Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 4 in E flat, Romantic [58:03]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No 35 in D, K 385, Haffner* [16:48]
Symphony No 9 in D minor** [52:30]
NBC Symphony Orchestra, *New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, **Philadelphia Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. live, 10 February, 1940, Studio 8-H, NBC Radio City, New York; *6 February 1944, Carnegie Hall, New York; **28 February 1948, Academy of Music, Philadelphia
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1262 [59:10 + 68:22]
In his extensive booklet note for this set Mark Kluge quotes from a 1948 letter written by Bruno Walter in which he says “It will interest you that I conduct Bruckner annually here in America”. The conductor specifically mentions leading past Bruckner performances in Boston and New York and that he was about to take Bruckner to Philadelphia - the performance included in this set. This was adventurous programming in those days when the Bruckner symphonies were far less frequently performed than is the case today.
The earliest performance included here is the Fourth symphony. I find it fascinating because there’s so much urgency in the conducting - at times almost uncomfortably so - to my ears. It’s interesting to read Mark Kluge’s comment that this performance “is entirely in character with Walter’s other recorded performances of this composer prior to 1959”. It’s a very long time indeed since I listened to Walter’s Columbia Symphony Orchestra traversal of this symphony, which I used to have on LP - currently available on CD as Sony Classical Originals 88697806152. However, I rather suspect that recording was made after Mr Kluge’s watershed date of 1959 and though my memory may well be fallible after so many years I don’t recall that Walter interpretation as being urgent. Indeed, it may be significant that its current CD incarnation spreads over 2 CDs with the Tännhauser Overture and Venusberg Music completing the set. I wonder if this is an instance of Walter’s “mellowing” towards the end of his career.
As I say, this 1940 performance, in which Walter uses the 1888 version of the score, is often urgent. The scherzo is very fiery - I can’t recall hearing such a hell-for-leather pacing of the hunting horn material. It’s very exciting though perhaps just a little too fast, though the orchestra articulates the music expertly. The trio, however, is appropriately leisurely. I especially admire Walter’s reading of the second movement. The thematic material is not the most memorable in Bruckner and needs an expert hand to mould it; that happens here. In one or two passages Walter moves the music on surprisingly swiftly; one such instance is the bars from 12:11 onwards leading up to the main climax, yet when that climax is reached (12:35) Walter makes it very broad and majestic.
I’m a bit more equivocal about the outer movements. The first movement finds Walter pressing the tempo at several points and personally I prefer a bit more breadth. However, one must acknowledge Walter’s direct connections to the Viennese tradition where memories of Bruckner would have been very vivid - the composer had, by then, been dead less than fifty years. In forming such a flexible view of the music Walter is well served by the NBC Symphony players. I doubt this music can have been too familiar to them yet Mark Kluge rightly draws attention to the “extremely plastic execution” of the music, which confirms the rapport between orchestra and conductor. There’s much to admire in the finale even if I’m not always comfortable with the several very urgent passages. The fortissimo tutti between 10:32 and 11:53 is thrilling even if, to my taste, the timpani are rather obtrusive. The recording isn’t bad at all considering not only that it’s over 70 years old but also that it emanates from Studio 8-H. That said, the recording is somewhat taxed by the great brass unison passage at 1:07. Walter handles the closing peroration superbly, building it up from a mysterious start at 16:09. This is, in summary, a pretty impressive performance of the symphony.
The Haffner symphony performance, previously unpublished, is worth hearing. I didn’t have access to a score but so far as I can tell Walter is pretty sparing with repeats. There’s often a quite pronounced bass line; this is ‘big band’ Mozart. Despite the use of what sounds like a fairly large orchestra Walter conducts with energy and he gets lift in the phrasing. Be prepared for an extremely spirited dash for the finishing line at the end of the first movement (from 4:47). The second movement is gracefully done and the lighter scoring here means that the recorded sound is particularly pleasing. The minuet is very definitely taken at three beats in a bar while the finale is full of energy. Overall, this is a good performance of the symphony from a conductor who was justly famed for his Mozart.
Music & Arts have already issued two live performances by Walter of Bruckner’s 9th. One was given in 1946 (CD-1110) and the other in February 1957 (CD-1212). Both performances were with the New York Philharmonic. I’ve not heard either of those but this Philadelphia account is very impressive. Walter must have been something of a trailblazer in programming this work for, apparently, this was the first time the orchestra had played it - I don’t think Stokowski was a Bruckner man. Apparently, the warm reception for the Ninth encouraged Ormandy subsequently to programme both the Seventh and this symphony in Philadelphia. Walter uses the 1932 Critical Edition made by Alfred Orel for the Internationale Bruckner-Gesellschaft though, apparently, he added a few re-touchings of his own. The recording is not at all bad and, even more than sixty years later, one can savour the brass tone of the Philadelphians and, especially, the richness of the string choir. The first movement unfolds majestically and Walter is equally successful in conveying both the passages of grandeur and those in which Bruckner strikes a lyrical vein. The playing is very good though one notices an over-eager entry by a brass player at 20:41. Walter generates excellent momentum in the scherzo, which is splendidly articulated by the players. The trio is light and lithe.
Despite a few brief passages (for example 7:40 - 7:45) in which I feel the tempo is pressed just a little too much, Walter’s conception of the finale is hugely impressive. Sadly, the Wagner tubas’ initial contributions are somewhat fallible but they improve as time goes on and, thankfully, they’re fine by the time the closing pages are reached. In fact the brass section as a whole falter just occasionally in the finale; perhaps by now they were tiring. However, any momentary lapses in the playing can’t detract from a tremendous interpretation by Walter and it has to be said that in his authoritative hands Philadelphia’s first experience of this symphony could not have been more auspicious. This account of the Ninth is the highlight of the set.
This is an important issue. Aaron Z. Snyder has done a fine job with these new restorations. These are performances which Bruckner enthusiasts and Bruno Walter’s legion of admirers will want to hear.
Performances which Bruckner enthusiasts and Bruno Walter’s admirers will want to hear.
Masterwork Index: Symphony 4 ~~ Symphony 9