Bruno Walter was one of several artists whose career stretched
into the stereo era, with the result that listeners and record
companies alike have taken the easy option of judging them by
their late work. The general opinion seems to be that Walter
is better known by his New York recordings from the early post-war
years and his 78s from the 1930s with the Vienna Philharmonic.
According to John Holmes (Conductors, Gollancz 1988),
Walter made his first record in Berlin in 1900. This information
is also repeated in Wikipedia. If true, the recording in question
would predate by a few years the earliest known (and surviving)
orchestral recording. The assertion derives, it would seem,
from a very late interview in which Walter was asked when he
made his first recording. He hesitated a moment, then replied
“1900, in Berlin. Music from Carmen”. Walter did actually hold
a conducting appointment in Berlin in 1900, so it is very faintly
possible that he conducted some sort of experimental recording,
long since lost. However, since the 1923 Berlin sessions represented
here – his earliest recordings known to us – also included Carmen
extracts, it is infinitely more likely that the elderly maestro
was just confusing times and places.
The Berlin series begun in 1923 is therefore assumed to mark
the start of Walter’s recording career. By this time he was
in his late forties and already had almost thirty years’ conducting
experience behind him.
Transferred and re-mastered by Ward Marston, these recordings
sound about as good here as they ever will, but an hour’s worth
of such shallow, husky sound inevitably tires the ear. So what
do they tell us about Walter?
Compared with his later image of saintliness and humane patience,
he is here a pretty volatile conductor, whipping things up to
a frenzy when the music gives him half an opportunity. As far
as one can tell, he evokes potent atmospheres in the slow introductions
to the Cherubini and Schumann pieces.
This is all to the good, but his vagaries of pulse can be disconcerting.
After a good, forceful start, the second theme of Coriolan is
introduced by a whacking ritardando and the theme itself proceeds
rather lugubriously. The Mendelssohn overture might seem more
amenable to this sort of treatment, but somehow it appears to
have one climax too many if the overall shape is not kept in
sight. This seems to me a rather different matter from Furtwängler’s
flexible pulse which nevertheless derives from a firm control
with the result that the listener – or most listeners – can
flex back and forward with it.
In a 1939 review of Walter’s London concerts, Neville Cardus
recalled that “A few years ago a performance of Zauberflöte,
conducted by Walter in Salzburg, was so sentimental and flaccid
in rhythm that I was obliged to leave it half-way through, with
many others” (Cardus: The Delights of Music, Gollancz
1966). By 1939, Cardus noted, he had “hardened or disciplined
It would be unfair to describe the present performances as “sentimental
and flaccid”, but the Beethoven and to some extent the Mendelssohn
do point up the difference between a flexible pulse à la
Furtwängler and a pulse that gets lost in the trees. As I suggested
at the beginning, Walter seems to have found the ideal combination
of tough driving and yielding romanticism in the period from
the late 1930s to the early 1950s.
A disc for Walter completists, really. Their interest will be
strengthened by the fact that, of all the pieces here, the conductor
made later studio recordings of only the Beethoven, though live
recordings seem to survive, some in private hands, of all but
the Cherubini. Something of a curiosity is the Berlioz, lively
and songful but so lacking in Berliozian extravaganza as to
sound rather like Lehár.