Bruno Walter Conducts Bruckner's 4th And 9th Symphonies
BRUCKNER Symphonies: No. 4; 1 No. 9. 2 MOZART Symphony No. 35 in D “Haffner” 3 • Bruno Walter, cond; 1 NBC SO. 2 Philadelphia O. 3 New York PO • MUSIC & ARTS CD-1262 (2 CDs: 127:30) Live: 1 02/10/1940, 2 02/28/1948, 3 02/06/1944
Having recently obtained an extensive collection of acetates from the estate of a private music collector, the Music & Arts label is issuing some fruits of that here in the form of live performances by Bruno Walter. Two items—the Bruckner Ninth and the Mozart “Haffner” symphonies—are previously unissued items; the Bruckner Fourth was released on Pearl GEMM CD 9131 but here enjoys slightly but tangibly superior sound. While still constricted, it is tolerably listenable by the standards one would expect for a recording of that vintage. Here the weak bass register is noticeably stronger and clearer, background hiss is slightly reduced, occasional fluctuations in pitch have been evened out, and assorted clicks and pops and similar extraneous noises excised or reduced. However, the Pearl release is still not superfluous, as this issue does not include the filler pieces by Weber and Smetana (the overtures to Oberon and The Bartered Bride ).
While none of these items is, strictly speaking, a novelty in the Walter discography, the performance of the Bruckner Fourth preserved here is of particular interest to both Brucknerians and Walterians. The Walter discography contains only two versions of this score: the live one presented here, and the conductor’s studio recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, recorded from February 13-25, 1960. (The discography of the CSO is complex, because Columbia used that moniker for several different studio orchestras in various locales. In Walter’s case, the monaural recordings are with a reduced contingent of the New York Philharmonic and other local musicians, while his stereo recordings are with a core ensemble drawn from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Festival Orchestra, supplemented by members of various Hollywood film studio orchestras.) The Sony SMK 64 481 issue of the studio performance is presently available—as are most of the titles in Sony’s erstwhile “Bruno Walter Edition”—as an ArkivMusic reprint.
What is most remarkable is how radically Walter’s conception of this piece changed over 20 years, with the respective timings providing an initial indication: 16:32, 14:32, 8:27, and 18:32 versus 18:40, 15:37, 10:59, and 20:46. Walter does use different editions of the score—the 1888-89 Löwe/Guttmann version in 1940, and the 1936 Haas edition of the 1878/80 version in 1960. (For the 1960 recording I am taking the word of John F. Berky on his abruckner.com discography site over that of Sony, which states in its CD booklet that Walter used the 1953 Nowak edition.) However, this in no way accounts for the differences, as most of them are matters of instrumental detail (e.g., the radically reduced orchestration in the Scherzo at 8:13-8:16 in the 1940 performance as compared to the same passage at 8:20-8:23 in the 1960 recording) rather than cuts in the score. Instead, Walter’s earlier interpretation is far more volatile, not only in terms of significantly faster tempi but also in more generous use of accelerandi and other tempo modifications. For example, in 1940 there is an adrenaline rush on an ascending scale from 1:41 to 1:52 not employed in 1960, while in the fourth movement the 1940 performance takes only a mild ritardando at 8:13 to 8:16 but in 1960 a very emphatic one in the same passage at 8:20 to 8:23. In 1940 the Scherzo movement is taken at an exceptionally brisk pace, whereas in 1960 it is stately, with the trio section being positively languorous. Similarly, whereas in 1960 Walter squares off phrases in the more emphatic manner common to most Bruckner performances nowadays, demarcating discrete units as aural equivalents of the giant stone blocks used to construct Gothic cathedrals, in 1940 the phrasing is noticeably more fluid and linear, particularly in woodwind runs that ripple like rapidly flowing rivulets (cf. at 15:24 in the first movement). How much these changes owe to the oft-noted differences in Walter’s recordings made before and after his March 1957 heart attack, and how much they may owe to the conductor possibly seeking to elaborate greater distinctions between his approaches to Bruckner and Mahler, can only be a subject of speculation. In any case, in these respects the 1940 performance is akin to the relatively few complete Bruckner symphony performances that survive from before WW II, and suggest an earlier school of performance which is now well-nigh extinct. Both for that reason, and for the intriguing snapshot of how Walter’s interpretation of this piece shifted over the years, this recording is of particular interest for collectors of historical performances.
The companion performance in this set of the Bruckner Ninth lacks the same degree of intrinsic value, in that there are eight surviving recorded performances from Walter’s baton, variously given with the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Columbia Symphony. The table below provides details for comparison. In this and the succeeding tables, if a particular performance has appeared more than once on CD, I have cited the best version currently in print; studio recordings are marked with an asterisk. For the timings in this instance, I have used those provided by Mark W. Kluge in his notes to the 2003 Music and Arts release of the 1946 performance, except for the 1948 and 1950 performances not listed by him.
