Sunday, March 15, 2020

Bruno Walter on Columbia: Bruckner and Mahler

As initially announced, my examination of Bruno Walter: The Complete Columbia Album Collection will conclude by addressing his recordings of the music of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. As I already observed, Walter worked closely with Mahler as both assistant and advocate. For the record (as they say), Mahler seems to be the first conductor to perform his music in the United States; but the first conductor to present Mahler’s music on a regular basis was Willem Mengelberg during his tenure with the New York Philharmonic between 1922 and 1928.

The Musikverein in Vienna, where much of Mahler’s music was performed by Bruno Walter, among others (photograph by Gryffindor, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The earliest Mahler recording of Walter I have been able to identify is a concert recording of Das Lied von der Erde made on May 24, 1936 with the Vienna Philharmonic performing at the Musikverein. The soloists are contralto Kerstin Thorborg and Charles Kullman, and the recording was first released in the United Kingdom by the Columbia Graphophone Company. It would later be released as a Columbia album in the United States. It was included in the eight-CD collection The Music of Gustav Mahler: Issued 78s, 1903-1940, produced by Urlicht AudioVisual in a limited edition of 1000 copies and no longer available.

Sadly, this recording is not part of the “complete Columbia album collection,” probably because it was not produced in the United States. This omission is a bit of a pity, not only because its vintage is so early but also because it is one of the gutsiest interpretations of Das Lied von der Erde that I have encountered. (The recording is listed in what amounts to the “London appendix” to the discography that concludes the 203-page book that accompanies the CDs in the collection.)

Nevertheless, there is enough to appreciate in what the collection does offer to justify setting aside any grousing. The recording of Das Lied von der Erde is relatively recent, made in April of 1960 with the New York Philharmonic and soloists Mildred Miller (mezzo) and Ernst Haefliger (tenor). As many readers know, I have a strong bias in favor of contralto Kathleen Ferrier, meaning that it will be very difficult for me to dislodge the Vienna recording she made with Walter and tenor Julius Patzak (whatever others may say about his age when the recording was made in 1952) from the top of my personal list. That said, Walter’s command of the overall song cycle is as compelling in 1960 as it was in 1952 (and, for that matter, in 1936).

Walter never covered all of Mahler’s symphonies in his sessions with Columbia. The only one I miss is the sixth, since I am curious as to what Walter would have done with its over-the-top emotional intensity. The symphonies that are included are the first, second, fourth, fifth, and ninth. Only the first was recorded twice, first in New York and later in Hollywood. Taken as a whole, these are all informed and engaging accounts that do not try to short-change Mahler’s expressiveness. I was also glad to satisfy my “contralto fix” with Maureen Forester’s performance in the second (“Resurrection”), joined by soprano Emilia Cundari.

There is also an opportunity to listen to Walter at the keyboard, accompanying soprano Dési Halban in eight of Mahler’s earliest songs, all based on texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Halban is also the soloist in the final movement of the fourth symphony, which is another setting of a Wunderhorn text. Walter clearly appreciated the intimacy of all of these text settings (including the one in the fourth symphony). He thus provides the listener with a side of Mahler that tends to be overlooked by those thinking that emotional intensity is all that matters.

The Bruckner offerings are far more modest. My guess is that Bruckner did not go down very well with the Columbia bean-counters. For that matter I cannot say that I encountered very much by way of compelling listening experiences until the turn of this new century. (Even now I have colleagues complaining that Bruckner spent too much time saying too little.)

The fact is that there are only five Bruckner recordings in the collection, and three of them were made in Hollywood between 1959 and 1961. Those sessions covered the three best-known of the nine symphonies, the fourth (“Romantic”), seventh, and ninth (in its three-movement version). The New York recordings were made much earlier in 1953 (the setting of the Te Deum hymn) and 1954 (the seventh symphony recorded at a New York Philharmonic concert in Carnegie Hall). The Hollywood recording of the seventh is definitely more expansive (which I prefer in spite of others who complain about Bruckner’s length).

My overall impression is that Walter knew how to get beyond any matters of duration and deliver an account of Bruckner that would reward the patient listener. However, Walter’s intentions were only as good as the willingness of the ensemble to follow his lead. In that context I was struck by the impression that the Hollywood players were more willing than those in New York. (Given some of the gossip that has accumulated around the Philharmonic’s reputation, I should not be surprised by this comparison.)

There is, of course, the usual question of which versions Walter used to prepare his performances. The track listing provides this information for all of the recordings except for the Carnegie performance of the seventh (meaning that the information probably had not appeared in the concert program). (Walter used Bruckner’s original version for his Hollywood recording, so it would not surprise me if he had used in previously in New York.)

Taken as a whole, I would say that there is much to be learned from listening to Walter’s perspectives on both Bruckner and Mahler in this collection; and, while I have other recordings of all of the compositions he recorded, I look forward to revisiting this portion of the Columbia anthology that Sony recently released.

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