WALTER Mahler: Symphonies 1 & 9 (1961) - PASC376

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WALTER Mahler: Symphonies 1 & 9 (1961) - PASC376

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MAHLER Symphony No. 9
MAHLER Symphony No. 1

Recorded in stereo 1961
Total duration: 2hr 14:48

Columbia Symphony Orchestra
Bruno Walter

This set contains the following albums:

Bruno Walter's classic stereo Mahler symphonies in hugely improved sound quality

"...a superb, definitive realisation of the work, in interpretation, performance..." - The Gramophone

As with a number of recordings of this era, I approached this classic, some would say definitive historic document with a degree of trepidation. Once again I had to ask myself whether I could bring any significant improvement to the sound quality to justify my own efforts - and achieve something sufficient to persuade those who already know the recording well that it's worth hearing afresh.

Mahler's 6th Symphony was once famously dismissed as "Brass, lots of brass, incredibly much brass! Even more brass, nothing but brass!", yet here I would point the listener first to the brass to hear what dramatic sound improvements have been made. Gone is the dim, veiled sound of even the most recent "official" Sony CD issues, to be replaced by an openness and clarity that lets these instruments shine through as never before. Suddenly the whole sound of the original recordings sounds cluttered and constricted by comparison.

Listen next to the very low end, the depths of bass which underpin the orchestra, the growling rumbled of double basses and low percussion that seem almost absent in the original - they were there all along, just waiting to be found and returned to audibility. A monumental work such as the Ninth requires a monumental sound - and now this monumental recording has it.

Coupling it with the First beings together Walter's two stereo Columbia Symphony Mahler recordings, surely now sounding as fine as any ever recorded.

Andrew Rose

  • MAHLER Symphony No. 9 in D major
  • MAHLER Symphony No. 1 in D major "TITAN"

    Columbia Symphony Orchestra
    Bruno Walter conductor

    Symphony No. 9 (82:08)
    Recorded 16 January 1961
    American Legion Hall, Hollywood, USA
    First issued as Columbia M2S 676

    Symphony No. 1 (52:39)
    Recorded 14/21 January & 4/6 February 1961
    American Legion Hall, Hollywood, USA
    First issued as Columbia MS 6394

XR remastering by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio, January 2013
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Bruno Walter

Total duration: 2hr 14:48

REVIEW Symphony No. 9

Mahler's Ninth Symphony, his last completed work, and undoubtedly his consummate achievement, was presented to the world in Vienna in 1912, the year after his death, by his disciple Bruno Walter. For those who understood Mahler (few enough at that time), it seemed to sum up, not only the soaring aspirations and despairs of this tormented genius himself, but those of a whole civilisation - the pre-1914 world of Vienna and the rest of Europe. And when Vienna fell to the Nazis, one of the last performances given there by Walter, before he left, eventually to settle in the U.S.A., was of the same work; and this, perpetuated by HMV in the form of a 20-side 78 rpm recording - the first ever made of the work - seemed more than ever to be an appropriate memorial to a glorious and irrecoverable past, not least in the imperfections inseparable from a recorded concert performance, which were felt to be part and parcel of a poignant historic occasion . And now it is once more fitting that the eighty-five-year-old Bruno Walter should have rounded off his life's work with a recording of the Ninth which is a superb, definitive realisation of the work, in interpretation, performance, and recorded sound alike.

But even more than looking to the past, and to Vienna, this recording impinges powerfully on the present and the future, and on the world at large. In my experience, this is the first time the full significance of Mahler's Ninth has been revealed; and listening to this performance, with the new understanding gained from our ever-growing familiarity with Mahler's life's work, one realises how far this extraordinary music transcends period and place, and stands revealed as a timeless masterpiece, a tremendous feat of creative imagination and technical mastery, down to the last detail.

