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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 - Adagietto [7:56]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor [69:43]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. 15 January 1938 (Adagietto); live, 16 January 1938 (Symphony No. 9)
OPUS KURA OPK2121 [78:22]

Bruno Walter’s 1938 recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was first issued by Opus Kura in 2006. It is now newly reissued, billed as a ‘2017 Remaster’, this time with the addition of a 1938 studio performance of the Adagietto from the composer’s Fifth. The live performance of the Symphony, dated 16 January 1938, is now out of copyright and in the public domain and has, over the years seen several incarnations attesting to its ‘iconic’ status. Naxos Historical, EMI Références and Great Artists of The Century, Pristine Audio and Dutton have all been in on the act. The latter, in their Essential Archive series, I purchased in 1996 when it was first issued. The other transfers I’ve never heard, so am unable to offer a comparison.

The historical background and context to this very special recorded document merit some comment. Fred Gaisberg, HMV’s chief producer, persuaded his bosses to embark on this live venture with Walter, the direct link with Mahler. He had premiered the work in 1912, a year after the composer’s death, and became its ardent champion over the next decades.  Bruno Walter (1876-1962) was born in Berlin and trained at the city’s Stern Conservatory. In the early days of his career he also gravitated towards Munich and Leipzig. This all came to an abrupt end when Hitler came to power in 1933. The Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies forced Walter, a Jew, to flee to Austria. He spent the next few years in Vienna as artistic director of the Vienna State Opera and frequently conducted the orchestra, under its concert-hall title Vienna Philharmonic. He remained in this situation until 1938, when he was uprooted once again, moving to France and from there to America, where he spent the rest of his life.

The recording was made at a concert in the Musikvereinssaal and was preceded by five rehearsals, during which microphone positions could be decided. The concert itself turned out to be the swansong of the old Vienna Philharmonic, set down on the eve of the Nazis’ annexation on Austria.

In approaching this recording allowances must be made for its age and provenance, and one has to overlook the bronchial interjections of the audience. Compared with modern recordings, there’s also a limited frequency range.  Having said that, Walter coaxes incandescent playing from the Vienna Philharmonic, the burning intensity of the music emerging from the white heat generated by the live event. The reading is more brisk and less polished than the later account he set down in 1962, but this earlier airing is, I feel, more penetrating in plumbing the work’s emotional range and depths.

Doing a head to head comparison between Opus Kura’s latest transfer and the Dutton version which I have, I much prefer the former. K. Yasuhara’s non-interventionist re-masterings sound much fresher and more vibrant. Their source is pristine US-Victors.

Tully Potter’s accompanying annotations state that the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony was recorded three days later. This contradicts the date given on the back tray and in the Bruno Walter discography which I consulted, where the date given is 15 January 1938, a day before the Ninth concert. The single movement was made in studio conditions. Walter achieves a sense of unfolding narrative throughout and builds up the climax with glowing intensity.

Booklet notes are in Japanese and English, with English track listings and timings.

Stephen Greenbank



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