Reviews for IPCD 1099-4
A TREASURY OF LITTLE KNOWN AND UNKNOWN BROADCASTS
March /April 2018
If you are somehow still attached to the clichéd view of Bruno Walter as the genial, soft-grained, gemutlich conductor practically exhaling whipped cream, just put on the opening of the Dies irae from this performance of Mozart’s Requiem and you will find your mind changed instantly. The entire first disc of this generously filled set (the average length of each CD is 78:30) features an all-Mozart New York Philharmonic broadcast concert from March 11, 1956. The “Little” G-Minor Symphony has some of the poorest sound of this entire collection, but is still listenable, if bright and edgy. The performance is the most dramatic of the three Walter recordings that exist (along with a live Vienna Philharmonic performance and a New York studio recording), and worth hearing despite its built-in sonic deficiencies. But it is the following Requiem, in surprisingly better sound, that raises this first disc from the category of interesting to truly significant.
James A. Altena, in his superb accompanying notes, points out that there are seven recorded Walter performances of the Mozart Requiem, six live performances and one CBS studio recording made in conjunction with the 1956 performance reproduced here. I have not heard all of the alternative versions, but this performance supersedes the ones I do know, including the studio recording. Despite the fact that this is old-fashioned, big-boned Mozart which might put off some of today’s HIP scholars, the sweep and momentum created by Walter here should overcome the doubts of all but the most rigid of opponents. This performance is, according to Altena, significantly faster (some 53 minutes, as opposed to the range of 57–60 of the other five). More than just quicker tempos, however, this performance has about it an electricity that is apparent from the opening chords. Choir, soloists, and orchestra all seem inspired by Walter to levels of reverence and conviction rare in performances of this music. There is a leanness of texture here that one doesn’t hear in other Walter performances, except for the studio recording. But this has an energy, a dramatic impetus and rhythmic firmness a few degrees beyond that studio version. The four soloists are magnificent. Irmgard Seefried’s pure lyrical soprano gleams, Jennie Tourel adds her rich alto to the texture, Léopold Simoneau’s sweet lyric tenor is a joy to the ear, and William Warfield exhibits a tonal solidity that serves as the foundation of the vocal quartet. This is one of those performances where you sense everyone knew something special was happening. If the live broadcast sound is not quite at the level of CBS’s studio recording, it is surprisingly close in Richard Caniell’s excellent restoration. A segment of Jim Fassett’s broadcast commentary is included to recreate the atmosphere of the original broadcasts, but is tracked separately if you wish to skip it.
Disc 2 contains, with Jim Fassett’s commentary (really recalling my youth), an all-Brahms program from December 19, 1954, featuring the Tragic Overture and A German Requiem. Walter’s Brahms always seemed to me to benefit from his view of orchestral color and sonority. Walter was a conductor who built his orchestral sound from the bottom up. Everything was set on a firm foundation of the basses, cellos, and lower brass. Brahms’s music needs this approach in order to provide a firm underpinning to his unusual harmonic shifts, and to present his scores with the textural richness that they contain. This weight of sound (replicated in the choral sonority) serves Walter well, counterbalancing his relatively quick tempos in the German Requiem performance. The performance is a very captivating and intriguing one. At about 63 minutes it is one of the fastest of which I am aware (68–70 is a norm) but it never sounds rushed or driven. A combination of that rich sonority, supple and flexible phrasing, and sensitive dynamic shading all give the performance an aura of majesty and gravitas despite the tempos. We often say in writing reviews that tempo is not one of the most important aspects of an interpretation, and here is Exhibit A for that contention. Walter’s unique blend of warmth and intensity is singularly effective in Brahms’s one major religious work, managing to balance the massive power of “Denn alles Fleisch” with the sense of comfort and consolation of “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” or “Selig sind die Toten.” The two soloists are significant assets as well, particularly George London, whose rich voice is used with utmost sensitivity and who gives real meaning to the words. James Altena says in his notes that this live recording is “in some respects sonically superior to the studio effort.” If I were to disagree, it would only be with the “in some respects” part of that statement. I find the sound here warmer and more natural, more open, than the studio recording in most respects, and the performance considerably preferable for its extra drama and conviction. Only at a few climaxes is there a hint of congestion.