Walter has been accused of sentimentalising Mahler, playing up his Viennese charm and haunting nostalgia, and playing down his biting sarcasm and bitter irony; but this opinion will not hold water, as is shown by the present performance. Admittedly, judging from the fascinating "Talking Portrait" on the accompanying bonus disc - a recorded interview with Arnold Michaelis - Walter would seem to have had a closer affinity with Bruckner, and to have taken a rather rosy view of the content of Mahler's music: "In each of his symphonies Mahler was seeking God." This is only half the truth; but we also hear him say how much the "demonic" element in Mahler meant to him. This was no doubt a largely subconscious affinity, since he does not dwell on it; and we notice from the equally fascinating "Working Portrait" on the other side of the bonus disc - snippets from the orchestral rehearsals for the record - that he did not 'interpret' Mahler to the players, but was content to secure perfection of playing. But that the affinity with every aspect of Mahler was there is obvious from the intensity of the performance, achieved, as he himself says, by the "occult power" by which a conductor communicates his feeling of the music to the players, and through them to the audience.

In comparison with Horenstein's largely fine performance and Ludwig's mainly misconceived one, Walter's fundamental superiority lies in his masterly tempo and rhythm - always broad enough to carry the great weight of the expression, but never drawn out for rhetoric to the point of breaking continuity. The vast span of the opening Andante comodo, presenting a life-and-death conflict, offers the most difficult problem, in its appearance of sprawling diffuseness. Ludwig, no doubt afraid that it can only sag if taken at a true andante, achieves flow by a continual pressing forward, which sadly minimises the music's majesty, drama, and depth of expression. Horenstein, splendidly broad, dramatic, and expressive, loses the flow at times; in particular, he so emphatically holds back for each appearance of the big exultant theme (first heard just before fig. 6), that he defeats his own object, failing to make these essential main pillars of the whole structure register clearly for what they are. But Walter unifies in one single unbroken flow the poignant lyricism of the main melody, the anguished agitation of the contrasting material, the full-blooded surge of the big exultant theme, the cataclysmic climax, and the shadowy disintegration of the coda. He leaves one in no doubt that this is one of the most superbly planned and executed large-scale symphonic movements in existence.

In the horrifying negative vision of the two central movements, which pillory the soulless emptiness of the modern age, Walter's affinity with Mahler's "demonic" element is undeniable. The whole point of the second movement is its alternation of dry parodies of popular dance-music - a medium tempo Ländler and a quick waltz - with a genuinely nostalgic slow Ländler. This is entirely missed by Ludwig, who whips away at the start with an impossibly quick waltz-tempo, and treats the whole thing as a jolly affair. Horenstein makes all the points clearly, but rather overdoes the 'clumsiness' asked for by Mahler to the extent of dragging the music in places and getting some rough playing from the strings. Walter prefers to let the music speak for itself: the tempi, and their integration into one another, are dead right; and there is plenty of subtle irony in the phrasing, so that the parodies are no less parodIes for being played as expertly as the genuine article. Moreover, he brings such ineffable beauty to the slow Ländler that the rest of the movement is set off vividly in its true garish colours .

No conductor can fail to make a powerful impact with the fast and frenzied contrapuntal uproar of the Rondo-Burleske; but whereas Ludwig sees only the physical excitement of the music, Horenstein and Walter bl'ing out superbly the livid 'to hell with everything' mood of the movement. Walter makes the music snap and snarl no less viciously than Horenstein, and he also achieves a virtuoso precision and greater impact in many details-notably the sudden fantastic outburst of fury when the main material first returns after the trio-section .

The Adagio-Finale's 'farewell to life' is for many people the outstanding movement of the work - the ultimate musical expression of heartbreak. Here Ludwig rises more nobly to the occasion with a deeply felt performance; but Horenstein again outdoes him in intensity, even if his extremely slow tempo makes the music almost burst at the seams here and there. Where Walter rises above both is in bringing out the other element in the music - the passionate joy in being alive, which is inextricably woven with grief in the noble chorale-melody, and only yields at the very end. Again it is a matter of tempo and rhythm: at a true adagio, and no slower, and with great weight of expression, and no more, he moves the music relentlessly forward until it at last slows down of its own accord and fades into silence.

