WALTER Mahler Symphony No. 9 - World premiere recording (1938) - PASC389

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WALTER Mahler Symphony No. 9 - World premiere recording (1938) - PASC389

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MAHLER Symphony No. 9
Recorded in 1938
Total duration: 71:00

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Bruno Walter

This set contains the following albums:

Bruno Walter's world première recording of Mahler's 9th Symphony

"I would urge everyone who cares about Mahler to listen to it" - Gramophone

Bruno Walter's historic first recording of Mahler's 9th Symphony, which he takes some eleven minutes faster than his 1961 Columbia recording (PASC376) has long been regarded as one of the great artefacts of the history of music recordings. It was remarkably well-made for its day, and here, after extensive XR remastering work, is revealed to have held within the grooves a quality of sound that is quite incredible for any 1930s recording. Despite some occasional upper end distortion, this is a full frequency recording, and it sounds magnificent as a result.

Andrew Rose

MAHLER Symphony No. 9 in D major

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Bruno Walter

Recording Producer: Fred Gaisberg
Recorded 15-16 January 1938, Musikvereinssaal, Vienna
First issued as HMV 78s DB.8569/78
Matrix Nos. 2VH.7027-46

Total duration: 71:00
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Bruno Walter
XR remastering by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio, January-June 2013

REVIEW 1989 CD reissue

Bruno Walter conducted the first performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in 1912 (it is dedicated to him) as well as this, its first commercial recording. It bestrode no fewer than ten 78 rpm discs and consumed many fibre needles! (I recall paying five shillings or 25p a record for this secondhand—and playing the set almost every evening for weeks on end, doubtless to the despair of those within earshot.) Although later performances (including Walter’s subsequent CBS recording in the early 1960s) have offered more polished orchestral playing and more vivid recording, none brings one closer to its world of feeling or takes one more deeply into its spirit. Its fires are white-hot and there is a blazing intensity that in my experience has never been surpassed on the gramophone. There is a demonic passion to the Rondo Burlesque (the orchestra play as if their corporate life is at stake) and the final Adagio has a poignancy that once heard is not easily forgotten. Even younger readers unencumbered by nostalgia will, i think, recognize the authenticity of feeling here, and I would urge everyone who cares about Mahler to listen to it.

Of course, there can be no such thing as a 'definitive' performance but this is as near as one can get. This and a modern recording such as the Karajan (DG) or the Bernstein (CBS) are all one needs. Some years ago the Walter was excellently transferred to LP by Anthony Griffith (World Records-nla) with the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony and the Siegfried Idyll as a fill-up. Let us hope that room can be found for the former as a fill-up, say, to Walter’s 1936 set of Das Lied with Kerstin Thorbord and Charles Kullmann, which must surely follow before too long. The digital remastering by Keith Hardwick enables one to hear more detail than before. As AB’s note says, “more then 50 years later it [the Mahler Ninth] still carries a unique charge in terms of dedication and intensity of utterance”.

R.L., Gramophone, August 1989


REVIEW 1939 78rpm release

This, I understand, is a limited issue, which will be prized by those who love the composer’s music, not only for its own sake, but because of the associations of Walter and Vienna. The admirable recording was made at a concert a year ago. The conductor has written of Mahler with persuasive affection, and here is his testament of interpretation about a work that cannot be heard without deep sympathy for a composer who did not live to hear it. If he had, it seems likely that he might have compressed parts of it. It cannot be denied that extreme length is apt to deter well-wishers ; but it may be more rewarding, in the end, than acerbic brevities in which the heart pulsates too feebly, and the rhythm too brashly: a pulsation oddly paralleled, one notes, in the cock-a-whoops of the petty, who cannot uphold their idols without spitting upon those who do not share their adolescent enthusiasms: the surest sign, this, of the true shamateur, There is room for every kind of real devotion, whose deepest proof is often the quietness of the devotee, but I have no use for the mere fandom of the half-baked, One may well wish enthusiasms to be shared (though, as a medical writer on the late “slashings” pointed out, the followers of evil, just as much as the devotees of righteousness, are urgent to make converts) ; but I think the great bulk of intelligent music-Iovers now realise (even if other would-be dictators do not) the silly futility of attempted conversion by the bludgeon.