Disc 3 begins with a taut, dramatic reading of Mozart’s Overture to Così fan tutte, an opera apparently close to Walter’s heart, though he never conducted it at the Met. He made two Columbia recordings of the Overture, a monaural one with the New York version of the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in 1954 and a stereo version in 1961 with the Los Angeles equivalent. I find this, nicely recorded here, preferable to the two studio recordings; as seems to often be the case with Walter, there is an extra intensity and conviction with his live performances.
Next on this disc is something very important: a work new to Walter’s discography, and in a spectacular performance: Beethoven’s concert aria Ah! Perfido, sung brilliantly by Eleanor Steber in a concert on April 15, 1949. I know recordings of this difficult piece by Eva Marton, Gundula Janowitz, Maria Callas, Régine Crespin, Gre Brouwenstijn, and Aprile Millo. Steber is, frankly, superior to all of them in encompassing its huge vocal range with power and no sense of strain at either end. Birgit Nilsson manages the vocal demands as easily as Steber, but with less specificity of inflection. This gem is a true highlight of this set, even though it lasts just a bit over 12 minutes.
Another highlight is what follows: Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with Vladimir Horowitz, from the Concertgebouw on February 20, 1936. This recording is famous as one of only two performances of this work with Horowitz that survive, the other being conducted in New York by Toscanini in 1935. This performance is also notorious because one of the 78-rpm acetates in the only surviving set was damaged, compromising three minutes of music. Earlier releases have either left a brief pause there, or (Music & Arts) replaced the missing music from the Horowitz/Toscanini performance. Immortal Performances takes that second approach, but does it much more skillfully than Music & Arts, resulting in a virtually seamless insertion. Surprisingly, there is little interpretive difference noticeable, at least at that point in the first movement. Overall, the performance is more similar to the Toscanini one than you might have anticipated. Tempos are quick, and there is an emphasis on virtuosity in the outer movements, where Horowitz is simply astonishing. The slow movement is wonderfully poetic, with the pianist and conductor exploring varying degrees of piano and pianissimo playing, and creating a magical atmosphere. Despite the fast tempos in the outer movements, the music never sounds rushed because of Walter’s weighty sonorities and Horowitz’s rhythmic firmness. This is a quite different performance from the Curzon/Walter released on Pristine. That one emphasized poetry and lyricism, while not shortchanging drama. This one emphasizes drama and intensity, while not shortchanging poetry.
Next, finishing up CD 3 and taking most of CD 4, is a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony from December 5, 1948. The performance is in English (in that post-war era German was still not preferred for many concert performances). Mahler’s music presents such a wide range of interpretive options to a conductor that anyone who attempts to define a “correct” approach is on a fool’s errand. We actually have recordings of Mahler’s music led by six different conductors who knew and worked with him (Oskar Fried, Willem Mengelberg, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, F. Charles Adler, and one movement led by Arnold Schoenberg), and what is most remarkable about them is how different they all are from each other. From what we read about the spontaneity of Mahler’s conducting, one suspects he would have encouraged different interpretive outlooks. So despite Walter’s closeness to Mahler, I don’t take his approach as more “authentic” than that of others. Neither, however, do I discount that it has a genuinely deep connection to the composer. In general, Walter’s way with this music emphasizes its lyricism and humanity, and somewhat underplays its Angst and its earthy vulgarity. In some of his recordings, particularly later ones, while recognizing its beauty I find the lack of intensity and drama not consonant with my own taste. That is certainly not the case here. While both the studio recording and the live performance connected to it in 1957 have richer recorded sound than this, Caniell has done a magnificent restoration work for what seems to me to be by far Walter’s most dramatic and fiery Mahler Second performance to survive. The sound is a bit muddy and congested, but not so much so as to make it difficult for any listener with an openness to historic broadcast sound to appreciate this performance. The two vocal soloists are quite lovely, despite not being superstars (Altena rightly observes in his notes that the deficiencies in the recorded sound actually make it somewhat difficult to discern that the performance is being sung in English), and the chorus sings with a beautiful rich blend of tone even at its piano entrance. It is in the finale, particularly the last 10 or 15 minutes, that the difference between this and other Walter performances becomes dramatically apparent. Bruno Walter was, in fact, a man of the theater, and he brings this work to a close in a blaze of glory that clearly ignites an audience ovation at a time when Mahler was still a concert hall rarity. Where Bernstein emphasizes the music’s emotional turmoil, Solti its brilliance, and Haitink its warmth, Walter tries to balance those elements more evenly. Here he succeeds.
