arts perfectly acceptable.
 
In terms of presentation the new release scores over its CBS/Sony rival in a few ways. Firstly it’s contained on one CD, so that a disc change isn’t required, as is the case with the Sony release. On the other hand, the Music & Arts disc contains inadequately short gaps between the first two movements and between the second and third movements so one really needs to use the pause button. A key advantage of the Music & Arts release lies in the documentation. Neither set offers the texts of the vocal sections. However, Mark Kluge’s detailed and excellent booklet essay is meticulously researched and very readable and is to be preferred to the Sony notes, though those are pretty good.
 
To sum up, if you already have the CBS/Sony CD set then you can probably rest content – and you’ll have the not insignificant bonus of Walter’s 1961 recording of the First Symphony and his 1960 recording, with Mildred Miller, of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – all in all, a very desirable package. However, on balance I’d recommend this Music & Arts release as the best way to experience Walter’s interpretation of ‘Resurrection’. It’s a more dramatic, dynamic and involving account than his studio version. Furthermore, though this wouldn’t be a reason for recommending it were the performance itself not good, it constitutes a small piece of musical history for this CD preserves for us what I believe was the last complete performance of the work by the man who was a direct link to Mahler himself.
 
John Quinn
 

 


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