Mahler
Symphony No.1 in D
Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn – IX: Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen
Wagner
Faust Overture
Haydn
Symphony No.96 in D
Brahms
Schicksalslied, Op.54
Irmgard Seefried (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Bruno Walter

Recorded: Royal Festival Hall, 15 May 1955 [Mahler 1 & Wagner], 25 May 1955 [Brahms], and 29 May 1955
CD No: ICA ICAC 5151
Duration: 102 minutes
Reviewed: February 2020

Bruno Walter will be remembered for his close association with Gustav Mahler, whom he encountered first in 1894, and it was through the influence of the composer that at the age of nineteen Walter became conductor of the municipal opera in Breslau. Around this time he changed his name from Schlesinger to Walter – possibly because the theatre director preferred a non-Jewish name. Soon, he moved to Pressburg for an appointment, and then to Riga where he converted to Christianity – a sincere conversion which he enthusiastically retained to the end of his life. In 1900 he returned to Berlin, the town of his birth, where he became Royal Prussian Conductor at the Staatsoper, and, one year later, he also became assistant to Mahler at the Court Opera.

So, already having achieved a notable career at the age of 25, Walter developed his talents further, and his firm association with Mahler was important. After the composer’s death in 1911 Walter gave the premiere of Das Lied von der Erde, and directed the Vienna Philharmonic in the premiere of the Ninth Symphony. Having become an Austrian Citizen in 1911 he then directed the Bavarian State Opera in Munich until 1922. He left for America in 1923, working with the New York Symphony and conducting in Detroit, Minnesota and Boston. Other appointments were taken up but the Nazi regime eventually cut short his four-year tenure with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and Austria became his abode until at the Anschluss he had to leave and went via France (where he made several recordings) before finally settling in America, where a notable early achievement was a recording of Brahms’s Song of Destiny with the Westminster Choir and the New-York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra . So good was the quality that it was coupled with a later Beethoven Choral Symphony on a two-LP set. Walter had sympathy for the work, and in this 1955 Royal Festival Hall performance the long, comforting opening sequence was given with tender expressiveness and the quiet final bars were very touching. What a shame that the atmosphere is then broken by applause.

Wagner’s Faust Overture starts promisingly; clear, quiet and with hardly any background noise; and at climaxes the orchestral detail is surprisingly good. Walter deals confidently with the uncertain moments, and the sporadic Liszt-like outbursts which are features of this episodic piece.

Walter uses an edition of score for Haydn 96 which has been condemned as inauthentic, yet the divergences from the autograph all sound Haydn-like, especially in the slow introduction where the addition of trumpets and drums makes this section more positive, bringing it in line with the scoring of other introductory passages in the symphonies. A shame though that this brief movement should be given no repeat. In the Trio of the Minuet there is a typical Haydn joke where, in the second section, the trumpet takes over the oboe melody for a few bars and later shares quiet chords with the timpani – a delightful effect. I had always thought this represented the composer at his most witty, but look at the score as reproduced in H. C. Robbins Landon’s authentic Universal Edition and the Trio features neither trumpets nor drums. In Walter’s performance these instruments are particularly forceful; powerful Haydn throughout and the Finale is exhilaratingly swift.

The song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn sits on the companion disc, somewhat uncomfortably after Mahler’s First Symphony. In it Irmgard Seefried’s lovely voice is done no favours by close microphoning. There are several versions of Mahler’s First under Walter, but this 1955 performance appears for the first time, and it is one of considerable consequence. At the quiet beginning I found the heavy background noise disturbing, but it reduces as the music proceeds. The main theme is wondrously expressive (no repeat) and the players, though not precise in every detail, seem stirred by their conductor to phrase with inspiration. Balance is good, too, with excellent timpani and clear-cut cellos. In the slower Trio of the Scherzo, Walter, like Horenstein but few others, contrives to gauge Mahler’s increases of tempo so that at its close the Scherzo’s original tempo has been reached. The finale is attacked with force, and the cymbals are not shy. Never mind a few orchestral inaccuracies; this is a stirring performance verging on greatness.

 

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