WALTER conducts Mozart: The Pre-War Recordings (1928-38) - PASC564

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WALTER conducts Mozart: The Pre-War Recordings (1928-38) - PASC564

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Overview

MOZART Symphony Nos. 38 – 41
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 20
MOZART Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
MOZART Requiem
MOZART Overtures and Dances

Studio Recordings, 1928 – 1938
Total Duration: 3hr 43:44

Elisabeth Schumann, soprano
Kerstin Thorborg, mezzo-soprano
Anton Dermota, tenor
Alexander Kipnis, bass

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra et al
conducted by Bruno Walter

This set contains the following albums:

The present set brings together nearly all of Bruno Walter’s pre-war recordings of Mozart, including his unissued-on-78-rpm world première recording of the Requiem. It duplicates all the works contained on the 1991 EMI Références 3-CD set, and adds two recordings from the 1920s omitted there: the overture to Die Zauberflöte and the Symphony No. 40. The only items not included here are those which have already appeared on Pristine releases: two acoustic Polydor overture recordings (Così fan tutte and Idomeneo, reissued on PASC 142) and earlier electric versions of the overture to Le nozze di Figaro and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (PASC 492).

In an era which boasted such notable Mozart interpreters as Sir Thomas Beecham, Arturo Toscanini and Fritz Busch, Bruno Walter stood out for his distinctive approach, one which combined energy and forward momentum with warmth and heartfelt affection. Walter’s Mozart was a Romantic-era creation: he would often slow the tempo at the introduction of a second subject; insert an extra beat before the Trio section of a Minuet; and vary his tempi and dynamic levels to make an interpretive point, even if nothing was explicitly indicated in the score. (Listen, for example, to the last movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – straightforward on paper but with so many personal touches in performance).

Two items here merit particular note. The first is Walter’s recording of Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto, K. 466, with the conductor also performing the solo part. This was done at a time when it was even less common for conductors to double as soloists than it is today. Walter’s original intent was to be a concert pianist, a goal which changed the first time he heard a performance of Tristan und Isolde. But he continued to play privately, and occasionally in public as an accompanist to lieder singers. As late as the 1950s, Pablo Casals lamented that Walter had not kept up his playing, as he thought him “a very great pianist”. In this performance, if not “great”, Walter proves at least a very capable and sensitive interpreter, and one who was able to get the Vienna Philharmonic to play like chamber music collaborators.

The other noteworthy performance is the live recording of the Requiem, made when the Philharmonic was on tour during the 1937 Paris Exposition. Its distinction lies not so much in its execution, which by all accounts is rather variable (Walter himself rejected the recording, citing “a trombone solo being not clear” and some “false” singing by the solo quartet), but in its primacy as the first complete recording of the work, as well as a chance to hear such legendary singers as Elisabeth Schumann and Alexander Kipnis.

For the first time here, the original recording made by French HMV on fifteen 78 rpm sides can be heard absolutely complete, from the opening applause onward, with no cuts shortening the time between movements except that between the Lacrimosa and Domine Jesu. On the original recording, there is more than four minutes of audience noise during which Walter (and perhaps the soloists as well) apparently left the stage, then returned to thunderous applause. This portion has been edited out in the present transfer.

All of the issued Vienna recordings were transferred from pre-war US Victor “Gold” label pressings except for the first side of the German Dances, which came from a British HMV copy because the Victor release used a dubbed side. The Requiem was transferred from vinyl 78 rpm test pressings. The Columbias came from American “Viva-Tonal” (Zauberflöte Overture) and “Royal Blue” ( Nozze di Figaro Overture) pressings. The Symphony No. 40 was originally recorded at a very low volume level. As a result, when the volume was increased for this transfer, the surface noise was also increased. I used here an early laminated English Columbia copy, as it proved to be less problematic than the more rumble-prone US Columbia “Royal Blue” shellac pressings.