The lovely bonus is a group of three songs composed by Walter, sung by the great Canadian alto Maureen Forrester, in two performances (1971 and 1972) with fine accompaniments from John Newmark and Yehudi Wyner. I wish that Immortal Performances had printed the texts and translations of these songs, but between the summary given by Altena in his notes and Forrester in her introductions we get a good enough idea about their contents. These are in the late or post-Romantic tradition you would expect, and are quite lovely. Anyone who prizes the Lieder of Mahler or Strauss will find much to enjoy here.
The booklet is up to Immortal Performances’ usual high standard—a level far beyond virtually all other companies specializing in historic reissues. Credit goes to Fanfare’s James A. Altena, who provided many of the recordings used here and worked closely with Richard Caniell in its production. In addition to Altena’s illuminating commentary we get recording notes by Caniell, biographies of soloists, and lovely photographs. The enclosed booklet runs to 36 pages. This set expands greatly our knowledge of Bruno Walter, and documents performances of rare beauty and power. Importantly, Immortal Performances is making the four-disc set available for the price of three.
A TREASURY OF LITTLE KNOWN AND UNKOWN BROADCASTS
March /April 2018
There is no question that studio recordings can offer a priceless window into the artistry of a great musician. But sometimes, that window affords but a partial view. The conducting career of Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957), who made his debut in 1886, lasted 70 years. But the Italian maestro has long been best remembered, at least on recordings, for his famous collaborations with the NBC Symphony Orchestra that span approximately a decade, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. A similar dynamic applies to another giant of the podium, Bruno Walter (1876–1962). During the final years of his life, Walter made numerous stereo recordings for Columbia. And with some notable exceptions, these are the discs that have served as the basis to judge Walter’s conducting legacy. To be sure, both the Toscanini-NBC Symphony and Walter-Columbia stereo recordings are important and musically satisfying documents. But both Toscanini and Walter began their conducting careers when the idea of preserving symphonic or operatic performances via sound recordings was but a pipe dream. For Toscanini and Walter, it was the concert hall and opera house, not the recording studio, where great music was made, and communicated to audiences. And so, devotees of maestros like Toscanini, Walter, and many other podium legends often seek recordings of their favorite conductors in live performance. In support of that pursuit, companies like Immortal Performances have provided a wonderful service, issuing numerous in-performance recordings, many dating as far back as the 1930s. These recordings often paint a quite different picture than the one framed by the more familiar studio efforts. A new Immortal Performances release, devoted to broadcasts of concerts led by Bruno Walter, includes performances that served as the basis for famous studio recordings as well as others that are independent of any commercial venture. All are worth hearing, and many are essential for a keener understanding of one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.