We listen, then, with all possible sympathy to these distinguished records of music that came at the end of a life too soon cut off (Mahler was little over fifty when he died in 1911). His belief in devotion to spiritual intimations was well expressed in his saying “One docs not compose: one is composed.” E. N. has aptly said “Mahler’s is the last noble mind in German music,” He sings, in the Song of the Earth, his twilight song. In the ninth symphony, which came after, the feeling is perhaps more equally divided between personal resignation and our sense of the end of German romanticism. Strauss, in some measure, had similarly sung, but in Mahler is a spirit of finer texture : one might say of it at its best, of divination. Heard against the background of historical knowledge, and with some appreciation of the forces that we now clearly see were piling up in those so deceptive years of the first decade of the century ; heard, too, with some understanding of the Austrian scene, of Mahler’s desire to escape from his long toil in the opera-housc, such music has much to say to the inseeing and inhearing. The quieter moods of the first movement are so quickly broken by dramatic urgencies ; here is obviously a powerful drive of interplaying forces ; superficially the most immediate reference is to the Strauss tone-poem style, but no “programme” is given us. We shall probably regard the music as a mentally concentratcd (if physically extended) working-out of problems not new, but now seen more clearly and more sharply suggested to the listener.

The second movement (beginning at side 8) turns again to the simplicities of old German and Austrian life, by making use of the style of the country dance, the Ländler ; but tills is no happy motion of minds at rest and bodies glad to keep them so. Not only the very striking orchestration (that throughout makes the music so vivid, even if sometimes almost affrighting), but the abrupt, perhaps harsh-feeling ejaculations bring a sense of doubt, which some might interpret as bearing a heart of sadness, expressed in a brusque heaviness. Though one does not at all attempt a comparison of values, it comes to my mind that here is some tincture of thinking-into-the-future, as well as of the past, not unlike (yet on a different plane to) that which late-Beethoven injects into an otherwise pcaccful world—and, so doing, makes it uneasy, dangerous, foreboding. We should not read too much, where so little was given out ; but the music does seem full of strange finger-posts, an impression not lessened by repetition.

The third movement (side 13), called “Burleskc,” adopts a more open wildness and stronger contrasts, and develops the contrapuntal art that Mahler so greatly esteemed (Bach and Beethoven were his prime delights). The word “ bitter ” is much in one’s mind ; but it is not easy to define the nature of the music, as its so varying lights sweep the sky of the mind of composer and listener. One searchlight may pick out an object for A, whilst another light momentarily blinds B. A cloud, even, may seem like a bomber.

Finale (side 16). It is in moments such as the beginning of this movement that the faith of some who may have wavered about Mahler should be deepened. That does not at all mean that I think one ought to cherish equally everything written by a man who can write greatly ; I am all for making distinctions ; and the strongest of them all is, I think, not made for us, but by us: to adapt Mahler’s phrase that I quoted, about composition, we do not, in the end, distinguish, we are distinguished (however undistinguished, in one sense) : nature, temperament, upbringing, determine our bent: and so, perhaps, the less we deave others about that the better. But however we choose to regard late Mahler—whether as chiefly a testimony of unrest, uncertainty, self-doubt, as a more important future-forecasting than some of our friends consider it, or even as a too poignantly coloured decadence of romance, I cannot think that so remarkable a revelation of the man's spirit at the end of his life can fail to impress any musical mind and move any open heart.