What we must be just as thankful for is that this realisation of the work's full stature was not obscured by any deficiencies of engineering. The extracts from the orchestral rehearsals are introduced by the Music Director of American Columbia, John McClure, who describes with justifiable pride the concentrated effort which went into the technical side of the achievement. The absolutely lifelike reproduction of every strand of Mahler's complex texture, even in the loudest tutti passages, is an extraordinary feat of recording technique; and whereas Ludwig's performance sounds persistently remote, and Horenstein's persistently close, the present issue has a wide dynamic range, rising from a really hushed pianissimo to a really full-blooded fortissimo. Those with stereo equipment are especially lucky, for the unusually vivid separation will enable them to savour Mahler's fantastically intricate web of criss-crossing counterpoints to the full.

Deryck Cooke, The Gramophone, September 1962


REVIEW Symphony No. 9

[Mono issue review]
It is no doubt understandable that Bruno Walter, for one of his last recordings, should have chosen this work, for it was the first piece of Mahler that he ever heard, and he fell in love with it at first hearing. But all the same, one wishes that he had chosen the Third, Sixth, or Seventh, since he never recorded these at all, whereas he had already made a very fine recording of the First - the Philips issue listed above. Of course, this is also a fine performance, as we should only expect, and being different from the earlier one, it allows the Mahler-lover the fascinating experience of studying Waiter's changing approach to the music; but I feel that I shall personally stick to his earlier recording. There are certain gains here; the first movement works up to a much more gripping culmination, owing to a rather steadier tempo at figure 26 and a consequently more far-reaching accelerando to the end of the movement. Also the trio of the Scherzo is taken a shade more deliberately with a considerable deepening of the expression, and the two different sections of 'popular' music in the Funeral March are well differentiated by the adoption of a slightly quicker tempo for the second one (this drags a little on the earlier record).

However, there are also certain losses which for me outweigh the gains. The rhythm of the Funeral March is nowhere near as steady and relentless as in the previous version, and in the trio-section (which Walter originally handled with utter simplicity, as indicated by Mahler) the tempo changes all the time in the interests of an extra expressiveness which I find makes the music less moving instead of more. Another strange thing is that at the end of the Scherzo, each time, Walter no longer carries out the accelerando marked by Mahler; this may help the horns to cope with their murderous task, but it takes a great deal of excitement out of the music. But it is in the finale that the greatest difference lies. I particularly admired Walter's previous recording for the really fast tempo he adopted for the main stormy music - he was the only conductor who made the stream of quavers on .the strings sound like the wind howling, not like a fussy chattering of separate notes. But here he has broadened considerably, and although this allows him to get great weight into the music, it gives the violin line just that fussy effect which spoils all the other conductors' performances. Also, it takes the wildness of youth out of the music, and replaces it with the mature Mahler of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies; this music is surely one headlong mad rush or nothing. The whole movement is treated more deliberately, in fact, and although this makes for a really tremendous culmination, it means that the Funeral March has had to be split across two sides - the only case of this happening in any recording of the symphony. This is a large price to pay for the rather dubious expansion of the finale, and is the chief reason why I prefer to stick to my old recording.

The sound in mono is fine, and is superior to that of the earlier Philips record in that there is a greater perspective, which makes the strings much more mellow; but on the other hand the Philips gives a clearer account of the extremely important first trumpet, which is rather too backward on the CBS disc. I still await the stereo version.


[Stereo issue review]
At last the stereo version of Mahler's First Symphony that we've been waiting for - a really lifelike recording which takes the heaviest climaxes without flinching. I was less enthusiastic about the mono last month because the performance as such by no means replaces Walter's own earlier mono version, but it is of sufficient stature to dwarf all competitors in the stereo field. Apart from the same slight deficiency as in the mono - a rather too reticent treatment of the important first trumpet part - the only snag is that the third movement is split across the two sides.

