Bruno Walter Conducts Mahler Symphonies 1 & 2 - 1942 Live Performances
MAHLER Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 1 • Bruno Walter, cond; 1 Nadine Conner (sop); 1 Mona Paulee (ms); 1 Westminster Choir; New York P O • MUSIC & ARTS 1264, mono (2 CDs: 132:17 & English only) Live: New York, 1 1/25 and 10/25/1942
Elsewhere in this issue I review a two-CD set of historic Bruckner symphony performances conducted by Bruno Walter. Here we have two more premiere publications of historic broadcasts, drawn from the same private collection recently acquired by Music and Arts, with the promise of still more to come. Their chief point of interest is that they are among the earliest recorded performances by Walter of works by the composer to which, far above and beyond any other conductor, he could claim a unique, profoundly personal connection, as Mahler’s longtime assistant and protégé, who led the world premiere performances of the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde . To be more precise, this is the earliest surviving Walter account of the “Resurrection,” whereas the “Titan” is preceded by a 1939 broadcast with the NBC Symphony.
Back in 34:6, in reviewing a 1950 Vienna Philharmonic broadcast of the Mahler Fourth that also made it into my 2011 Want List, I briefly surveyed all of Walter’s surviving performances of that work—12 in all. The First ranks second (got that?) in Walter’s Mahler discography, with nine extant versions, given variously with the NBC Symphony, London Philharmonic, Concertgebouw, Bavarian State Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and Columbia Symphony. As in the similar tables in the Bruckner set review, if a particular performance has appeared more than once on CD, I have cited the best version currently in print (excluding versions included in large multi-CD anthologies); studio recordings are marked with an asterisk.
Date Orchestra CD or LP Issue (if any) Timings
04/08/39 NBC SO Music & Arts CD-1241 11:55 6:09 11: 19 18:04
10/25/42 NYP Music & Arts CD-1264 12:34 6:34 11: 27 18:55
10/16/47 RCO Tahra TAH 504 12:12 6:05 11:26 18:48
11/06/47 LPO Testament SBT 1429 11:47 6:05 10:38 17: 38
02/12/50 NYP Andromeda ANDRCD 9087 12:31 6:16 11:30 18: 50
10/02/50 BSSO Orfeo C 562 021 B 12:03 6:15 11:18 18:17
01/24/54 NYP Movimento Musica 01.106 12:20 6:17 11: 35 18:42
(LP only, Italy)
01/25/54 NYP Sony MHK 63328* 12:33 6:22 11:18 18:17
01/14 /61 CSO Sony SM2K 64447* 13:20 6:50 11:24 20:25
Again very much like Walter’s eight surviving performances of the Bruckner Ninth, the timings here indicate a remarkable stability in his interpretive approach among the performances pre-dating his March 1957 heart attack—and in this instance, even the 1961 studio recording differs in little else except the somewhat broader tempi in the outer movements. The sound of the 1939 NBC broadcast is surprisingly decent, a vast improvement on previous issues on other (and much less reputable) labels. For whatever reason, Walter’s 1947 performances in London feature noticeably quicker tempi than those of the same works in other venues. (A positively Toscaninian Beethoven Ninth issued by Music and Arts clocks in at a torrential 61:58, compared to his 1949 studio recording of 65:12, with most of the difference occurring in the first and third movements.) The London performance also unfortunately suffers from the poorest recorded sound (it is afflicted with noticeable tape wow and flutter) and sometimes dicey orchestral playing.
Several of these performances have been reviewed in these pages before, mostly with glowing praise. In 28:1 James H. North termed Walter’s 1947 Concertgebouw outing “magnificent ... a performance for the ages.” Jeffrey J. Lipscomb’s review of the 1950 Munich performance in 29:3 said that it “captures Walter’s artistry at its finest,” and he then placed it on his 2006 Want List. In 34:3 Boyd Pomeroy likewise lauded the 1939 NBC performance as “a reading of thrilling spontaneity, a combustible meeting of Walter’s totally idiomatic Mahler style with the distinctively bright, tightly focused expressive intensity of the NBC orchestra, which responds with total commitment.” He also commented briefly on the two 1947 renditions plus Walter’s two studio recordings, where his evaluations agree with those of his colleagues. The less positive reviews—Peter J. Rabinowitz on the 1950 New York performance in 13:3, and Arthur Lintgen on the 1947 London performance in 32:6—have faulted poor recorded sound rather than the interpretation. Except for finding the sound of the 1950 New York performance far more listenable than did Rabinowitz, I otherwise concur with all of the foregoing reviews and happily refer readers to them.
