Bruno Walter & the NY Philharmonic magnificent in a stunning Bruckner 9
"I do not believe that devotion has come across in a more impassioned way than in this performance" - Fanfare
The two recordings in this programme have remained in private hands
since their recording from live Carnegie Hall concerts in the 1950s, and
their provenance is unclear. Copies were donated by a private collector
for this issue. Of the two, the Bruckner is by far the better,
technically speaking: a full-frequency recording of remarkable quality
for its age, it appeared at first to be unusually swift for a Walter
performance of this work. Frequency analysis forced a revision of this,
however - when properly pitched at the A440 used by the Philharmonic in
the early 1950s it closely matches other Walter recordings. Nevertheless
the collector who passed it to me still regards it as perhaps Bruno
Walter's finest recorded performance of Bruckner's 9th Symphony. It was this mis-pitching that led to it being long and incorrectly identified (and initially released by Pristine) as a 1950 performance, rather than a 1953 broadcast that has previously surfaced, albeit in far inferior sound quality. We were quick to correct this after release and would direct readers to the reviews quoted below which cover this subject in more detail.
By contrast, the Strauss is a far rarer recording in the Walter discography (an earlier LA Philharmonic performance was issued on a Nuovo Era CD and a Japanese Bruno Walter Society LP). It appears to have originated on a slightly swishy acetate disc recorded from an AM radio source, hence its limited frequency and dynamic range. Sonic shortcomings notwithstanding, it is a fabulous interpretation, outclassing the Los Angeles recording on a number of performance levels.
It should be noted that neither of these recordings included applause or announcements, and movement joins in the Bruckner were silent, indicating probable 12" acetate side change points - I have preserved all that remains.
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 9 in D minor, WAB109
Live concert recording, Carnegie Hall, 27 December, 1953
R. STRAUSS Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28
Live concert recording, Carnegie Hall, 26 December, 1954
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York
Bruno Walter, conductor
If I had to have only one Walter Bruckner Ninth it would be this 1953 New York broadcast
Bruno Walter is more difficult to characterize in a few adjectives than most conductors. This is partly because his interpretive view seemed to change late in life, particularly in post-heart attack years, but more importantly it is because he brought a somewhat improvisatory outlook to his conducting and because he refused to apply any kind of “one-size-fits-all” approach. Thus he could be seen (or heard) alternatively as genial, fierce, majestic, fiery, dramatic, warm, tumultuous, and lyrical. For those who like to sum up a great artist in a word or two, he presented a real challenge.
His seven surviving recorded performances of Bruckner’s incomplete Ninth Symphony (only one a studio recording, and one live version still unpublished) give plenty of evidence about the spontaneity and flexibility of Walter as a musician. While the general interpretive viewpoint remains relatively constant until the 1959 studio recording, with similar overall tempos for each movement and even similar tempo relationships within movements, there are still meaningful differences among the ones with which I am familiar. The studio recording is significantly slower than his live performances (some three-plus minutes longer in the outer movements, and a bit over a minute in the briefer scherzo), and it is less incisive, less propulsive. James Altena, in a very perceptive review of a Pristine reissue of Columbia’s original in Fanfare 37:1, makes a good case for this performance. I tend to agree with his overall assessment based on that superior transfer, but if I had to have only one Walter Bruckner Ninth it would be this 1953 New York broadcast, a performance that has never been available before in adequate sound. Pristine found (from a collector) a superb source, and has drawn fine monaural sound from the original, and then added its XR ambient stereo touch which gives the music some space.
There was initial confusion when this was first released, due to what turned out to be incorrect information that it was a newly discovered 1950 performance. In fact, on the February 5, 1950 weekly NYP radio broadcast, the Bruckner Ninth that was performed on the February 2 and 3 concerts was replaced by works of Mozart. It is easy to see why this Pristine release wasn’t initially recognized as the 1953 one, because the sound quality is so much superior here to prior reissues that it indeed does not sound like the same performance.
Some of the five alternative available versions merit very little space here. The 1946 New York Philharmonic broadcast suffers from poor sound. I have not heard the 1948 Philadelphia Orchestra broadcast, only released on Memories and Music & Arts. The only transfer I have heard of the 1953 Vienna Philharmonic performance, on the Andromeda label, is muddy and compressed and offers little pleasure. Jeffrey J. Lipscomb, in Fanfare 32:3, reviewed the only real competition to this Walter performance, the 1957 New York Philharmonic performance released by Music & Arts in quite good sound. This 1953 performance is preferable, partly because of Pristine’s quite wonderful transfer and partly because of the even greater energy and sense of deep commitment that Walter and his New York musicians bring to the music here.