Deryck Cooke, The Gramophone, March 1962 (mono) & April 1962 (stereo)

Fanfare Review

For the first time, I can listen to this performance with real pleasure, rather than a somewhat grudging sense of obligation

Here we have a brace of remasterings by Andrew Rose of several of Bruno Walter’s legendary Mahler symphony recordings; only the monaural New York Philharmonic versions of the First and Fourth symphonies are not included. The results are mixed, with no clear pattern of superiority or deficiency emerging.

In the case of the First and the Ninth symphonies, I compared this Pristine issue against Sony’s 1994 “Bruno Walter Edition” issue; the recent 24 bit remasterings in the seven-CD set of all of Walter’s Mahler recordings for Columbia (see the Classical Hall of Fame review by Christopher Abbott in 35:6), and Japanese Blu-spec issues (once again kindly lent to me by friend and Fanfare subscriber Bob Alps). In the case of the First, I had two different Blu-spec discs available to me, one pressed on gold rather than aluminum, with the more expensive metallic base advertised as providing more enhanced sound. I found virtually no difference between the two domestic issues on the one hand, and the two Japanese issues on the other. Between those two pairs, the preference is probably more subjective than objective. The Japanese versions are mastered at a higher level, so that they have a more immediate presence; however, that brings with it more background noise (particularly hiss in the high treble frequencies) and a slightly less well defined (albeit more powerful) bass register. The domestic versions have a bit less punch, but have whisper-quiet backgrounds and crisper (if less thunderous) bass. Where the Japanese versions score points are in passages such as the opening of the scherzo of the First, in which the unison lower strings have more oomph and color without sacrificing clarity.

How do the Pristine remasterings stack up against this competition? Given that Rose works from LP copies instead of master tapes, remarkably well, but in the end his issue of the First takes a very honorable third place. His sound palette falls about midway between the domestic and Japanese Sony issues. He manages to create a sense of slightly more body than in the domestic Sony discs, but not as much as in the Japanese ones; but in so doing he loses some of the clarity of the bass lines in the domestic versions without gaining all the compensating power of the Japanese ones. It also simply sounds too artificial at times; the opening of the scherzo is again a key indicator, as the lower strings have an unnatural ambience that makes them sound both more distant and less distinct. Furthermore, there is a slight but audible low-frequency rumble from the LP present in the Pristine remastering that afflicts none of its rivals. Rather than striking a happy medium between two extremes, he gets only part of the strengths of each side, along with part of the weaknesses as well. I for one would prefer either end of the spectrum to the middle. I wish that Rose had devoted his attentions instead to Walter’s monaural 1954 New York Philharmonic recording, which might well have yielded far more promising results.

By contrast, the Pristine transfer of the Ninth is far more competitive, and arguably even the one of choice. Once again, Sony’s domestic and Japanese issues present contrasting polarities of remastering philosophies. In this instance, however, the Japanese effort is a major miscalculation, with overbearing high frequency tape hiss and extremely unpleasant harshness in the upper registers. (Did the folks at Opus Kura temporarily hijack Sony in Japan?) By contrast, the domestic issues in the 1994 Bruno Walter Edition and the 2012 24-bit remastering (again, no real difference between them) present an honest, clear sound portrait with minimal tape hiss, and just a touch of the clinically antiseptic lack of definition that sometimes has been the disadvantage of the digital medium. Happily, Rose here manages to go more or less toe-to-toe with the domestic Sony issues for clarity and presence of sound, while retaining the greater warmth of analog LP issues and beefing up the bass. While the rival versions are more or less of equal worth in the two outer movements, Pristine has a slight but clear advantage in the two middle movements. However, given that the seven-CD Sony set can be had for the same price or less than the two-CD Pristine set, its purchase will commend itself to avid Mahlerians and Walterians rather than to more general collectors.