To their observations I will append a few of my own. The 1947 Concertgebouw and 1950 Munich performances feature a more mellow orchestral timbre than do those of their American counterparts, with Munich having the better recorded sound. However, the 1947 performance features the finest orchestral playing; it has a superior rendition of the treacherous double-bass solo in the third movement, and is the only live performance in which there is not at least one prominently cracked or blown note on the trumpets or horns (though such lapses are few and momentary in the other ones). The live 1954 New York performance cries out to be issued on CD; it has superior sound to the other live American recordings, and the crackling frisson of a live performance that the estimable studio account recorded the following day does not quite replicate. Unlike some critics who discount Walter’s 1960 account as relatively slack and a letdown from his previous versions, I still regard it as virtually nonpareil among studio recordings, even if I do prefer the greater tensile strength of the earlier monaural studio account. Mahler as a hyper-neurotic has been grossly overdone, and Walter’s balancing of what he called the Apollonian and Dionysian sides of the composer is a far more accurate view that reflects his own intimate acquaintance with Mahler’s personality rather than latter-day pseudo-Freudian projections upon it.
Unless and until the live 1954 New York account becomes available on CD, my top recommendations for the Mahler collector who wants a representative performance of the First by Walter would be either the 1947 Concertgebouw or 1950 Munich performance, along with the newly issued super-budget seven-CD set on Sony of all of Walter’s Mahler recordings for Columbia, just reviewed by Christopher Abbott as a “Classical Hall of Fame” entry in 35:6. As for this 1942 performance, while it is naturally a necessary acquisition for Walter collectors such as myself, it is a luxury acquisition for others; it is a typically excellent interpretation, but not sufficiently distinct from other and better-sounding Walter performances. Those desiring to hear Walter’s earlier thoughts on the work would do better to turn to the 1939 NBC outing.
Much the same can be said of the 1942 performance of the “Resurrection” presented here, though in this case there is considerably less competition. This is now the fifth performance by Walter of this work to appear in print, an extraordinarily high number considering the relative rarity of performances of it before the Mahler boom of the 1960s. As before, the following tables provide specific details. For all of the New York Philharmonic performances, Walter used the Westminster Choir; for the Vienna Philharmonic performance he employed the chorus of the Vienna State Opera Concert Society.
Date Orchestra / Soloists CD or LP Issue (if any)
01/25/42 NYP / Conner / Paulee Music & Arts CD-1264
05/15/48 VPO / Cebotari / Anday Archipel ARPCD 0082
12/05/48 NYP / Conner / Watson Bruno Walter Society BWS 1067/8
(LP only, Japan)
02/17/57 NYP / Stader / Forrester Music & Arts CD-1199(1)
02/17-21/58 NYP / Cundari / Forrester Sony SM2K 64447*
Timings for these are as follows:
01/25/42 22:06 9:59 10:18 4:40 32:30
05/15/48 22:28 10:53 10:56 4:38 34:47
12/05/48 22:20 11:24 10:54 5:13 34:35
02/17/57 21:30 10:36 10:44 4:39 33:01
02/17-21/58 21:37 10:35 10:43 4:11 32:26
Christopher Abbott reviewed and praised the deluxe Andante release (most regrettably out of print) of the 1948 Vienna performance in 26:6. (The current Andromeda issue, coupled with the 1950 New York performance of the First, appears to be a clone of the Andante issue, muddied with added bass reverberation.) Boyd Pomeroy (whose recent departure from these pages is a sore loss) waxed enthusiastic over the live 1957 New York performance in 34:5; an earlier issue (also by Music and Arts) was welcomed with equal enthusiasm by Abbott in 31:2, who also discusses the 1958 studio recording in his aforementioned recent Classical Hall of Fame entry in 35:6.
