Bruno Walter conducts Mahler
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As to the matter of Walter's age at the time of the later recordings here, and the Philharmonic versus the Columbia Symphony, this is really a non-issue. Yes, Walter had retired in 1956, and suffered serious heart problems that slowed him down. But the offer of the chance to make these recordings, which embodied a series of sessions from 1958 until 1962 (the year of his death), gave him a new lease on his professional life, as well as a final mission, to address the arrival of the then-new medium of stereo sound and leave a legacy that would continue to be heard beyond his own time. He rose to the occasion, as did the players involved. And that brings us to the "Columbia Symphony Orchestra" as represented here -- it was comprised of many of the finest musicians on the West Coast, a good number of whom gave up higher-paying engagements at the time simply for the opportunity to make these recordings with Walter. And most of them, already at or near the top of their respective professions, outdid themselves -- don't forget that at this time, recording sessions devoted to Mahler's symphonies were rare and special occasions, and that classical recording was only just entering its boom time, when the advent of stereo precipitated the re-recording of virtually every piece of music under the sun that still mattered to audiences in the late 1950s/early 1960s -- at this time, EVERY session was special to some degree, and the quality and musicianship and the outlook of the generation of musicians then participating made recording on repertory like this even more important, as an opportunity that they all knew had eluded their predecessors (and who would ever have thought such opportunities, to record the Mahler 1st or the 9th, yet, would arise on the West Coast, and under this conductor [the man who introduced the 9th to the world, and visa versa]? It was a gift from God for many of those concerned). The tendency wasn't just to rise to the occasion, but to soar wherever possible.
Additionally, the rehearsals and the recording schedules were planned specifically so as not to tax the conductor's strength -- as a result, the notion that Walter was bringing less than his optimum energy from that point in his life to the podium is simply not relevant on these performances (and only became a consideration in his final round of recordings, somewhat later than those represented here -- principally one or two Haydn symphonies and the Bruckner Symphony No. 7, if memory serves). For its part, the New York Philharmonic was, of course, a powerhouse ensemble, and there was great and longstanding love between Walter and the players, but there is no reason to look askance at the Columbia Symphony recordings -- they were a true labor of love and a special opportunity for all concerned. Walter went into the latter knowing that these would be his lasting (and last) testament to the world about his way of interpreting the works involved, and given his relationship to the composer and the pieces -- and one must remember that he conducted the premieres of Das Lied Von Der Erde and the Symphony No. 9 in the second decade of the twentieth century -- they can all be regarded as being but a single step away from authoritative, where they are not absolutely the latter. The whole set is magnificent. And that Fifth Symphony is a wonder.
It's also a sign of the times we live in that these recordings, which were done primarily with the American listening market in mind -- until the mid-1960s, Columbia Records did not have an overseas operation, and licensed its recordings to Philips Records in Europe (which is how Columbia's Epic label in the US got the work of I Musici and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, in return) -- are being offered in this optimum remastered form to European listeners, and must be imported to the United States. Sony Music in America ought to be ashamed of itself for that decision.
The other two recordings that stand out for me are the Fifth, a mono recording with the NY Phil. that retains its power from an era when this symphony was rarely recorded, and the Second, a prime example of how Walter's mellower, more Viennese approach to Mahler could capture a unique spirit that transcends technical questions - on technical grounds the modern era would bring any number of flashier, more virtuosic recordings.
The remaining discs are filled out with readings that have always been controversial. The Fourth, in mono with the NY Phil., is not one of Walter's best recordings of this work (there are several other options form live concerts on various labels). Desi Halban is inferior in the finale - as also in the scattered songs that used to be filler for the symphony - and the sound needs work. On the vocal front, Walter chose Mildred Miller, an otherwise neglected mezzo, for his stereo Das Lied and Wayfarer Songs. I find her completely inadequate in both scores; thank goodness we have three other versions of Das Lied from Walter, of which my favorite is the live one in concert with the New York Phill, on several labels, although I recognize the legendary status of the Decca studio recording with the Vienna Phil.
Whatever you think of each performance on its own, these 7 CDs could hardly be cheaper, and the sound, although not greatly improved over previous issues, is worth a try.
The performance of the Ninth Symphony with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra is a treasure of the first magnitude. Walter captures the ruminative and emotional depth of the work along with its purely musical structure and power. Of the several performances of this work in my collection, this one with the CSO ranks with the Klemperer performance (with the New Philharmonia) as my favorite.
The performance of Das Lied with Mildred Miller and Ernst Haefliger is also a favorite of mine. I like it much more than the famous performance with Kathleen Ferrier, for example. In my opinion, Miller's lyricism throughout the work is superior to Ferrier's more declamatory approach. (Ferrier's overuse of vibrato and occasional problems with initial intonation are additional reasons why I prefer Miller's performance.) Haefliger's performances in the tenor songs are also generally superior to those of Julius Patzak. (My apologies for comments that may sound harsh to those who believe that Ferrier's performance belongs in the musical Pantheon. I do think Ferrier's performance is memorable and wonderful for its emotional power. But it does seem to me that Miller is more effective in capturing the gentle essence of all of the contralto songs.)
