These 1942 performances are making their first commercial release.
That in itself should be a matter for celebration, but the fact
that the executant and interpretative mark is set so high should
cause even ardent Walter admirers, who think they have this
repertoire covered, to reappraise the situation.
I was very interested to read that Victor Records had planned
to record Bruno Walter conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony during
his stint with the New York Philharmonic- Symphony Orchestra
in early 1933. Unfortunately the plan fell through. After Otto
Klemperer’s performance in 1935 the orchestra was not to play
the work again until the performance disinterred here by Music
& Arts. The sonics are inevitably faded, although Aaron
Z Snyder has done his usual excellent job. But whatever the
question of sonics, this in no way limits the overwhelming intensity
of this performance and the exceptionally high standard of the
NYPSO’s playing. Nadine Conner is the mezzo, Mona Paulee the
mezzo and the Westminster Choir, one of America’s very finest
at the time, sings in English. As a performance it is significantly
more intense and visceral than Walter’s later 1957/58 LP and
shows no signs of any sentimentalised vision, a critical view
that still clings to Walter’s Mahler conducting in some quarters.
As with most musicians Walter was not an unchanging, unresponsive
recreative artist: circumstances, new orchestras, personal events,
his own health, all impinged in some way. How else does one
explain the significant divergent aesthetic responses given
some fifteen years apart?
One senses from the start that the architectural imperatives
of the music will not be imperilled in this reading; there is
true seriousness of symphonic purpose in this performance. Walter
willed a 90 second pause after this first movement — shorter
than Mahler’s 5 minute instruction, but a lot more faithful
than most. In this transfer that minute and a half has been
reduced to 39 seconds. The music is driven quite hard in places
but never breathlessly; the players invariably have time to
articulate. Both singers contribute materially to the success
of the performance and the chorus blazes intensely, abetted
by the Carnegie Hall organ.
The companion symphony is the First, recorded live on 25 October
1942. The orchestra had played the work a year and a half earlier
under Mitropoulos. Music & Arts has already released Walter’s
NBC reading from 1939 [CD-1241] where he did have to teach the
orchestra the work as they’d never played it. Given that fact,
the results were impressive but they rather pale into, if not
insignificance, then at least relief when confronted by this
overwhelming NYPSO performance. Again, what may surprise listeners
is Walter’s sense of directionality, the rhythmic vitality that
launches Mahler’s writing so viscerally. He certainly characterises
what he called Mahler’s ‘eruptive forces’ with genuine tension
and not a little element of headlong despair in places. This
is a more-than-worthy adjunct to Walter’s studio recording of
1954. Indeed in terms of volatility and a cutting away of excess,
it is very largely its superior. Only if the sonic question
detains you, should you prefer that tamer later reading, though
there are, or were, at least eight preserved Walter performances
of this symphony now on CD.
With an excellent booklet note and those Snyder restorations
these are major finds, ones that have been brought to fruition
with great care and thought.