FANFARE: 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
As Kluge rightly states in the booklet notes to the 2003 disc of Walter’s 1946 performance, “Walter’s live performances of the Ninth Symphony preserved on tape show a certain consistency, varying in individual nuance rather than interpretive outline”. In the booklet notes to the present release he further observes, “All of his live performances of the score display certain common interpretive details,” of which he provides several examples, such as “the very precise (almost clipped) brass interjections in the opening bars.” Unremarked upon by Kluge, except for a passing observation that the studio account “lacks the fire of Walter’s live performances,” is the extraordinary speed and drive of Walter’s conception of the work, which in the pre-1959 performances clocks in at between 49:22 (the fastest recorded performance by any conductor) and 51:01. Among the almost 400 complete performances listed in the abruckner.com discography, only Volkmar Andreae, Jascha Horenstein, Georg-Ludwig Jochum, Roger Norrington, plus (amazingly) John Barbirolli and Hans Knappertsbusch, have timings within three minutes of Walter. This work alone gives the lie to the stereotype of Walter as a cushy, gentle interpreter given solely to Gemütlichkeit rather than Sturm und Drang.
Despite their overall similarity, the pre-1959 performances do not suffer from lack of variety or interest. With the exception of the live 1959 performance, which stems from a relatively poor source, the sound quality improves incrementally with the more recent performance date, though the sonic differences between the three performances from 1953-57 are rather minimal. For me, the key factor in evaluating the first six performances is Walter’s approach to and follow-through from the fortissimo recapitulation of the first theme of the opening movement, beginning at about halfway through the movement. For the approach to the recapitulation, the recap itself, and the section immediately thereafter, Walter demarcates each of the three sections with a marked caesura and tempo adjustment. There are noticeable differences to how he does this in several of the performances; although these may simply be differences of the moment, they suggest instead that he was not entirely satisfied with his handling of these sections and was constantly searching for new and better solutions. I find the 1946 performance to be the least satisfactory; as the timing of the first movement indicates, Walter there inserts greater pauses and slows down each section more than usual, causing the whole to lose coherency and momentum and to bog down. Walter also takes two major ritardandi early on, at 1:55 and 3:00, that he drops after the 1948 Philadelphia performance, which has a similarly hobbling effect. (For a more positive response, see Robert McColley’s review back in 26:6.) By contrast, the unreleased 1950 performance is the most successful, having a fierce energy and the least pronounced breaks and tempo deceleration.
The three performances from 1948 and 1953 occupy a middle ground between these extremes; here the differences are to be found more in the distinctive timbres of the respective orchestras. In his booklet notes to the 1946 performance, Kluge states that “the warmer style of the Vienna Philharmonic added a sense of plasticity and nuance not as evident in the later  New York performance,” given the latter orchestra’s “virile, even aggressive playing style.” I would agree, but I find a certain slackness present in the Vienna performance as well, and its recorded sound is slightly more recessed. Comparing the New York and Philadelphia ensembles in the present booklet notes, Kluge correctly finds “a contrast in style between the two ensembles. The Philharmonic sonority is bold and brassy, making the most of Bruckner’s dramatic climaxes. However the Philadelphia ensemble, even in its first encounter with the score, adds a patina of refinement”—due no doubt to the orchestra’s fabled string section. Finally, in 1957 Walter attempts a hybrid solution that combines pronounced Luftpausen with his briskest tempi, a solution I prefer to all but the 1950 performance (see also the positive review by Jeffrey J. Lipscomb in 32: 3).
The two 1959 performances are, as their timings indicate, of a very different character—ultimately no less dramatic, but more monumental and in line with the mainstream of Bruckner interpretations, while also evincing the more rounded edges of Walter’s trademark lyricism in other repertoire. Given both the relatively poor sound of the preceding live performance, and some ill-fitting junctures in it that suggest Walter’s new interpretation not to be fully settled, the studio recording is easily preferable between those two. Along with the 1957 performance—and that of 1950, for those few who can find it from private sources—the studio recording is also one of the top choices for Brucknerians who want Walter represented in their collections.