There are two performances of the Titan Symphony in this compilation (a 1954 mono recording with the New York Philharmonic and a 1961 performance with the CSO) -- both of them are very fine. I like the performances of the Ressurection and Fourth Symphonies very much as well. And the performance of the Fifth is both excellent and important for its influence on the following generation of conductors. I do regret that there don't seem to be any Klemperer recordings of either the First or Fifth Symphonies! But Walter's recordings of those works make it easier to accept those gaps in the discography.
The Songs of a Wayfarer (with Mildred Miller) and the early Lieder und Gesange (with Desi Halban) are new performances to me -- and both quite enjoyable.
While there are some gaps in this collection of Walter's Mahler (no Kindertotenlieder, for example), I'm very happy to have added it to my library of Mahler recordings.
Walter's recordings were definitive at a time, unlike today, when there weren't hundreds of options to choose from. Nevertheless, Walter was to Mahler as Horowitz was to Rachmaninoff, Ansermet was to Stravinsky and so forth - these were close working relationships where the composer's musical vision was passed directly on to interpreters who had the insight and skills to communicate the music in their own unique way.
Are all of Walter's Mahler recordings definitive? With the exception of the Fifth, I would say yes - and the problem with the Fifth, which seems impossibly fast in places, was probably a consequence of timing limitations at the time the recording was made. Even with the frenetic pace, it falls into the category of all of Walter's Mahler which I believe to be inspired.
In summary, these recordings are enduring documents of greatness that have stood the test of time, and this inexpensive package is practically a gift from Sony that allows anyone who hasn't acquired them the perfect opportunity to do so. Five stars.
Allow me to be clear from the beginning that I am not against Bruno Walter's interpretation of Mahler, and, in-fact, on the contrary, I happen to enjoy most of them greatly. Post heart-attack Walter is a very different Bruno Walter in terms of interpretation. When you listen to old recordings by Walter you notice that he was much faster than in his stereo recordings with in the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. He also tends to be less metronomic, with very noticeable accelerandi in the climaxes, and his recordings often demonstrate a tremendous amount of punch from the brass and timpani (which is noticeable even in his recordings with Columbia). Needless to say, I prefer the younger Walter, but I still think that he has much to say in his old age, despite the struggles that he had with health. Thankfully this set contains older recordings with the New York Philharmonic when Walter still retained a great deal of vitality. The performance of Mahler's 5th is among my favorites, and, if I recall correctly, it's the fastest on record. It is in my opinion that people interpret Mahler far too slowly these days. When you go back and listen to Walter's old recordings and the various other recordings made by Mahler acolytes who either knew the composer first-hand, or others who were doused in the Mahler tradition (Schuricht, Mengelberg, Klemperer, Fried, and van Beinum to name a few), you notice that they interpret this music far more quickly than most do today. This gives the music a sense of flow, whereas the heavy approach can be quite dragging. That's not to say that the slow approach is invalid (Horenstein is one of my favorite conductors of Mahler), but I find that it is more difficult for a conductor to pull off that kind of approach and that the fast approach should be initially preferred. But, of course, this is all down to preference. And, depending on this preference, you may find yourself preferring one Walter over the other, as his Columbia recordings are much slower on a whole in comparison to his previous recordings (especially noticeable in his 9th recording). I can live with both of Walter's approaches comfortably despite preferring one over the other, and his Columbia recordings still hold a considerable amount of insight in many areas.
...Now on to the bad news.
Sony has 'remastered' Bruno Walter's recordings of these symphonies in the most disgusting way possible. They have applied significant de-noising to the audio and, to compensate for this, they have EQ'd the treble on these recordings through the roof. The bottom-end just isn't there, and, in-fact, you can just barely make out the reverberation and acoustics of the area that they recorded this in. The audio just feels like it has a hole right in the middle of it, and it's completely straining on the ears to listen to this for a significant amount of time. I listen to my music primarily on headphones, so I don't know if people with stereo systems will find this as noticeable, but I imagine it wouldn't be any different. This isn't even the worst of it. After EQing Walter's recordings to hell and back, I imagine the guy who worked on this decided it didn't sound bad enough, so he concluded that he should mess with the dynamics and balances of the recordings. Fortunately he didn't seem to apply dynamic compression, but, instead, the dynamics are extremely schizophrenic in that the audio sounds like it's either cut far too low, or far too high. I have access to LP rips from original issues of these recordings and, in a lot areas, it doesn't even come close to sounding like the same recording. If you want to experience Bruno Walter's Mahler without your ears bleeding then I suggest you get the old "CBS Masterwork" series of these recordings. These may be more hard to find, and possibly more expensive to boot, but they offer far superior mastering. Pray for the person who mastered these recordings, for they are clearly deaf.