Mark Obert-Thorn

BRUNO WALTER conducts MOZART: The Pre-War Recordings

Symphony Nos. 38 – 41
Piano Concerto No. 20
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Requiem
Overtures and Dances

Studio Recordings ∙ 1928 – 1938


CD 1 (73:11)

1. MOZART Die Zauberflöte, K. 620 – Overture (6:45)

Mozart Festival Orchestra
Recorded 14 June 1928 in Paris
Matrices: WAX 3841-1 & 3842-1 ∙ Columbia L 2549


2. MOZART Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492 – Overture (4:08)

British Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 15 April 1932 in Central Hall, Westminster
Matrix: CAX 6387-2 ∙ Columbia LX 232


3. MOZART La Clemenza di Tito, K. 621 – Overture (4:19)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 15 January 1938 in the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna
Matrix: 2VH 7047-2 ∙ HMV DB 6032


4. MOZART La finta giardiniera, K. 196 – Overture (2:14)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 15 January 1938 in the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna
Matrix: 2VH 7048-2A ∙ HMV DB 6032


MOZART Three German Dances , K. 605
5. No. 1 in D major (1:30)
6. No. 2 in G major (1:27)
7. No. 3 in C major (“Sleigh Ride”) (2:38)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 5 May 1937 in the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna
Matrix: 0VH 277-1A & 278-1A ∙ HMV DA 1570


MOZART Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466
8. 1st Mvt. – Allegro (Cadenza: Reinecke) (13:21)
9. 2nd Mvt. – Romance (7:59)
10. 3rd Mvt. – Rondo (Allegro assai) (Cadenza: Reinecke) (6:17)

Bruno Walter (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Recorded 7 May 1937 in the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna
Matrix: 2VH 285-1, 286-1, 287-1A, 288-1, 289-1A, 290-2, 291-2A & 292-2A ∙ HMV DB 3273/6


MOZART Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504, “Prague”
11. 1st Mvt. – Adagio – Allegro (9:30)
12. 2nd. Mvt. – Andante (8:51)
13. 3rd. Mvt. – Finale (Presto) (4:09)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 16 December 1936 in the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna
Matrices: 2VH 238-2, 239-3, 240-2, 241-2A, 242-2 & 244-1 ∙ HMV DB 3112/4


CD 2 (76:12)

MOZART Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K. 543
1. 1st Mvt. – Adagio – Allegro (8:59)
2. 2nd Mvt. – Andante con moto (8:53)
3. 3rd Mvt. – Menuetto (Allegretto) & Trio (4:03)
4. 4th Mvt. – Finale (Allegro) (3:45)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 21 May 1934 in Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London
Matrices: 2B 6949-2, 6950-2, 6951-2, 6952-1, 6953-1 & 6954-2 ∙ HMV DB 2258/60


MOZART Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
5. 1st. Mvt. – Allegro molto – Andante (6:19)
6. 2nd Mvt. – Andante (8:27)
7. 3rd Mvt. – Menuetto (Allegretto) & Trio (4:09)
8. 4th Mvt – Finale (Allegro assai) (4:15)

Berlin State Orchestra
Recorded 10 January 1929 in the Beethovensaal, Berlin
Matrices: WAX 4570-2, 4571-1, 4572-2, 4573-2, 4574-1 & 4575-1 ∙ Columbia DX 31/3


MOZART Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551, “Jupiter”
9. 1st Mvt. – Allegro vivace (8:05)
10. 2nd Mvt. – Andante cantabile (8:11)
11. 3rd. Mvt. – Menuetto (Allegretto) & Trio (4:31)
12. 4th Mvt. – Molto Allegro (6:34)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 10 January 1938 in the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna
Matrices: 2VH 7020-1A, 7021-1A, 7022-1A, 7023-1, 7024-1, 7025-2A & 7026-2A ∙ HMV DB 3428/31


CD 3 (74:26)

MOZART Serenade No. 13 in G major, K. 525, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”
1. 1st Mvt. – Allegro (4:12)
2. 2nd Mvt. – Romanze (Andante) (4:35)
3. 3rd Mvt. – Menuetto (Allegro) & Trio (2:07)
4. 4th Mvt. – Rondo (Allegro) (4:09)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 17 December 1936 in the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna
Matrices: 2VH 234/7 (All Take 1) ∙ HMV DB 3075/6


MOZART Requiem in D minor, K. 626
5. Applause (0:44)
6. I. Introitus: Requiem aeternam (5:48)
7. II. Kyrie Eleison (3:28)

