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Bruno WALTER (1876-1962)
Violin Sonata in A major (1908)
Piano Quintet in F sharp minor (1904)
Ekaterina Frolova (violin), Mari Sato (piano) (sonata)
Patrick Vida, Lydia Peherstorfer (violins), Sybille Häusle (viola), Stefanie Huber (cello), Le Liu (piano) (quintet)
rec. Joseph Haydn Hall, Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst, Vienna, 10 May 2013 (sonata); 17 December 2012 (quintet)
NAXOS 8.573351 [59:26]

Bruno Walter (Schlesinger) was, of course, best known as one of the greatest conductors of the first half of the last century and a champion of the music of his friend, Gustav Mahler. Like so many musicians who become conductors, however, he was also a composer – at least until about 1910 - and his compositions include: two symphonies and a Symphonic Fantasia, incidental music for Hofmannstahl’s adaptation of Sophocles’ “King Oedipus”, and numerous songs and choral works. There is also some chamber music: a String Quartet in D major, a Piano Trio - and the Piano Quintet in F and Violin Sonata in A recorded here. Following Walter’s death his daughter offered her father’s papers to the University of Music and the Performing Arts in Vienna and we should be grateful to members of the staff for their sterling efforts in preparing the scores and organising performances and recordings.

Despite his triumphs as a conductor Walter's personal life had its share of disappointment and tragedy. That his compositions remained pretty well unknown after their early performances was apparently a particular source of sadness to him. In fact, it is only fairly recently that they have started to be given any modern attention, although opinions as to their merits seem to be divided. CPO recorded the First Symphony and, judging by the very favourable MWI review (review) this considerable work conjured up a sound world that was entirely Walter’s - in spite of occasional Mahlerian influences. Another reviewer commented, however, that it sounded like “proto-Berg with its murky chromatic harmony and exciting, if overloaded, climaxes”. (If you wish to judge for yourself there is also a recording of it available on YouTube.) The music on the present disc (the only two of Walter’s chamber works music for which we still have the complete scores) also has the occasional Mahlerian influence but the worlds of Reger, Pfitzner and, to some extent, Richard Strauss are rather more evident than Berg, at least to my ears. What is also evident is the probable reason the works failed to make their way into the chamber music repertoire - but we’ll come to that.

Walter’s three-movement Violin Sonata from 1908 is placed first on the disc. It was written for his friend Arnold Rosé (leader of the Vienna Philharmonic and the famous Rosé Quartet) and it turned out to be Walter’s final chamber music composition and the only one to be published during his lifetime. According to the booklet notes the violin part is very difficult and the piece makes technical demands on both players although, to my ear, the difficulties are not obvious - at least in these hands. After an arresting opening the first movement Allegro con expressione settles down to Straussian musings. The following Andante Serioso has a tango-like theme that is, perhaps, the most memorable of the piece. The booklet notes that the score of this movement is full of changing indications of mood (“serioso, misterioso, lugubre, dolcissimo, impetuoso”, etc.) but these are not particularly discernible and the music seems to meander in a similar vein throughout. The final Moderato movement could have done with a faster tune for contrast. The whole sonata is very listenable and is complex enough to be moderately interesting but, ultimately, it lacks the memorable characteristics of, say, the Strauss sonata.

I should say that the comments above reflect no adverse criticism of the musicians, who give us a very intelligent performance with no technical shortcomings to distract the ear. The violinist has a lovely, bright tone and she is supported by a fine pianist. The recording is excellent, with just the right halo of atmosphere. Apparently the sonata has been recorded before (in 1997 on VAI vaia #1155) but I can find no trace of this recording to provide a comparison. That said, I doubt that the present performance will be bettered.

The Quintet is in four movements and, although it opens with a theme that could be related to the opening of Brahms’ Op 36 Sextet, we are again in the sound world of Reger, Pfitzner and Strauss. It’s all very pleasant stuff although, as with the sonata, I found it rather failed to grab my attention. The first movement soon belies its marking (“Mit groß Energie”) and meanders with the composer seeming to want to pick musical daisies. The second movement (“Ruhig und heiter”) struck me as somewhat agitated rather than being calm and serene but I still had a job spotting what is referred to as the “fiery central section”. The third movement (“Geheimnisvoll bewegt”) is ländler-like with shades of Mahler and portamento is employed in a Mahlerian style to make some phrases droop. The music of the final movement is episodic and, even on a second hearing, somewhat without structure. Despite being marked “Feurig” it is only intermittently and vaguely fiery. As for the booklet’s comment that this movement “brings the quintet to a brilliant conclusion”, “brilliant” is not a word that I would have employed here and this could be a description of a different work. The piece threatens to finish several times before finally coming to an end rather unexpectedly.

Despite a tendency towards matter-of-factness in the first movement I found this set of musicians excellent and they sound as if they are interpreting the score faithfully – with any shortcomings seemingly the fault of the composer rather than of the ensemble. The recording is decent – if slightly less so than that of the sonata, with performers set back from the plane of the speakers and slightly more reverberation than would be ideal, although it is very acceptable.

So here is yet another capable composer labouring in the generation after Brahms and his ilk, producing some varied and listenable music but, like so many others, failing to make a mark. I suppose it is asking a lot that this small body of compositions should exhibit real originality but the lack of obviously coherent structures or the sense of direction, purpose or atmosphere that typifies much great music is probably what consigns it to the also-ran category. At any rate, if this all sounds like damning with faint praise, I enjoyed this budget disc (especially for the performances) and I shall return to it. It comes as no surprise, however, that Walter is remembered as a conductor rather than as a composer.

Bob Stevenson

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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