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Available from Pristine Classical

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor [82:08]
Symphony No. 1 in D major * [52:39]
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. 16 January 1961: *14, 21 January and 4, 6 February 1961, American Legion Hall, Hollywood, USA
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC 376 [60:42 + 74:10]
 
Comparisons
 
Symphony No. 9
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter. Same recording from ‘Bruno Walter: The Original Jacket Collection (Sony Classical, 1996)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter (1938 HMV live recording) Dutton CDEA5005
 
Symphony No. 1
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter. Same recording (Sony Classical SM2K 64447, 1994)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter. Live 1939 recording. Music & Arts CD-1241
New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter. Live 1942 recording. Music & Arts CD-1264 (2)
 
These two famous stereo recordings were both originally issued on LP by Columbia. They represent Bruno Walter’s final thoughts on each symphony. The recording of the Ninth is the only one he made under studio conditions. There was an earlier recording of the First, made in New York and first issued in 1955, which I have never managed to hear. More recently, two live performances of the First have been made available by Music & Arts, a 1939 reading with the NBC Symphony (review) and a 1942 traversal with the New York Philharmonic which was reviewed recently by Jonathan Woolf. Having heard both of those performances it seems to me that they might plausibly be taken as standing in relation to the 1961 studio reading in a similar manner to the way that his 1938 and 1961 accounts of the Ninth relate to each other.
 
The late Tony Duggan admired much about Walter’s 1961 view of the Ninth in his survey of recordings of that symphony. If anything, he was even more complimentary about the First in his survey of that symphony. His comments on both recordings remain well worth reading.
 
Much earlier in his career, in 1938, HMV had captured Bruno Walter’s incendiary live performance of the Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. That remains a precious document despite the inevitable sonic limitations. Walter’s approach to the work is significantly different in these two recordings; as a generalisation, his Vienna tempi are swifter, as the following table of timings for each movement suggests. 

  1938 Vienna 1961 Los Angeles

Movement I
24:47 29:29
Movement II 15:41 17:38
Movement III 11:13 13:09
Movement IV 18:20 21:11
Total 70:13 82:08

A couple of minor points should be noted. Each track in the Vienna performance starts four or five seconds before the music begins so in fact the performance is actually about 20 seconds shorter in overall duration than stated above. Secondly, in the 1961 performance the first and last movements have a few seconds of run-off: the timings shown above indicate where the music stops. Do these slower speeds indicate that the 1961 recording is the work of an old man, running out of steam? I’d argue strongly that this is not the case. Sony’s Original Jacket release of the 1961 recording included a documentary feature, lasting some 21 minutes and narrated by the producer, John McClure, which includes rehearsal extracts for the first two movements. McClure comments that Walter had the appearance of a man in his sixties – he was 84 at the time of the sessions. What we hear in this feature is a vastly experienced musician at work, displaying a keen attention to detail, especially in matters of dynamics. McClure says that the music was new to most of the musicians and, rightly, he draws attention to Walter’s patience and “gentle insistent correction” during the rehearsals. We hear a man who knew what he wanted in a score that he knew intimately – it was dedicated to him and he had given its first performance nearly fifty years earlier. Incidentally, Pristine may be in error in stating that the symphony was recorded in a single day, on 16 January 1961; John McClure says there were six three-hour sessions.
 
So the documentary suggests that Walter was in good form when preparing this recording. When we turn to the performance itself the conception may be more expansive and, at times, more mellow than in 1938 but it’s still very trenchant, albeit in a different way. The first movement may not be as urgent on the surface as his 1938 reading but it soon becomes clear that Walter is probing just as deeply, though in a different fashion. True, there are times when I wish he’d moved the music along a bit more in 1961 - for example, in the run-up to the sinister passage that starts at 7:19 and again in the passage between 11:35 and 12:14. However, the longer – and the more closely – you listen you realise that the breadth of Walter’s conception of this movement brings its own rewards. The bittersweet, Viennese lyrical side of the music comes over very well but the powerful passages register very strongly too so that, for example, the big climax at 19:38 – and the moments leading up to it – are thrust home potently. Furthermore, everything is tightly controlled from the podium; this is emphatically not the work of an elderly conductor just going through the motions. The coda, from about 26:16, is beautifully imagined by Walter: one has the feeling that a genuine repose has been won after much spiritual and musical turbulence.
 
At the start of the second movement Walter does rather strain my loyalty. His tempo for the opening ländler material is very deliberate indeed – as slow as I’ve ever heard it – and I’m afraid I find it ponderous. It’s interesting, however, to refer back to the 1938 performance. Here, too, Walter chose a steady pace, albeit a notch or two quicker than in 1961. However, when quicker music arrives at 3:05 he’s much livelier, which is welcome. Indeed, he’s pretty fiery in this episode. Nonetheless, the logical reversion to his slow basic tempo every time the ländler material reappears is a drawback. His approach risks blunting the sardonic nature of the music although, by compensation, the playing is acute and pointed throughout.
 
There’s strength and weight in the Rondo-Burleske and Walter gets his players to dig into the music. One has heard many swifter traversals of this music but Walter proves that you don’t need to take this music at full tilt to bring out its nightmarish qualities. Given his general predilection for expansive speeds you might expect that when the trumpet leads off the lengthy lyrical section that prefigures the finale (6:33) Walter’s tempo would be broad. Not so. This episode is taken at a flowing speed, which I like very much indeed, and there’s no little passion in the playing. The last throes of the Rondo (from 10:28) are taken at a fairly steady pace compared to many other conductors but Walter still invests the music with great punch; the orchestra’s playing is tart in timbre and full of fire. Needless to say, Walter’s 1938 traversal is much swifter in all respects. In many ways I find I prefer his later view.
 