Walter uses the Alfred Orel edition of Bruckner’s original score, a version that does not differ in any significant way from Nowak’s, and Walter makes a few adjustments along the way. But the editorial details are minor points for Bruckner scholars to study. For most of us, it is the quite unusual combination of raw power and heartfelt warmth that distinguishes this performance. The strings have a lovely glow when they are stating the first movement’s main tune (listen at 16:09 of the first movement to the unanimity of phrase-shaping and tonal balance that the violins exhibit).
Bruckner has always seemed to me to be the one truly important composer whose music is completely dependent on the conductor if it is to make its effect. It is not, of course, that Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, or even Mahler play themselves. All composers benefit from committed, stylistically unified and appropriate performances. But many can survive less than that. Bruckner cannot. His music will seem shapeless, meandering, repetitive, and ultimately pointless if the conductor does not master the overall architecture of the score. Conductors who, for example, lack patience to give Bruckner’s pauses their full measure, think they are helping move things along. In fact they are damaging the very essence of the music, and making it seem longer, not shorter.
What seems to distinguish Walter’s Bruckner is his ability to encompass the wide range of the spiritual and emotional content of the music, particularly in his prime years before the heart attack that sapped his strength before his final stereo recordings for Columbia (with too small an orchestra as well, something I suspect a stronger, younger Walter would not have accepted). The scherzo here is big-boned and lusty at one moment, intimate and smiling the next. The outer movements combine drama and power with an unusual intimacy in a way quite unlike that of any other performance I know. Adherents of Horenstein, Furtwängler, Barenboim, Wand, and others will find touches in Walter’s reading that reminds them of their favorites. However, in the end it sounds like none of them. This is a unique vision that has about it the sense of being improvised on the spot. Walter engages in some strong tempo fluctuations, but the transitions are so perfectly judged and executed that at no point does the music’s structure weaken. The conductor’s sense of appropriate rubato is nowhere more apparent than in the finale, and it is complemented by his keen ear for dynamic shadings, and the infinite variety of dynamics that he brings to the score. The harmonic crisis at the core of the finale is terrifying here, with the dissonances emphasized in a way that is not the case in Walter’s studio recording. Pristine’s transfer brings all of this to life vividly. Walter was one of Bruckner’s early and important advocates, and the fact that he performed this work with the New York Philharmonic in 1946, 1950, 1953, and 1957, at a time when Bruckner performances were a rarity, demonstrates his devotion to the composer. I do not believe that devotion has come across in a more impassioned way than in this performance. The Philharmonic of 1953 is not the most refined or accurate of orchestras, but it is more than good enough to bring off the power and beauty of Walter’s performance.
Andrew Rose of Pristine admits that the recorded sound of the 1954 New York Till Eulenspiegel is not of the same quality as the Bruckner. The sense of compression at climaxes is frustrating, as are the limitations on frequency response at both extremes of the spectrum and the almost non-existent dynamic range (Rose has done what he can to expand the latter). It is worth having because Walter did not leave us much in terms of this piece. I haven’t heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic broadcast (on Nuovo Era and a Japanese Bruno Walter Society LP), which I believe is the only alternative. So it is good to have this, especially since Walter’s way with the score is boisterous and robust, and the general interpretive outline comes through despite the sonic difficulties. The Bruckner is the reason for this disc, and it is reason aplenty.
Even if you own this 1953 New York performance in an earlier incarnation (I have heard it on both Tahra and Nuova Era), replacement with this version is almost mandatory.
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:3 (Jan/Feb 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.