The Mahler Second is unique in Walter’s discography in being the only recorded work in his repertoire where his final performances are faster instead of slower than his earlier ones. Here, the 1942 performance is a few seconds behind the 1958 studio recording, and a bit ahead of the 1957 live performance, but all three are a few minutes faster than the two versions from 1948. As Abbott notes, this belies oft-repeated assertions that the post-1957 heart attack recordings led to a slackening of Walter’s interpretations; there is certainly no lack of energy and dynamism in this account. Moreover, this is a notable instance in which advances in remastering technology substantially alter discographic evaluations. The superlative deluxe Andante release of the 1948 Vienna performance transformed it from a dim-sounding mess to a listenable recording of considerable historic interest, even if in the process it revealed additional flaws (more on which anon). Boyd Pomeroy’s preference for the live 1957 performance over the 1958 studio recording was quite justifiable in light of the rather poor remastering that Sony produced of the latter for its “Bruno Walter Edition,” with a dry, constricted bass register. While this has been slightly but noticeably improved in the new boxed set reviewed by Abbott, that too would not be enough to change the assessment. But this evaluation must be radically altered once one hears the DSD (Sony SRCR 2334-5) or Blu-Spec (Sony SICC 20075-6) editions issued by Sony in Japan (the latter at least is already out of print, alas). Suddenly the entire frequency range is opened up to a hitherto unimagined degree, with a bass register that now has depth and warmth, and the choir finally emerging with the presence and impact one sensed it always had but felt was somehow imprisoned behind invisible sonic bars. (Special thanks to Fanfare reader and friend Robert Alps for both the information on these releases and for generous gift copies of them as well. Through him I have also just learned that by the time this review appears in print, Sony in Japan will have released some CDs in a newly upgraded sonic format, Blu-Spec2.)
Of these five performances, the one from Vienna in 1948 ranks a rather distant last place. While much improved by Andante, the recorded sound is still rather dry and boxy, with limited frequencies; the orchestral playing is surprisingly ragged (including a horrible cracked note in the crucial fifth movement trombone solo), and the choir not much better; and Rosette Anday’s wobbly, hollow-voiced attempt at the solo alto part is the kind of thing one hears on parody discs rather than in serious performances. This 1942 performance occupies the next-to-last position. It is very fine on its own terms, and if no other example of Walter’s art in this work survived it would be of immense value, but it is outclassed by all three succeeding performances. As in the 1948 New York performance (more on which shortly), the soloists and choir sing an English translation—revised by Walter himself—rather than the original German. Mona Paulee is a committed soloist, but her voice has more of a mezzo-soprano cast than the dark contralto one truly needed for the part. Nadine Conner, a Walter favorite for soprano vocal assignments who also sang supporting roles at the Met, fulfills her smaller role capably, and the Westminster Choir sings with power and enthusiasm.
In his typically superb program notes—which include fascinating details regarding behind-the-scenes negotiation of the Boston and New York orchestras with various musical figures and how these affected concert programming—Mark W. Kluge opines that this is “an account that is noticeably more rhetorical and dramatic than his later performances.” With this assertion I must respectfully disagree. Both the 1957 live and 1958 studio versions (the latter in its new Japanese remasterings) yield nothing on this score to the 1942, and indeed have more forward drive and energy. However, the real but frustratingly elusive prize is the live 1948 New York performance. It was released only in Japan on an ultra-scarce set of Bruno Walter Society LPs, though cassette and CD copies have circulated among private collectors as well. That is the performance to which Kluge’s observation rightly applies. It simply beggars superlatives—utterly titanic, of a white-hot intensity and level of interpretive inspiration that causes the limitations of a 1948 AM broadcast sound (superior to that from 1942) to fall away and leave one slack-jawed in dumbfounded amazement. In Rose Watson, Walter this time has the true contralto voice needed for the primary solo part; Nadine Conner repeats her fine rendition of her supporting role; both the Westminster Choir and New York Philharmonic play and sing as if their very lives depended on it, leaving their previous efforts trailing in the dust; and the audience roars and whistles its ecstatic approval at the close.
Music and Arts has done its usual superlative job with remastering and tape-to-disc transfer (by Aaron Z. Snyder and Eric Jacobs, respectively). These are both excellent performances that are necessary acquisitions for the committed Walterian such as myself. Anyone else who has the money and inclination to acquire them also will certainly get his money’s worth. The one major caveat is the existence of superior alternatives. Thus, an urgent personal plea to the good folks at M&A: how about issuing a two-CD set coupling the 1954 performance of the First and the 1948 one of the Second? That would be a must acquisition for every lover of Mahler and for collectors of historic recordings alike.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
Catalog Number: CD-1264(2)
Label: Music & Arts
Composer: Gustav Mahler
Conductor: Bruno Walter
Orchestra/Ensemble: Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, Westminster Choir
Performer: Mona Paulee, Nadine Conner