The finale is noble and eloquent with a blessed absence of hand-wringing. The Columbia Symphony offers fine playing with the string section distinguishing itself from first to last. The intensity of the music quickly mounts – though Walter resolutely refuses to wear his heart on his sleeve. The playing is splendidly sonorous without ever sounding overweight: the strings really sing for their distinguished maestro and the horns are heroic. The build-up to the main climax (from 12:34) is magnificent while the climax itself (13:31–13:55) lacks no ardour. From 17:07 onwards the last few minutes have real depth of feeling. Walter’s interpretation has a feel of tranquil inwardness. He probably knew it was unlikely he would ever conduct this music again – he died thirteen months later.
 
So here we have a very considerable interpretation of one of Mahler’s greatest achievements and an interpretation, moreover, which is splendidly realised by the Columbia Symphony. The recording should be in any self-respecting Mahler collection. The key question for many will concern the quality of the sound. I’m not sure what sources Andrew Rose has used – presumably Columbia LPs – but he has achieved excellent results. I made quite extensive A/B comparisons between this transfer and the 1996 transfer for Sony’s Original Jacket Collection release. Actually, the 1996 transfer is pretty good; the orchestral sonorities come over well and plenty of detail registers. Where I think the new Pristine transfer scores is, firstly, in imparting a degree of extra warmth to the sound and, secondly, in enriching the bass line. I understand that only four double basses were used for this recording, which seems incredible but the decision was made to fit the acoustic of the hall. You wouldn’t know that just from listening. There’s a good, solid bass foundation on the Sony transfer but even more is revealed by Andrew Rose.
 
As I said at the top of this review, Tony Duggan singled out Walter’s 1961 recording of the First Symphony for considerable praise. He had the advantage over me in that I haven’t heard the earlier New York studio recording. However, having possessed for some years a copy of Sony’s 1994 issue of the 1961 recording – coupled with Walter’s 1957/8 traversal of the Second Symphony – I knew it was a good performance. Walter generates a good tension at the very start and later, where the ‘Ging heut Morgen’ theme makes its appearance, I like the gait of that episode; it feels natural. The recording comes up well too. I love the quiet, cavernous bass at 6:31 and later (at 11:28) the exultant climax is well presented by the engineers. There’s a bright, exultant ring to the closing pages.
 
The opening of the second movement benefits from plenty of tang and relish in the playing of the Columbia Symphony. The trio (2:56-5:30) is affectionate and warmly phrased. The third movement is taken at a deliberate pace, even in the “village band” episodes (for example at 3:55-4:11). The ‘Lindenbaum’ episode (5:40-7:37) is warmly done, the strings caressing the melody. Interestingly, when the funeral march returns (7:57) the speed seemed a little swifter than tempo primo and flicking quickly back to the start of the movement confirmed that this is so; was this the result of an edit, perhaps? In the 1939 and 1942 live versions Walter’s tempo is pretty similar to the pace he adopts in 1961; but on both occasions at the resumption of the funeral march he re-establishes his tempo primo. In the 1961 reading the initial speed for this movement is rather too deliberate for my taste; the slightly faster speed he takes at 7:57 is much to be preferred even though the difference is fairly modest.
 
Overall, Walter’s 1961 conception of the finale is broader than in either of the live versions – he takes 20:22 here, compared with 18:55 in 1942 and 18:04 in 1939, when he really got the bit between his teeth! As you might guess from these timings he fairly launches into the movement in the concert performances and in both cases it’s very exciting. It’s not all gain, however: there’s an additional thrust and weight in 1961 with the CSO offering some very powerful playing. Furthermore, in the turbulent opening pages the strings are stretched significantly by Walter’s urgent pace in 1942 and, especially, in 1939. By contrast the Columbia strings are able to articulate Mahler’s busy figurations with much greater clarity than their earlier peers. I think that’s preferable. Later on the great extended violin melody (from 3:38) is tenderly done, rising increasingly in passion. It’s noticeable, incidentally, how Walter ensures the quiet double bass pizzicati register in this passage. When the tempestuous music returns Walter’s performance has strength and character, ending the symphony with an imposing, rhetorical peroration.
 
Like his recording of the Ninth, Walter’s 1961 account of the First is an important recording. The live performances have their merits but the greater precision and infinitely better sound of the studio recording make it the prime version to have with the others as fascinating extra choices. An A/B comparison of the Pristine transfer against the Sony Classical confirms that both are impressive but Andrew Rose’s Pristine sound has the edge. The strings, for example, are heard with greater presence at the start of the finale. There seems to be a slightly sharper focus at the start of the symphony and the sound in the second movement struck me as cleaner and clearer in this new transfer. In both transfers there’s a very good stereo spread.
 
I think it’s beyond question that both of these Walter recordings are important ones in the recording histories of the respective symphonies. Walter gives us a direct line to Mahler himself and whilst his isn’t the only way with these inexhaustibly rich scores the wisdom and long experience he brings to them give these late interpretations a unique authority and value. Happily the Columbia Symphony Orchestra did a magnificent job for him on both occasions.
 
So, having established that these performances belong in any serious Mahler collection should you acquire them in these Pristine transfers? My comparisons suggest to me that there are differences between the new transfers and the Sony Classical ones to which I have access – I don’t know if any alternative Sony transfers are available. In places where I have a preference for one transfer over the other then Pristine seem to me to have the edge consistently. However, it’s important to say that I found the differences were not enormous. Therefore, if you have the Sony transfers in question I don’t think you need to upgrade to Pristine: you are well enough served. If, however, you’re coming new to these performances then go for this excellent new Pristine issue.
 
John Quinn


Experience Classicsonline