Despite Walter’s intense devotion to Bruckner following his recovery from a near-fatal bout of double pneumonia in 1927 (Walter credited his convalescence with giving him the spiritual repose needed to comprehend Bruckner rightly), many commentators have regarded his studio Bruckner recordings, especially that of the Ninth, as relative weak points in his discography. Devoted Walterian that I am, I nevertheless agree with that assessment; Walter never mastered the timing of the numerous pauses in Bruckner’s symphonic movements, and choosing the manifold subtle shifts in tempi needed to make the sprawling movements cohere, to the same degree as did Wilhelm Furtwängler and Eugen Jochum, my own Bruckner reference standards. Part of the fault here, however, lies not with Walter but with Columbia’s miscalculated decision to use an orchestra of only 65 players for the recording sessions—possibly due to a degree of parsimony, but also because the extremely lively acoustics of Legion Hall would have caused a full-sized orchestra to be swamped with reverberation. The fact that Walter almost fully succeeds in disguising the paucity of string players and producing a genuine Brucknerian orchestral sound testifies to near-miraculous conductorial skills.
The 1948 performance of the Bruckner Ninth in Philadelphia was paired in concert with a performance of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony. Since only the Bruckner was broadcast for a one-hour time slot, the performance of the Mozart was not preserved. In its stead, Music and Arts has thoughtfully provided a previously unreleased 1944 New York Philharmonic broadcast of the work. Mozart occupies a large and special place in Walter’s discography. In terms of frequency of surviving performances, the “Haffner” has seven recordings—five live and two studio, with the NBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and Columbia Symphony. It thus ranks behind No. 40 (eleven performances, eight live and three studio) and No. 39 (eight recordings, five live and three studio), and is tied with the “Prague” (seven recordings, four live and three studio). The following table again provides details for comparison; note that Tahra misdates the 1953 performance to January 5 instead of January 4.
Date Orchestra CD Issue (if any) Timings
02/17/40 NBC SO Andromeda ANDRCD 9012 5:02 4:31 3:10 3: 33
02/06/44 NYP Music and Arts CD-1262 5:15 4:44 3:16 3: 33
01/21/47 BSO Wing WCD 58 (Japan) 5:11 4:29 3:17 3:37
02/05/50 NYP none (private collection) 5:33 5:05 3: 25 3:43
01/04/53 NYP Tahra TAH 571-572 5:29 4:54 3:33 3:55
01/16/53 NYP Sony SMK 64 473* 5:27 4:44 3:21 3:46
01/13-21/59 CSO Sony SM3K 46 511* 5:58 5:13 3:49 4:04
Here one notes that until the final, post-heart attack, stereo recording, Walter’s interpretive approach remains remarkably consistent, broadening very slightly in tempi with the passing years. As before, sound quality generally improves in successive performances, save for the decidedly poor-sounding Boston Symphony issue and the somewhat tubby sound of the unedited source for the 1950 performance. Yet here, too, there are subtle differences, with the 1944 performance under review being the most distinctive. At 1:15 in the first movement, Walter slows the tempo for the lyrical counter-subject to a far greater degree than elsewhere, and likewise beginning at 4:40 accelerates the tempo to a far greater degree to provide a whirlwind close. Not unexpectedly from an ensemble drilled under Toscanini, the NBC performance features particularly strong, crisp accents on chords and fluid runs on strings and winds. The live 1953 performance has a higher voltage than the studio recording that followed it, though it suffers from a rather glassy, shrill treble register (for a different opinion on the last point, see Mortimer H. Frank’s review in 14:4). The stereo recording has of course by far the best sound, but its slower tempi drain it of the vitality characteristic of Walter’s earlier performances. The 1944 performance is in surprisingly good sound for its time, and I would rate it alongside the two 1953 versions as the best of his performances of this work.
The remasterings of the original sources have obviously been done with the meticulous care that marks all Music and Arts issues. Mark Kluge’s booklet notes are exemplary; they include a brief discussion of recent Bruckner scholarship that defends the Löwe/Guttmann edition of the Fourth as one genuinely authorized by Bruckner rather than riding roughshod over his true intentions, and also discuss Walter’s various retouchings of the timpani and brass parts in different performances of the Ninth. (Kluge does not discuss the 1950 performance, but the excision of the trombone parts from certain passages of the Scherzo that occurs in the 1957 and 1959 performances also occurs there, though curiously not in the intervening ones from 1953.) The booklet and tray card have a typographical error that gives the total time of the second disc as 50:30, which is the timing of the Bruckner Ninth alone; the correct total time is 68:20. For Walterians, this release is self-recommending; for Brucknerians and collectors of historic performances, it will be of interest primarily for the Bruckner Fourth, and secondarily for the “Haffner” and the Ninth. To each of these interested parties, this release is warmly recommended.
James A. Altena
Catalog Number: CD-1262(2)
Label: Music & Arts Program
Composer: Anton Bruckner, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: Bruno Walter
Orchestra/Ensemble: NBC Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra