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Pristine Classical

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-1902)
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Bruno Walter
rec. 10 February 1947, Carnegie Hall, New York
32-bit XR re-master by Andrew Rose, July 2012-March 2013. Original 78rpm release Columbia MM718

Even if you’re not a fan of historic recordings you simply have to make an exception where Bruno Walter’s Mahler is concerned. His Vienna Ninth, made in the shadow of the Anschluss, is mandatory listening. Although I’ve never been entirely persuaded by his Das Lied von der Erde with Ferrier and Patzak (1952) it should be on your shelves as well.
John Quinn spoke in glowing terms of Walter’s Columbia Symphony Orchestra First and Ninth from 1961, also remastered by Andrew Rose, although he was equivocal about the sonic gains of Pristine’s XR process (review). Certainly some audiophiles feel Rose is too interventionist, and as this is the first Pristine release to come my way I’m curious to hear if these criticisms are warranted.
First impressions are entirely positive; the opening fanfare is as seismic as ever and there’s a sense of ‘air’ around the orchestra that one seldom hears in recordings of this vintage. Plucked lower strings are full and warm, and the cymbals have just enough sizzle. Walter’s speeds are on the brisk side, but then he’s always had a clear-eyed - even purposeful - approach to these scores that’s very refreshing after the expressive liberties taken by more recent interpreters. The orchestral playing is good too, even if the timps sound like steel drums at times, and Walter judges the ebb and flow of the Trauermarsch very well indeed.
The emphatic start to the Stürmisch bewegt ushers in a crisp and propulsive reading of the second movement; perhaps rhythms aren’t as yielding as some, but they’re never less than beguiling. One of the advantages of this re-mastering is that the bass has little of the diffusing ‘boom’ one usually hears in 78rpm direct-to-disc recordings. Indeed, the entire aural spectrum emerges with surprising naturalness and rare character; if added realism and a wonderfully unfatiguing sound are what critics don’t like about Rose’s ‘interventionist’ methods then I’d suggest they’re very much mistaken. Just sample those glorious paroxysms at the close of the second movement, for they are rendered with uncommon thrill, clarity and splendour.
Forgive me if I spend less time on the performance - a given in this case - and more on the sonics, but then the USP of these remasters is that they offer a more rewarding experience for the listener. The skittish Scherzo has real sparkle - there are no qualms about rhythms here - and Mahler’s orchestral colours are well caught. If, like me, you are easily distressed by wiry strings you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the much silkier sounds on offer here. True, the depth of the soundstage is rather limited - even Rose’s wizardry can’t conceal that - but such is the level of detail that this matters not a jot.
Walter’s Adagietto is warm, with a nicely sustained line, and while this love music lacks the gossamer lightness and tonal lustre that modern recording techniques can provide it’s still very satisfying. For the first time the massed strings are a little steely and the bass verges on the cavernous, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker. As for the Rondo - Finale it’s quick and surefooted, although it’s not as trenchant as modern rivals. Then again, that’s never been Walter’s way; that said, the oft-quoted kindliness and gentle mien of this iconic figure result in performances that won’t always please those used to the big, hard-hitting Mahler style to which we’ve become accustomed. Still, few could quibble with Walter’s grandeur and thrust in the symphony’s closing pages.
I’m most impressed by this Pristine re-master - you would never guess it was a lowly 78rpm original - and I just wish more historical recordings were this painstakingly done. Couple ear-friendly sonic gains with the convenience of downloadable mp3s, 16- and 24-bit FLACs - the latter with full orchestral scores - and this Pristine issue becomes very desirable indeed.
A mandatory Mahler Fifth superbly re-mastered; don’t miss.
Dan Morgan  

Masterwork Index: Mahler 5