III. Sequenz
8. Dies Irae (1:47)
9. Tuba Mirum (4:04)
10. Rex Tremendae (2:28)
11. Recordare (6:31)
12. Confutatis (3:04)
13. Lacrimosa (3:31)

IV. Offertorium
14. Domine Jesu (4:58)
15. Hostias (6:05)

16. V. Sanctus (1:50)
17. VI. Benedictus (5:14)
18. VII. Agnus Dei (3:24)
19. VIII. Communio: Lux aeterna (6:26)

Elisabeth Schumann (soprano)
Kerstin Thorborg (mezzo-soprano)
Anton Dermota (tenor)

Alexander Kipnis (bass)

Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Recorded during the performance of 29 June 1937 in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris
Matrices: 2LA 2005/19 (All Take 1) ∙ Unissued on 78 rpm

Bruno Walter conductor


Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn

Special thanks to Nathan Brown, Ward Marston and Charles Niss for providing source material

Total Duration: 3hr 43:44

Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor

“The solo work [in the first movement] is workmanlike, strong in passage work, well balanced and planned in the light of the orchestral interplay as one would expect of this conductor, and as is keenly necessary in a work so closely knit between the two parties, who are entirely happy in consort. The pianism, whilst not lacking delicacy, is of a forthright expository kind that fills out well in recorded quality, even if a run here and there is not quite faultless. Unfortunately, the cadenzas by ‘Reinicke’ (presumably Reinecke) are used. The mood of the first movement is quite dissipated by the sentimental touch . . .

“The slow movement simply wants a clear sensitive setting forth of the piano theme, with a still more tender accompaniment, and that we get. It is a pleasure to hear the soloist’s gentle, masculinely persuasive style . . . The orchestra’s wood-wind in this movement is especially gracious and expressively tender . . .

“The pianism [in the finale] is rather more of a conductor’s brand, showing some signs of little inequalities the overcoming of which calls for so many thousand hours of almost spirit-breaking practice: one reason why the finest pianists are so rare . . .

“A strong, clean, sensible recording, in which perhaps the orchestra has the best presentation. The performance is sufficiently taut for most tastes . . .”

W.R.A. in Gramophone, October, 1938


Symphony No. 41 in C major, “Jupiter”

“I have long lived in hope of finding a recording that makes the finale of this work sound as big as the notes look. I have heard it so in the concert room, but not even (I venture to say) in Beecham’s fine recording . . .

“The recording seeks that large, lucid brightness which we have come to expect from Vienna. It adds a familiar super-shine that I cannot quite so greatly take to, but if ever music could stand a high polish and strong sunlight (not limelight), it is this. The playing shines equally, in accomplishment, so you are sure of a good time . . .

“In the slow movement, I admire the beautiful balance the band secures in the light scoring . . . This remarkably spacious movement . . . has all manner of instrumental attractions, which could not, I think, be more graciously deployed than here. It never lags, never loses serenity. The minuet, alternately, resounds with the best Vienna pomp . . . The finale is all martial clamour – a wee bit too much at moments, in this reverberation period. But the playing is always sharp as a sword, and surely directed by a master-at-arms . . . There is a tensity and yet controlled freedom about the playing that pleases me. The music pulls not by sudden shock, but partly by accumulation of the sense of immense resource and partly by a steady hurling of implacable themes. It has an almost hypnotic quality. The triumphant drive of it is unforgettable.”

