For many music-lovers the name of the conductor Bruno Walter (1876-1962)
is synonymous with some of the most celebrated recordings of all
time. I specially cherish his recordings of Mahler, Mozart, Beethoven,
Bruckner, Dvořák and Brahms symphonies (the latter
especially the mono early 1950’s recordings with the NY
Philharmonic), and the classic Act 1 of Wagner’s Die
from 1935 featuring Lehmann, Melchior, List and
the VPO. Among his Mahler recordings I think particularly of the
First and Second symphonies with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra,
the 1952 Das Lied von der Erde
with Ferrier, Patzak, and
the Vienna Philharmonic and the 1938 live version of the 9th
symphony once again with the VPO. Walter was also a very fine
lieder piano accompanist especially for Kathleen Ferrier and Lotte
Lehmann; both recordings of their Frauenliebe und leben
song-cycle by Schumann are superb. However, Walter began his musical
journey as a composer just like Weingartner, Klemperer, Markevitch
and Furtwängler. Here we have the premiere recording of his
First Symphony in D minor (1907-09).
Walter’s compositional career more or less ceased after he met Mahler and especially after conducting the premiere of Das Lied von der Erde
(1911) and the 9th
symphony (1912) - two works that profoundly affected him and caused him to concentrate on the podium and on championing and disseminating Mahler’s music. Prior to listening to his First Symphony, the only piece of his that I was familiar with was his 1909 Violin Sonata (Talent Dom
; also recordings on Hyperion CDA67220 and on VAI 1155), a very romantic and stormy 35 minute work similar in temperament to the sonatas of late Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Korngold. Incidentally, in 1908, Walter lived in an apartment immediately downstairs from the Korngold family and most likely heard the young Erich practising upstairs. That sonata is certainly worthy of an occasional outing by violinists. Even though the symphony has a Mahlerian length (about 60 minutes), the music-world that it conjures up is uniquely Walter’s albeit with some influences from his contemporaries, including Mahler.
The first movement, Moderato
, immediately sets the dark and heroic tone of the work and at 20 minutes is the longest of the four. A majestic, stately theme played first by the strings reaches a Brucknerian orchestral crescendo at 1:30. The opening theme is transformed throughout the first movement and the overall mood is one of an approaching storm with ominous dark clouds and wind. A Mahlerian march-like theme is heard at 3:08 leading to a calm episode at 4:16 taken up mostly by strings and woodwinds. There are some parallels between this movement and some of the first movements of the middle-period Shostakovich and Mahler symphonies although the sound-world is much different. At 6:18, a fabulous and memorable six note heroic theme is first introduced by the strings. It is this theme that is developed until the end of the movement. The transformation of this theme by the various sections of the orchestra is one of the highlights of the symphony and reaches a fortissimo peak at 12:16 - similar to his mentor’s 2nd
symphony’s first movement. It reminded me of a meandering river going from a point bar to a cut bank yet keeping the flow steady! Finally the heroic theme is picked up by the horns at 18:13 leading it into a shattering coda. The haunting horn passages will remain with you after you have finished the symphony. This movement (as well as the entire symphony) does have some longueurs, but the whole is worth the journey. The music is troubling and tragic but at the end it will leave you drenched with post-romantic/early expressionistic angst.
The second movement, Adagio
starts with a dreamy, gently rocking passage for strings and woodwinds; there’s a leading part for the oboe. Once again, the theme is transformed with prominent parts for horns and flutes until a full orchestral forte is reached at 5:45. The strings intone the opening theme of the adagio and after further development a second fortissimo is reached at 8:30 followed by a beautiful and serene Strauss/Mahler/Bruckner type episode leading to a third forte at 10:45, after which the opening theme once again returns and takes us to the end of the movement.
Next is the Allegro con brio
which serves as the scherzo of the symphony. If somebody were to play this piece without saying a word, most music aficionados will shout Mahler. The movement is a sinister and macabre waltz, very similar to a ländler from one of the Wunderhorn
symphonies of Mahler. The waltz is interrupted by a very calm trio section at 3:19 with a very pastoral flavor; it could pass for one of the bucolic scenes from Das Knaben Wunderhorn
. The sinister waltz returns at 5:26 and the scherzo ends in a rousing finish. Berlioz would have approved of this march.
The finale, Agitato
, starts with a quasi-fugue like theme for strings and woodwinds leading to ominous whisperings by the orchestra until suddenly interrupted by a serene violin solo at 1:17. As the title suggests, the music has a menacing halo around it with all sorts of detours for solo instruments, Noteworthy is the rather melancholic tune played by the oboe first at 3:40, then taken up by the strings until 5:40. An exalted Wagnerian/Straussian orchestral peak is reached and a return to the opening of the symphony at around 7:07, followed by the menacing music that began the movement. A Berlioz/Mahler march-like tune surfaces at around 8:15 and until the end. The music undergoes various upheavals culminating in an orchestral forte with an ending not too far removed from Sibelius’s mighty 5th
I was impressed with this symphony and give very high marks to Walter the composer. It does have a Mahlerian length although the orchestra size is closer to Wagner. That said - with the exception of the 3rd
movement’s debt to Mahler’s 1st
Symphony - the sound-world that it conjures up is entirely Walter’s. I was surprised to find only marginal influences/references to Brahms, Dvořák, Schumann, Bruckner, Wagner, Reger and Richard Strauss, the composers who would have most likely influenced his musical development. Some of the passages in the symphony might remind listeners of works by Korngold, Schreker, Joseph Marx, Schmidt, Pfitzner, von Hausegger or the expressionistic music of early Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, but the symphony can stand tall on its own. Ultimately is a rather individual mix of Mahlerian post-romantic brooding and early expressionistic heroic angst woven entirely by Walter’s imagination.
I have the highest admiration and respect for maestro Leon Botstein
for undertaking this project. The notes indicate that he performed
the symphony first with his own American Symphony Orchestra in
New York in 2004 and later took it to Hamburg where the present
recording was made with the NDR Symphony Orchestra - Hamburg being
the city where Walter first met Mahler. ASO’s web
had the following statement that “
elicited thunderous applause at its premiere. Walter conducted
it once more, in Strasbourg on February 22, 1911, in a concert
arranged by Pfitzner. Tonight marks the first performance of the
Symphony in the United States and only the third performance of
the work in history.”
Surprisingly, Mahler was not
all that impressed with the score and it was due to Pfitzner’s
efforts that the work was premiered on February 6, 1909, in Vienna's
fabulous Grosser Musikvereinssaal.
The playing of the NDR is fabulous with ample tonal weight to the strings, transparent woodwinds, solid brass and thundering percussion. The recording is superb with clear separation of the orchestra (a mid-hall perspective) and the brass and percussion fortissimos clear and powerful. Perhaps we can now encourage Maestro Botstein to record the 1921 Eine Herbstsymphonie
[Autumn Symphony] of Joseph Marx, since he conducted the US Premiere in 2009. Maestro Botstein’s recording of Russian composer Gavril Popov’s fantastically tortuous 1st
symphony (1928) on the Telarc label is one of my favorite recordings. This will appeal strongly to all who cherish the symphonic world of the above composers. Listen to it a few times and soon you will be hooked into Walter’s world - those horn fanfares in the first movement! - and would want to come back to it often.