Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Coriolan Overture [7:52] (1)
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
The Water Carrier Overture [10:08] (2)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Manfred Overture [10:24] (3)
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
The Hebrides Overture [9:25] (4)
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
A Faust Overture [12:53] (5)
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Benvenuto Cellini Overture [11:12] (6)
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. 1 August 1923 (1, 4, 5). 1 January 1924 (2, 6), 1 March 1925 (3), location not given (if known)
Transferred and re-mastered by Ward Marston
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 his romanticism”.
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.
Christopher Howell
Completists’ interest will be strengthened by the fact that, of all the pieces here, the conductor made later studio recordings of only the Beethoven.e