W.R.A. in Gramophone, March, 1938

Fanfare magazine review

This discographic landmark warrants my highest possible recommendation

Bruno Walter remains acknowledged as one of the leading Mozartians of the early-to-mid 20th century. (To place my own cards on the table, I would unreservedly say he was the supreme Mozartian of the entire century.) The recordings collected here are generally quite famous, and most of them have been issued multiple times on CD on various labels. Yet, until now, virtually all of those issues have been cruelly disappointing affairs. Depending on which sound engineer applied ham-handed butchery with reprocessing software, top frequencies have been shorn off altogether, bottom ones pumped up into sonic mud, and/or the mid-range slathered over with artificial reverberation. Or, on the opposite end of the scale, labels such as Pearl and Opus Kura have issued unprocessed transcriptions of the original 78-rpm discs with enough surface noise, hiss, and crackle to drive Rice Krispies out of the breakfast cereal market. The only exceptions were on Japanese EMI LPs from the 1970s (a number of which I still own and treasure), which were laudable for the exquisite quality of the vinyl as well as the meticulous care taken with the transfers, and a long out-of-print four-CD set on Lys of Walter’s pre-war electrical recordings of Mozart and Haydn, which provided solid though not exceptional transfers (but first-rate documentation) and did not include the live Requiem offered here. (I also wish to correct a statement I made in a review back in 37:5—on what basis I no longer recall—that the Lys transfer of the Symphony No. 40 is flat. Obert-Thorn is meticulous in matters of correct pitching as well as other matters, and the timings for the older Lys transfer and his are identical.)

Thankfully, the sonic drought for these recordings is now at an end. Mark Obert-Thorn is justly famed for the elite quality of his remasterings, but this may well be his finest work on anything to date. Sonically, the results here have far exceeded my fondest hopes and even wildest dreams for what might be possible with them. For all but a couple of older items, surfaces and background noise are almost whisper-quiet, yet with absolutely no impairment of frequency ranges or dynamics. On the contrary: These performances now virtually leap out of the speakers with all sorts of harmonics, inner voicings, and instrumental colors now appearing with astonishingly vibrant presence and brilliance. The results are nothing less than transformative, not only sonically but also in terms of re-evaluating recordings that seemed thrice familiar but now emerge in an entirely new light.

Obert-Thorn has arranged these works in optimal order to fit them onto three well-filled CDs. The first disc opens with the four overtures, followed by the Three German Dances, and then the Piano Concerto No. 20 and Symphony No. 38. The second disc contains the other three symphonies, and the third disc the Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Requiem. The only electrical recording not included here is the previous 1931 recording of Eine kleine Nachtmusik with the British Symphony, which Pristine Audio previously issued along with all of Walter’s acoustical recordings (see my review of that back in 40:6). The Overture to Die Zauberflöte that opens this set is the oldest recording featured here, dating from 1928. The Columbia disc has some extra surface noise and is a bit dull-sounding, but that does not inhibit the grandeur and gravity (free from all ponderousness) of Walter’s conception from coming through, with the tang of the French instrumentalists adding some piquant color. The Figaro Overture from 1932, as with virtually all of Walter’s studio and live accounts of this piece, bristles with febrile energy at a brisk pace. But the real musical gold, both sonic and interpretive, comes with the series of Vienna Philharmonic recordings that follows, made between December 1936 and January 1938. The Overture to La clemenza could serve as an object lesson to modern HIP performances for pointed clarity, precisely chiseled phrasing, and depth of emotional expression. That to La finta giardiniera is utterly charming—it’s hard to believing that less than two months later the Nazis were marching down the streets of Vienna and Walter was a displaced exile—as are the Three German Dances, served up with a glorious dollop of Schlagsahne on top. While all the other works in this set have multiple representations in Walter’s discography, these are the only recordings we have by him of these two overtures.

The Piano Concerto No. 20 occupied a special place in Walter’s repertoire. Originally, before he elected to make his career as a conductor, Walter intended to become a concert pianist. Although his podium duties precluded much regular practice, Walter maintained his keyboard skills enough to accompany some of his favorite singers (Elisabeth Schumann, Lotte Lehmann, and Kathleen Ferrier) in concert and the studio. This concerto was the one such work he kept in his personal repertoire; in addition to this studio recording there survives a live performance with the NBC Symphony from 1939, plus performances from 1950 and 1956 with Walter conducting the New York Philharmonic and Rudolf Firkušný and Myra Hess as the respective soloists. If Walter as a pianist does not command the subtle insights of those two keyboard masters, his is nonetheless a very satisfying account—cleanly executed, light and transparent in texture, straightforward and unfussy in interpretation. It is of particular value not only as a document of Walter the pianist, but also for the completely sympathetic collaboration with the Vienna Philharmonic, which gives the results a special cachet. On the third CD, the Eine kleine Nachtmusik has rightly long been recognized as one of Walter’s finest achievements in the studio, utterly winsome and gracious if more full-bodied in texture than current HIP accounts.