The four-disc set (priced as three) opens with a March 11, 1956 New York Philharmonic concert broadcast, part of the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Studio recordings of both works on the program, the Symphony No. 25 and Requiem, were made in conjunction with the concert, and with the same artists. The broadcast and studio recordings proceed in similar fashion, with the former conveying that extra sense of immediacy and intensity inspired by the high-wire tension of a live performance. The Symphony No. 25 features bracing tempos and an intense approach to the outer movements, with a more lyrical, relaxed view of the Andante and Minuet. The Requiem is on a very grand scale, both in terms of performing forces, and a sense of weighty and noble grandeur that pervades throughout. As my Fanfare colleague James Altena argues in his superb booklet notes, this is not the kind of performance that would earn the approval of those who advocate for period instrument Mozart, or even an historically informed modern instrument practice. But taken on its own terms, the Walter Mozart Requiem (both the broadcast and studio recording) is a moving, powerful, and beautiful statement. Certainly the contribution of a sublime quartet of soloists (Irmgard Seefried, Jennie Tourel, Léopold Simoneu, and William Warfield) is one of the major factors, but so are the performances of the New York Philharmonic and Westminster Choir. And the interpretations of both of these works (indeed, of all the works on this set) embody one of the elements that I find so uplifting about Walter’s music-making. When listening to Walter conduct, I always feel that his sole concern is to do justice to the music. He never indulges in showy exaggeration or cheap effects. This does not mean Walter’s interpretations lack individuality or excitement. Far from it. But there is never a sense that Walter is trying to call attention to himself or to the musicians. The music speaks, and convinces, on its own terms. While this disc is probably the one of the four that offers the smallest contrast between the studio recording and live performance, it is still of marked interest.
If Disc 1 is a worthwhile opening to the set, Disc 2 is where we start to mine some true gold. It is a December 19, 1954 New York Philharmonic broadcast of an all-Brahms concert. The program opens with a blazing account of the Tragic Overture. I would recommend this performance to anyone who believes that Walter’s interpretations lack fire and passion. It is hair-raising, as this piece should be. The main work on the broadcast is the Brahms choral masterpiece, A German Requiem. The day after the broadcast, the artists began a studio recording, completed on December 29. When Walter heard a pressing of the planned studio issue, he was mortified and forbade its release. The commercial recording was not available until 1971, almost a decade after Walter’s death. It’s easy to understand Walter’s objections. The commercial recording suffers from cloudy, recessed sound that becomes harsh and overloaded in climaxes. These sonic deficiencies would be harmful to any recording of the Brahms German Requiem, but they are fatal to Walter’s artistic vision. I think of Walter as an artist ideally positioned to interpret this transcendent but highly challenging work. Brahms himself admitted that perhaps a better title would have been “A Human Requiem.” As a musician, Walter certainly understood as well as anyone how to communicate the warmth and humanity of a musical creation. And from the very start, Walter elicits a beautiful, glowing sound from the orchestra and chorus. But there is another talent that Walter was able to bring to this score, that of an experienced and great opera conductor. Too often, performances of A German Requiem get bogged down by a too reverential, cathedral-like approach in which the momentum and drama grind to a standstill. That is not true in the 1954 broadcast. Walter favors very fleet tempos that generate a welcome and fresh sense of momentum, without ever seeming rushed. In addition, Walter encourages the chorus and soloists (the great George London and Irmgard Seefried) to deliver the text with the utmost clarity, thereby emphasizing the human, and perhaps even operatic, drama of this work. Much of the genius of Walter’s approach is lost in the sonic haze of the commercial recording, but is crystal-clear in the broadcast. I truly believe that if you want to hear the full beauty and power of Walter’s conception of A German Requiem (and it is most definitely worth hearing), you must acquire the 1954 broadcast, not the contemporaneous Columbia studio recording.