W.R.A., The Gramophone, January 1939

MusicWeb International Review

This famous performance demands to be heard

I detest the current almost universal use - one might say abuse - of the word ‘iconic’. However, I might stretch a point in the case of this famous recording of Mahler’s Ninth. It was taken down live, in an act of extraordinary vision, by Fred Gaisberg and his HMV team in January 1938. That was just a matter of weeks before the Anschluss which made continued life in Austria an impossibility for Bruno Walter and a good number of the players who had taken part in this performance.
It was only a few months ago that I welcomed a fine Pristine re-mastering of Bruno Walter’s 1961 stereo recording of Mahler’s Ninth and now we have a new transfer from them of the celebrated 1938 recording, which was the first-ever recording of the symphony. Incidentally, if Pristine gave the correct date for the 1961 recording - and in my review I suggested they may not have been quite correct - then the sessions took place forty-three years to the day after the 1938 Vienna performance. While on the subject of dates, I’m intrigued to see that Pristine indicate that the 1938 recording took place over two days. I’ve always believed that HMV recorded a single performance - on 16 January - and that seems to be confirmed by a 1944 article by Fred Gaisberg in which he specifically states that the performance was recorded that day though he does also say that there were “five rehearsals during which our engineers could make their tests and experiments in ‘mike’ positions.” That article is reprinted in the booklet for the transfer of the performance that I’ve owned for many years. It’s a transfer by Michael J Dutton (Dutton Essential Archive CDEA 5005).
So much has been written about this extraordinary reading that it seems almost superfluous to say more. It’s often a scalding interpretation and the urgency of the music-making is as remarkable as it is palpable. In my review of the 1961 disc I drew attention to the fact that the 1938 reading is some twelve minutes shorter. In the absence of any other recordings of Walter around this time it’s impossible to know how representative of his thoughts on the symphony at the time this 1938 event was. One would normally assume that a performance presents the artist’s considered view at the time it was given but it’s possible that the feverish political atmosphere in Austria in early 1938 - and the trepidation this must have caused people like Walter - may have added an extra febrile quality to his music-making at the time. Having said that, a photograph of him, which was taken in the green room immediately before the 1938 concert, shows him looking serious but calm.
The performance was discussed in some detail by Tony Duggan in his survey of some of the recordings of the Ninth and I largely concur with his judgements. I share his relative disappointment over the quite swift pacing of the finale but Tony seems happier with the very sturdy pace for the second movement Ländler than I am: it seems almost stolid to me. I could also wish that Walter had been more expansive in the trumpet-led nostalgic episode in the third movement (from 5:38). Tony was absolutely right to comment on the strain under which the orchestra is audibly working and one of the ironies is that the clearer a modern transfer is the more those frailties show up. One wonders whether the frequent fallibilities in the playing owe more to the unfamiliarity with this complex score or to those volatile times. It’s salutary to remember that this was then a very new piece: Walter had led the premiere only in 1912 and one wonders how many members of the VPO had played it before.
A comparison of this new Pristine transfer and the one by Michael Dutton has been very interesting. The first bit of comparative listening I did - the opening of the first movement - was to the Dutton disc. Leaving the controls unaltered I then played the same passage on Pristine. The Pristine transfer is at a higher level and, to be honest, a comfortable level for listening to Dutton was a little uncomfortable for Pristine. Overall, my impression is that the Pristine sound is a little more defined but it’s also rather fierce at times. I think perhaps Andrew Rose of Pristine may have retrieved a bit more detail from his source material - but there’s a good deal of detail on the Dutton transfer too. Thus, for example, we can hear it quite clearly when a member of the orchestra drops something during the first movement (7:24); it’s just that bit more obvious on the Pristine version, as is audience noise generally. Perhaps there’s a little more space round the orchestral sound in the Pristine transfer but it’s marginal and you get a good sense of the hall’s ambience in both transfers.
The Dutton transfer makes for more comfortable listening when the orchestra is playing loudly. Thus, for example, the first big climax in the first movement (around 3:00) sounds a bit strident with Pristine and later on in the same movement (around 19:50) the brass do blare rather more than they do with Dutton. On the other hand, lightly scored passages, such as the end of that movement, come off well with Pristine. I’ve referred earlier to Walter’s sturdy way with the Ländler music in the second movement. Near the start of the movement he gets the strings really to dig in and the sense of that is almost tangible with Pristine.
Come the great concluding Adagio and I think it’s the Dutton transfer that does more justice to the tone of the VPO strings. Whichever version you hear allowances have to be made for the age of the recording but there’s more edge to the sound of the strings with Pristine. Both versions report a good, solid string bass sound. The big climax, starting around 12:00, is another example of unpleasantly blaring brass in the Pristine transfer. This is another instance where the Dutton transfer tames the brass a bit more - to beneficial effect. In either version it’s fascinating to listen from about 15:00 and to hear the succession of downward portamenti in the strings (around 15:20). There’s aching nostalgia in the playing and a sense of a world that was very soon to vanish for ever. As I listened to the last two or three minutes of the movement in each transfer I forgot about making comparisons.
After I’d done my listening and as I sat down to type up this review I decided to see what Tony Duggan had had to say about Walter’s 1938 recording. I was interested to see that he’d compared an old EMI Références transfer, which I used to own years ago, with the Dutton. While praising the latter for, among other things, a gain in detail, he felt that the EMI transfer offered a more comfortable listening experience. As it happens that sums up my feelings after this present comparison. The Pristine transfer is very clear and present but perhaps it shines too bright and unforgiving a spotlight. Some may feel that the Dutton tames the sound too much but I feel that it offers a more comfortable experience for domestic listening - though, arguably, listening to Mahler’s Ninth should never be ‘comfortable’.
If you already have the Dutton I see no reason to part with that and acquire the new Pristine version. However, whichever transfer you opt for this famous performance demands to be heard. It’s amazing that this remarkable, truly historic reading speaks to us, and does so vividly. seventy-five years after it was given. For that we must give thanks for the vision and technical skills of Fred Gaisberg and his team and also for the skill and dedication of transfer engineers such as Michael Dutton and Andrew Rose.
John Quinn