This release is a vital addition to the Walter discography, though not quite for the reasons originally anticipated. Back in issue 36:3, when I reviewed a Music & Arts release of live performances by Walter of Bruckner’s Symphonies Nos. 4 and 9, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 35, I provided the following list of Walter’s performances of the Ninth in circulation among collectors (with only the Sony issue being a studio recording rather than a live performance):
|Date||Orchestra||CD Issue (if any)||Timings|
|03/17/46||NYP||Music & Arts CD-1110||21:42 9:37 19:42|
|02/28/48||PO||Music & Arts CD-1262||21:19 9:43 19:28|
|02/02/50||NYP||none (private collection)||20:12 9:55 19:15|
|08/20/53||VPO||Andromeda ANDRCD 9092||21:10 10:09 19:17|
|12/27/53||NYP||Tahra TAH 571||20:32 10:09 19:46|
|02/10/57||NYP||Music & Arts CD-1212||19:59 10:01 19:14|
|11/13/59||LAP||none (private collection)||22:30 10:53 21:58|
|11/16–19/59||CSO||Sony SMK 64 483||23:51 11:29 23:16|
This list now requires revision, for the putative February 2, 1950 performance is now proven to be a chimera, due to some dedicated detective work by several knowledgeable persons. An unnamed collector acting in good faith provided Andrew Rose with a copy of what purported to be that unpublished performance. Rose duly refurbished it according to his usual exceptional standards (more on which below) and released it. A sharp-eared collector of historic recordings, David Griegel of San Diego, who has a track record of identifying performances of unknown provenance and mistaken attribution, spotted that the release is in fact the December 27, 1953 performance previously released by Tahra and Palladio. Griegel in turn made contact with noted historic recordings expert Mark Kluge (who has written booklet notes for many previous releases of Bruno Walter material) and John F. Berky, editor of the redoubtable abruckner.com web site. They performed further research, did A-B comparative listening tests of the Pristine Audio disc against the previous Tahra release, and verified that Griegel was correct. (February 2, 1950 was not a broadcast concert date—for the broadcast on February 5, Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony and Piano Concerto No. 20 were substituted for the Bruckner. The concerto performance with Rudolf Firkušný once appeared on a “pirate” Italian CLS LP with the Symphony No. 40 from the same concert, while the “Haffner” has circulated privately among collectors.) Berky duly made a notation on his web site; Fanfare reader and friend Robert Alps spotted that notation and (knowing of my dedication to Bruno Walter) notified me. I in turn contacted first Berky and then Andrew Rose; the latter duly also verified the misattribution and has now corrected the notes and other materials for this release.
Having now heard both the original unprocessed master that Rose received and his remastered version, it is not surprising that this misidentification went undetected heretofore; not only do the inferior original sonics effectively conceal a number of tell-tale details that reveal its identity when brought to the fore, but it is also pitched about a semitone sharp. So, scratch one item from the list of surviving live performances attributed to Bruno Walter and reduce the number of his surviving renditions of the Bruckner Ninth from eight to seven, with one (the live Los Angeles performance, a subpar performance in poor sound) remaining unreleased. But, to quote the venerable Latin tag, O felix culpa! (O, happy fault!). For, even though this is not a completely new addition to the published Walter discography, it might as well be. Rose has lavished his now customary superb remastering skills on this new source with his trademark XR process, and the marvelous result completely outstrips all previous issues. The sound is exceptionally good for its era; only occasional minor distortion remains at a few great orchestral climaxes. Even more importantly, this release gives us for the first time a real sense of Walter’s typical way with this work. Although Pristine’s superb remastering of the 1959 studio recording prompted a major reassessment by me of that version in a review in issue 37:1, its significantly broader pacing and more rounded contours make it an atypical representative. Here, while Walter’s trademark lyricism and humane warmth are as always ever-present, there is also an almost fierce determination and urgency in what is one of the fastest performances of the work by any conductor. Bruckner famously dedicated the score to “Dem lieben Gott” (To the beloved God); but this is no serene view of the Almighty enthroned in majesty, but rather one of Him enacting awe-inspiring justice in the great and terrible day of the Last Judgment. Walter fully captures all this in a truly remarkable combination of tautness of line, sudden but always apt tempo fluctuations, and liberal use of rubato. Although the details vary only slightly from his other live performances—Philadelphia in 1948, Vienna in 1953, and New York in 1946 and 1957 (see my aforementioned review from 36:3 for additional details)—in those some of the transitions are not quite ideally calculated and come off as a little abrupt, whereas here all the shifts mesh well-nigh ideally.
To add icing to the cake, Rose also provides an authentic premiere addition to the published Walter discography, the previously unreleased broadcast of the December 26, 1954 New York Philharmonic performance of Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. This is especially welcome on three counts. First, Walter never recorded the work in the studio. Second, the only other surviving performance of Walter conducting this score, a broadcast performance with the Los Angeles Standard Symphony dating from either 1949 or 1950 (I would much appreciate hearing from anyone who can provide the precise date for this!), is in inferior sound and performed (with considerable spirit) by an inferior orchestra. Third, there is Walter’s own inimitable way with this score. Not as metaphysical as Furtwängler, nor as bitingly ironic as Reiner or Solti, nor as slyly good-humored as the composer’s own 1942 Vienna version, it instead features a Till who is a true Jedermann, a warmly humane three-dimensional person rather than a caricature or symbol, fleshed out in both his hijinks and his foibles with affectionate warmth. While the recorded sound is inferior to that of the Bruckner from a year earlier, with more distortion at climaxes and some congestion, it is still quite listenable and has plenty of orchestral color.