As for the Second symphony, here Rose went up against three different Sony remasterings: the original 1994 Bruno Walter Edition, a 1999 Japanese Sony DSD version, and a 2009 Japanese Sony Blu-spec edition. The 1994 release was my one serious disappointment in Sony’s BW Edition series; while a significant improvement over the Odyssey CD issue and various preceding LP incarnations, it has a somewhat dry and underpowered bass register that does not faithfully reflect either Walter’s sonic palette or the acoustics of Carnegie Hall. It also still had the feeling of the sound being confined inside a cramped sonic box that needed to be opened up and aired out. The DSD version was the first to overcome that to some extent and do this recording a degree of justice, opening up the entire frequency range in general and beefing up the bass in particular, but still having an intangible but real sense of constriction remaining. That edition is still in print and can be ordered from Japan through HMV Japan and similar outlets.

Thankfully, these limitations are abolished at last by the 2009 Blu-spec version—and how! The results of that remastering are simply mind-boggling in their transformative scope; were it not for some residual background tape hiss, one could easily be fooled into thinking it to be a new SACD digital recording, with the soloists, chorus, and orchestra at last bursting forth in unrestrained splendor, grounded in a positively earth-shaking bass register. Alas, that edition appears to be already out of print, though as I type these lines used copies still can be had from Japan for about $60-$100 through Amazon.

Not surprisingly, this Pristine remastering is not competitive with either the DSD or Blu-spec versions from Japan—but then, it is in print and costs considerably less as well. When compared to the 1994 Bruno Walter Edition, it holds its own. The sound is fuller, the bass register stronger, and the boxiness partially opened up. However, I think that Rose slightly miscalculated here and added one degree too much of resonance throughout the entire frequency range, creating a noticeably artificial effect of a bit too much equalization. Taking the exact same approach, but slightly toned down, would have yielded superior results with no drawbacks. Still, if I did not have the two Japanese issues of this recording in my collection, I would want to have this one as an alternative—or should I say antidote?—to the BW Edition release. Rose does score two additional positive points with his version: He puts the entire performance on one CD (Sony’s failure to do so in any of its releases is positively maddening), and he inserts an extra track partway through the finale, so that one does not have to scroll through a single track lasting over half an hour in order to get to the mighty final climax.

With his transfer of the Fifth Symphony, Rose finally reaps sonic gold. According to booklet notes by producer Dennis D. Rooney in the 1994 Sony Bruno Walter Edition release, the performance was originally recorded at 33 1/3 rpm on 16-inch lacquer masters. It was then dubbed for commercial release first onto 78 rpm acetate discs and later onto a master tape. The latter was, Rooney states, used for all LP and CD issues of the performance prior to the BW Edition, which returned to the lacquer masters. Unfortunately, those had suffered abrasive damage in the intervening years, so that the new issue was afflicted at points with patches of loud scratches. Despite some improvement in the sound (though rather less than touted in those booklet notes), I found the extraneous noise so painful that my preference remained with the 1991 digital remastering in the preceding “Masterworks Portrait” series. It was only with the appearance last year of the aforementioned seven-CD set by Sony that a truly listenable edition of this recording finally appeared, that did some justice to the performance. Even so, that release retains a very dry acoustic, flat and lacking in sheen, with an overly subdued bass register.

Rose has managed to correct and compensate for that to a surprising degree. While no one will mistake this for a high-fidelity recording, the orchestral sound now has far more presence and color, with a greatly strengthened bass register. At a few points—most noticeably, the opening trumpet fanfare of the first movement—the sonic retouching is overly apparent and the added ambience draws undue attention to itself, but such moments are few and readily acceptable for the acoustic wizardry worked throughout the whole. For the first time, I can listen to this performance with real pleasure, rather than a somewhat grudging sense of obligation, and for that I am incalculably in Rose’s debt.

As always with Pristine, the packaging is bare bones, and notes must be downloaded from Pristine’s website. This issue of the Fifth belongs in the collection of every Mahlerite; the Ninth is also well recommended, and the Second is quite respectable, leaving only the First as a relative disappointment. Now, on for Pristine to the Fourth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde!

James A. Altena

This article originally appeared in Issue 37:1 (Sept/Oct 2013) of Fanfare Magazine.