Disc 3 begins with a fleet, propulsive, and beautifully played Così fan tutte Overture (NY Philharmonic, January 17, 1954). Two works never commercially recorded by Walter follow. First is a superb account of Ah! Perfido, with soprano Eleanor Steber and the NY Philharmonic (April 15, 1949), receiving its disc premiere. Beethoven’s concert aria is a highly demanding work, requiring a soprano who combines declamatory intensity, lyric beauty, mastery of florid writing, and a secure, powerful upper register. Steber, a marvelous and versatile artist, is equal to all challenges, and because of her technical mastery is able to throw herself completely into the musical and textual drama. Steber, Walter, and the NY Philharmonic are glorious artistic partners, in sync throughout. The cumulative result is thrilling, as it should be. And speaking of thrilling, Walter’s performances and recordings from the 1930s often reveal a quite different interpretive “face.” Indeed, the Walter of the 1930s could be a veritable firebrand, leading performances that achieved a white-hot intensity. A case in point is the February 20, 1936 Concertgebouw performance of the Brahms First Piano Concerto, with Vladimir Horowitz as soloist. Walter launches the opening movement with almost unbearable tension and focus, a reminder that Brahms composed this music in the wake of the attempted suicide by his mentor, Robert Schumann. But in addition to fire, there is lovely playing from the Concertgebouw strings, complete with tasteful portamentos. Horowitz’s entrance is masterfully executed, gently played and with fetching rubato, before resolving to his initial shattering outburst. In the remainder of the opening movement, Horowitz is a virtuoso force of nature, matched step for step by Walter and the Concertgebouw. All concerned are greeted by applause at movement’s close. Horowitz plays with breathtaking poetic beauty in the second movement, setting the stage for another volcanic performance in the finale. This may be the most electrifying Brahms First I’ve ever heard, but there are some challenges. The recorded sound, while certainly listenable, is well below that of the other broadcast material on this set. Further, one of the transcription discs was lost, necessitating the substitution on this set (at 8:06–11:14 of the first movement) of a March 17, 1935 New York Philharmonic performance (also amazing) by Horowitz, with Toscanini conducting. Richard Caniell blends the two recordings expertly. If the 1936 Concertgebouw performance were note-complete and in good sound for the era, it would likely sweep the field. As it is, all who love Brahms and this work should hear it.
And finally, we have Walter and Mahler. I’ve written often in the context of my reviews of Verdi works conducted by Toscanini of the close relationship between the composer and conductor. In the case of Mahler and Walter, the relationship was even more profound. Walter, a young friend and disciple of Mahler, conducted the world premieres of both Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony. And Walter proved to be a tireless advocate for Mahler during a time when composer’s works were viewed more as eccentric curiosities than music of great and singular value. In addition to his numerous concert performances, Walter made several commercial recordings of Mahler’s compositions, including a 1958 set of the Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” with the New York Philharmonic. A decade earlier, on December 5, 1948, Walter and the New York Philharmonic gave a broadcast performance of the “Resurrection.” That performance is the final major work on this set. If I were to write a conventional review of the 1948 broadcast, I’d mention that while the performance times of various movements are similar to the commercial recording, the concert “Resurrection” strikes me as more flexible in phrasing, far more intense, and more overwhelming in the great climaxes. I’d note that while the broadcast sound is well below that of the 1958 Columbia recording, it is more than adequate to enjoy the performance. I’d inform you of the fact that the soloists and chorus (all quite fine) sing an English-language translation of the texts of the final two movements, but for the most part, the words are difficult to discern. But something happened along the way that changed the focus of my listening and the subsequent review. After Mahler’s rather odd resolution of the opening movement, there is a smattering of applause that cuts off quickly, followed by what sounds like some nervous movement and laughter. America in 1948 was hardly the center of performances of Mahler symphonies. But Walter and the musicians forge ahead, performing the music with total commitment, intensity, and affection. In the finale, Walter, the great Mahler and opera interpreter, mines every bit of the drama inherent in music, leading to a choral finale that brought tears to my eyes, and I am sure, to many in the Carnegie Hall and radio audience. I suspect that Walter created many converts to Mahler that day. This is more than a great performance. It is precious historic treasure, a document of Bruno Walter helping to make Gustav Mahler a cornerstone of American symphonic repertoire.
One of the vocal soloists for the 1958 Columbia recording of the “Resurrection” was the young Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester. Forrester always credited Walter with helping to launch her career. And this Immortal Performance set concludes with Forrester’s tribute to Walter, in the form of two performances of his brief song cycle Tragödie, including the July 12, 1971 world premiere. These songs convey a late-Romantic lyricism that I suspect will remind you of another composer Walter knew well. Forrester, a supreme artist, sings them beautifully and with great artistry. I’ve already mentioned James Altena’s detailed, informative, compelling notes on Walter and these recordings. There are German texts and English translations for the Mahler, artist bios, and notes on the recordings by producer Richard Caniell, who has worked his characteristic magic with the various sources. I found this not only to be an endlessly fascinating release, but one that touched me a great deal as well. All Walter fans will want this, and others should give it the utmost consideration.