Of the recordings of the four symphonies, those from Vienna of Nos. 38 and 41 predictably take pride of place. Walter essentially owned the “Prague” Symphony—as far as I’m concerned, he still does—and this is an especially glorious rendition, radiating warmth and geniality from every bar. The opening Adagio-Andante flows effortlessly from initial ceremonial pomp to scurrying bustle; the middle Andante is a miracle of grace; the concluding Presto charms with elegant energy. Heretofore my favorite Walter account of this score has been a live performance from 1956 with the New York Philharmonic, with a frenetic finale that is almost incendiary, but now I’m not sure that this does not supplant it. The “Jupiter” likewise evinces ebullient spirits throughout; if the finale does not have the magisterial grandeur of Walter’s stereo account with the Columbia Symphony, it still beguiles with incomparable elegance, and the lighter tread in the first three movements puts it well ahead of its stereo successor in those. If the Symphony No. 39 with the BBC Symphony does not quite match its Viennese sisters for elegance and charm (and the recorded sound from 1934 is a shade less warm, particularly in the higher frequencies), it is still a notable, stylish account in every way, at its best in the finale. It lacks only the sweetness of the Austrian strings, and an absolute echt feel for Mozart’s music.

The recording of the Symphony No. 40—along with the Overture to Die Zauberflöte one of the two lesser-known items in this set—is the least felicitous performance presented here. Recorded by Columbia in January 1929, it suffers from intractably dull recorded sound and noisy shellac surfaces. Also, the work was one that Walter had added to his personal repertoire only three years earlier, at age 50; before then, he had felt too much reverence for the score to attempt to conduct it. Consequently the interpretation, while it has all the basic outlines of his numerous subsequent live and studio accounts (the best being the 1953 Columbia recording with the New York Philharmonic), does not quite have the “lived-in” feel of the other works performed here, and feels a bit careful and cautious.

This live 1937 performance of the Requiem, given at the Paris International Exposition, is one that I hitherto had written off as one of the great disappointments in the Walter discography; it had comes across as suffocatingly ponderous, with all the soloists but Dermota being badly off form. Walter himself had rejected its planned commercial release, and it was not published intact until the CD era (though EMI belatedly issued it on LP in 1986). But with access to an extremely rare set of vinyl 78-rpm test pressings, to which he has applied his remastering wizardry, Obert-Thorn here has miraculously transmuted sonic water into aural wine. The entire performance has far more presence, with many previously muffled instrumental and choral lines now coming through clearly. Though still weighty, it now moves with inexorable momentum instead of plodding along with sluggish torpor. Perhaps the most radical improvement, however, comes with the solo voices. Elisabeth Schumann, who previously had seemed fragile and wan, now has justice done to her radiant, uniquely pure, flute-like soprano. While Alexander Kipnis remains too bullish in his solo entrance at the Tuba mirum (and both he and the solo trombonist have intonation issues there), after that he too is now heard to far greater advantage and flattering effect. Anton Dermota remains a prince of Mozart tenors, as before, and the single most beautiful aspect of this performance. Only Kerstin Thorborg seems off form here, or perhaps out of her proper Wagnerian Fach; she sounds somewhat hard-toned and a bit ungainly, and does not blend well with the other quartet members, though hers is still obviously a major voice. If for various reasons this is not a first choice for a Mozart Requiem even among Walter’s versions—that honor goes to the live 1956 performances in its stellar refurbishment by Richard Caniell at Immortal Performances (reviewed by Henry Fogel in 41:4)—it is now quite estimable in its own right, and at last justifies its niche in the conductor’s discography.

In sum, this set is a triumph on every level—a veritable object lesson in Mozartean style as well as the art of sound restoration. It should be acquired not only by all devotees of historic performances, but by all lovers of Mozart’s music, even if they normally do not listen to recordings of such vintage. My one regret is that my 2019 Want List is already so overflowing with candidates (a good 20 or more) that I’m not sure I will be able to fit this set into that category. But whether it appears there or not—it certainly deserves to!—this discographic landmark warrants my highest possible recommendation.


James A. Altena


This article originally appeared in Issue 43:1 (Sept/Oct 2019) of Fanfare Magazine.