Mahler: Symphony No. 1; Wagner: Faust Overture; Siegfried Idyll
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MAHLER Symphony No. 1. WAGNER Faust Overture . Siegfried Idyll • Bruno Walter, cond; NBC SO • MUSIC & ARTS 1241, mono (77:25) Live: New York 4/8/1939
This important release brings together Walter’s complete final concert from the series of five he did at NBC in 1939. The Faust Overture appeared in a previous Music & Arts Walter collection; otherwise I’m not aware of any previous CD release of the material. The sound is excellent: full-bodied with great clarity and immediacy (capturing many of Walter’s exhortations and strenuous vocalizations)—interestingly, Walter seemed to hold a minority (high) opinion of the notorious Studio 8H.
The Mahler is Walter’s earliest preserved performance of the work (indeed, the earliest by any conductor I’m aware of; Mitropoulos’s Minneapolis premiere recording dates from 1940). It is 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. The first movement is lithe, supple, with a very flexible pulse; hear his impulsive pressing ahead in response to the music’s having modulated one key too far in the sharpward direction (E Major, Rehearsal 6 + 8). The beginning of the slow movement brings a real surprise: what sounds like Mahler’s original conception of solo cello doubling the customary bass in unison—an experiment Walter seems not to have repeated in any of his later extant performances. The finale is intensely dramatic, working to a dénouement of overwhelming emotional force and, ultimately, saturated splendor.
Other available Walter performances give a fascinating picture of the gradual transformation of his interpretation over the years: A live 1947 version with the LPO (Testament) is similar in conception to NBC: swift, light-toned, characterful, and spontaneous, but preserved in problematic sound. A Concertgebouw performance from the same year (Tahra r RCO Live) is sharp and pungent, with a memorably old-world string style. A 1950 performance with the Bavarian State Orchestra (Orfeo) is darker, smoother, less pointed; the 1954 NYPO studio recording weightier, straighter, more severe. By comparison, the final Columbia Symphony version (1961) represents very much an old man’s view—mellow, deliberate, soft-focused, and comparatively uninflected.
Walter conducts a memorable performance of Wagner’s Faust Overture, of seething intensity and swashbuckling drama, on a looser rein than Toscanini’s with the same orchestra two years later (Naxos). Siegfried Idyll was a great Walter specialty, and the NBC version is distinguished by its swift pacing, expressive freedom, and highly nuanced execution, with a pp conclusion of truly heart-stopping beauty. Again, comparisons are instructive: the 1935 studio recording with the VPO (Opus Kura) transparent, lean, surprisingly ascetic with very little string vibrato. A live Los Angeles PO performance from 1949 (Music & Arts) is similar in conception to NBC, but less refined, heavier in expression. Two NYP versions—the 1953 studio recording (United Archives) and a live one from 1957 (Music & Arts)—are more symphonically imposing, less intimate; the final Columbia Symphony recording (1959) slower, less flexible, of muted shades and a decidedly autumnal feeling.
All in all, a major new addition to the Walter discography, one that shows the conductor at his formidable best, and preserved in lifelike, vivid sound. Riches indeed!
FANFARE: Boyd Pomeroy
Catalog Number: MA CD-1241
Label: Music & Arts Program
Composer: Gustav Mahler, Richard Wagner
Conductor: Bruno Walter