Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Eine Faust-Ouvertüre [11:53]
Siegfried Idyll [17:01]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No 1 in D major [47:27]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. Studio 8H, Radio City, New York, 8 April 1939
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1241 [77:25]

The very interesting booklet note by Mark Kluge that accompanies this CD focuses quite strongly on the relationship between Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini. They first met in 1929 and the relationship seems to have been one of mutual regard and respect. One product of the relationship was an invitation to Walter to conduct a series of concerts with Toscanini’s newly-formed NBC Symphony Orchestra. Walter led five programmes with the orchestra in March and April 1939 and this disc gives us the opportunity to hear the last of these programmes.

At its heart is a tense and often fiery performance of Mahler’s First Symphony. I’ve long admired Walter’s 1961 studio recording of the work with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra and readers are referred to Tony Duggan’s synoptic survey for more detailed comment. However, whilst I most certainly won’t discard that fine, mature reading I think this 1939 live version adds a different dimension. Walter was in his eighties by the time he set down his final thoughts on the symphony in 1961. At the time of this 1939 reading he was in his early sixties and he combined maturity with, arguably, greater dynamism than in his last years. Although, as I’ve commented many times before, timings don’t necessarily tell the whole story, it is interesting to compare the two sets of timings:

1939 1961

I 11:55 13:21
II 6:09 6:50
III 11:19 11:23
IV 18:04 20:22

Total 47:27 51:56

The table suggests that Walter is significantly more spacious in his treatment of the first and last movements in 1961 as compared to 1939. I don’t necessarily suggest that one approach is ‘better’ than the other but it’s fascinating to compare and contrast.

Let’s consider here the 1939 reading. At the start of I Walter creates tension and a sense of space in the introduction. Later, he imparts a fresh and outdoor feel to the main body of the music. One important point to remember is that the NBC Symphony Orchestra was a very young ensemble at this time and Mark Kluge indicates that the orchestra would not have played this work before. Notwithstanding that, the playing sounds idiomatic and the impression is conveyed that the band was completely familiar with the music

The start of II is very strongly delineated. Indeed, some listeners may feel the music sounds a bit aggressive. My suspicion is that this is due to the closeness of the sound in Studio 8H. However, the music making is urgent and dynamic and that’s certainly down to Walter and his players – and I like it. I also like the way Walter imparts a beguiling lilt to the trio. In III the playing is, once again, very responsive and sounds completely idiomatic – note the use of portamento. One has the impression that though the orchestra may have been collectively new to Mahler’s First they had been schooled in it by a master. From 5:49 onwards the ‘Lindenbaum’ episode sounds seductive and refined.

The finale erupts. Walter and his players achieve a fiery, dramatic opening which must have rocked the audience back in their seats – in 1961 Walter was also very fine at this point and his performance is presented in much better sound, of course, but his 1961 interpretation is somewhat broader and the 1939 traversal has an animal energy and greater thrust and it’s enormously compelling. The players respond with great commitment. This is real edge-of-the-seat stuff and, indeed, at around 2:00 the music momentarily threatens to run away with itself. But it’s not all about raw energy: the great D flat melody (from 3:01) is beautifully judged – Walter plays it with warmth and breadth but skilfully maintains momentum. When the maelstrom of the opening is revisited (6:10) the performance has tremendous drive and Walter’s audible encouragement to the players can be heard. The calmer waters between 10:00 and 13:36 provide an atmospheric period of repose and then there’s excitement and grandeur in the concluding few minutes. This highly dramatic reading of the finale caps a memorable account of the symphony as a whole.

The remainder of the programme is devoted to Wagner. The Faust Overture isn’t a piece that really excites me but Walter gives a taut reading. Mark Kluge points out that the only studio recording that Walter made of the piece was an acoustic one way back in 1923 so this New York account is a valuable entry into the conductor’s discography. Kluge describes Walter’s interpretation of Siegfried Idyll as ‘tender yet flowing’ and I certainly can’t improve on that. Walter conveys the lyricism and open-heartedness of the piece and gets refined and intimate playing from the orchestra.

This is an important issue for admirers of this great conductor. The audio side inevitably has some limitations, as one would expect given that the performances took place over seventy years ago. However, the sound is pretty decent and has been transferred well by Aaron Z Snyder. It’s wonderful to find this example of Walter’s artistry speaking powerfully to us seventy-two years later. The documentation is well up to the high – and thoughtful – standards of this label.

John Quinn

A fine example of Bruno Walter’s artistry speaking powerfully seven decades later.