This is, then, a major release of interest not just to fans of Bruno Walter such as myself, but to all collectors of historic orchestral recordings of music by Bruckner or Richard Strauss, and merits a top-notch recommendation accordingly. This has “Want List 2016” written all over it for me. Or, at least, it should, except for one possible complication. As I write these lines, Pristine has just released a two-CD set of Walter recordings, containing among other items all of his LP recordings that have not previously been released on CD. When I first became a critic for Fanfare, I originally vowed that, to spare readers excessive indulgence of my devotion to Bruno Walter, an annual Want List would not feature more than one Bruno Walter recording. I’m now in the position of either making an excruciatingly painful choice, or of breaking my vow. Well, I have another 10 months to decide—stay tuned!
James A. Altena
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:3 (Jan/Feb 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.
Otto Klemperer said, “Bruno Walter is a very good conductor, but he is a moralist. I am an immoralist.” There is much truth in that statement. Bruno Walter was a believer. He liked to say that in The Magic Flute, Mozart was near to God. Bruckner, for Walter, was someone who had found God. The conductor was devoted to discovering the sources of spiritual wisdom in Bruckner’s work. Not for him was the bromide of Mahler, his friend, that Bruckner was “half genius, half idiot.” Indeed, at times in Walter’s performances of Bruckner there is an emotional radiance I have found in no other interpreter of this music. Walter possessed an identification with Bruckner’s ethos quite unique among the composer’s devotees. We are most familiar with Walter’s take on the Ninth Symphony from his stereo recording with the Columbia Symphony. That is a slow, somewhat steady rendition that mixes sobriety with insight. It is rather lacking in ecstasy. Also, Erich Leinsdorf stated that Walter in the last few years of his life lost some of the strength in his conducting arm, and had trouble keeping large ensembles together. In the Ninth, one can hear the Columbia Symphony playing very cautiously at times. Now we have a live account with the New York Philharmonic, and what a contrast it is. The performance is much faster, filled with exuberance, brilliant execution, and terrific control. Walter’s tempos are considerably flexible, always aiming at maximum characterization for the music. Yet the conductor’s spiritual identification with the symphony is as great as ever. There is not a single pedestrian moment.
Walter seems to use the original 1894 version of the Ninth, edited by Alfred Orel, which the conductor employed in his stereo recording. Bruckner’s dedication of the work, “to the Dear Lord,” is crucial to understanding Walter’s interpretation. At the symphony’s opening, we’re introduced to the ethic of strenuous Christianity. We find a mind similar to that of the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The clouds part at the first movement’s beginning to reveal celestial light, as the brass throughout the composition often inhabit the world of Renaissance polyphony. The second subject, in luscious strings, portrays the blessed soul traveling through creation, seeking contentment that only comes from the Almighty. As the movement proceeds, we see how personal Bruckner’s relationship to God is. God is his refuge from despair and uncertainty. When the second subject returns toward the movement’s end, it is transfigured, as if the soul’s burdens are magically lifted. Walter treats this movement’s conclusion in the best Cecil B. DeMille fashion, portraying God as solitary upon a mountain top. The scherzo for Walter depicts what Yeats called “The Trembling of the Veil,” the sense that the poet’s generation in the 1890s—the time of the symphony—would receive an intimation of the eternal. The middle section portrays the soul in breathless anticipation. Oboist Harold Gomberg’s playing in the scherzo is especially sensitive.
The concluding movement for Walter is a meditation on final things, salvation and the resurrection. The second section represents the soul’s anticipation of death, and the consolation of reunion with the eternal. Bruckner is no saint; the courage to face death does not come easily to him. Yet the symphony ends with the composer bowing to God’s ineffable mystery. Walter was not the only conductor in concert to dispatch the Ninth in a little over 50 minutes. Hans Knappertsbusch in 1958 and John Barbirolli in 1966 did so as well. However, these three great conductors could not have more divergent views of the work. Knappertsbusch, using a different edition, is all about mystery. Barbirolli’s performance is filled with serious introspection. Walter inhabits the ethos of Hopkins’s poetry: “Glory be to God for dappled things.” Who is right, I can’t say. The sound engineering for Walter is unusually good for a live recording from 1953: clear, reasonably well balanced, with a pretty good dynamic range.
Walter’s Till Eulenspiegel is a stunning achievement. It is filled with wit and irascibility. The Philharmonic first chairs have a field day, most notably concertmaster John Corigliano, Sr. and first horn James Chambers. Unfortunately, the sound engineering is rather limited. The frequency response is poor and there is considerable overload, especially when Saul Goodman bangs away on the timpani. Nevertheless, the recording can be enjoyed. The main draw of this CD is the Bruckner. The stereo recording of the Ninth I listen to most often is by Hiroshi Wakasugi and the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony. For Till, I like Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It is good to have a memento of Bruno Walter at the peak of his career in the Bruckner. He summons music-making of high seriousness and epic grandeur.
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:3 (Jan/Feb 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.