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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Bruno Walter Conducts Beethoven
Symphonies Nos. 1-9 (complete)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Leonore Overture No. 2, Op. 72a
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 – Adagio; rehearsal
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67: 1. Allegro con brio; rehearsal
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92: Poco sostenuto – Vivace; rehearsal
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 'Choral' - Molto vivace; rehearsal
Zino Francescatti (violin); Emilia Cundari (soprano), Nell Rankin (mezzo), Albert Da Costa (tenor), William Wilderman (baritone)
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. 6 January 1958-19 April 1959 (symphonies); 15 April 1959 (Coriolan); 1 July 1960 (Leonore); 23-26 January 1961 (violin concerto); 27 January 1958-26 January 1959 (rehearsals – mono); American Legion Hall, Los Angeles. ADD
SONY CLASSICAL 88875 123912 [7 CDs: 8:06:48]

The first eight symphonies here were recorded in the first two months of 1958 using members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic masquerading as the “Columbia Symphony Orchestra”. The first three movements of the Ninth were recorded a year later in the American Legion Hall, using the same musicians. However, the recording details provided here do not reflect the fact that because Walter wanted to use the Westminster Choir, the recording venue for the finale was moved to New York. Another group of local musicians performing under the same name completed the recording in April 1959. The two overtures and the violin concerto date from slightly later but everything here was recorded over three years between January 1958 and January 1961. By this time Walter was 84 years old but evincing no sign of slowing down. This neat box-set is the usual Sony re-packing: over eight hours of music on seven CDs, free of notes and anything other than cardboard sleeves and providing the barest information. The sound has come up very well but is still a little muddy and soft-edged compared with the contemporaneous set recorded in Berlin for EMI by André Cluytens, which forms the basis of much of my comparison. In general, Cluytens is more genial and graceful, Walter more driven and forensic, despite his famed command of rubato.

No complete set of the symphonies can satisfy everyone in every respect but this one has by and large been either respectfully or enthusiastically received since its appearance; its reputation has been enhanced by being the late work of such a revered and even venerated figure as Bruno Walter. I have to say that while I find much here to admire, the indifferent sound and these generally rather brisk and conventional readings do not warrant any particular preference for them over other favourite recordings of that era. Walter’s approach is fast and free-flowing; never lightweight but not especially profound. No exposition repeats are provided in nos. 4 and 5, which compromises their structure somewhat, but Walter’s ability to keep textures clear and make melodies sing provides compensation and we can hear him engineering that clarity in the bonus rehearsals disc.

Received opinion has it that symphonies 5 and 7 are the least successful here, and I cannot argue with that; neither is a bad performance but there are problems: the opening Allegro of the Fifth is taken at an absurdly fast Presto and loses impact, whereas the Andante seems heavy and earthbound, especially by contrast with what has gone before, nor does the third movement sound sufficiently light on its feet. The concluding Allegro – the third movement with that instruction – is better, with more momentum and a sparkling conclusion. Overall, the interpretation lacks a sense of coherence or unity.

The opening of the Seventh seems rather stolid in comparison with Cluytens’ considerably more animated and inflected account; some have complained, too, that the finale is rushed - but to my ears it is little different from versions from Toscanini, through Karajan to Thielemann and comparative timings bear out that observation.

Otherwise, these are mostly masterful accounts; especially successful are symphonies nos. 4, 6 and 8. The Fourth in particular suits Walter’s style and temperament; the “cat-like tread” of the opening is nicely gauged and creates the requisite atmosphere of expectancy. There is subsequently some iffy intonation in the woodwind when the Allegro vivace kicks in but the movement soon takes off. The Sixth is a lovely, expansive, relaxed affair and proves a high point in the set just as Cluytens excels here, with Walter’s unerring command of rhythm coming to the fore. The Eighth is a whirlwind of fleet charm, free-flowing and sprightly, culminating in a wonderfully assertive finale.

The treatment of the First strikes me as slightly less than ideal in that there is some lack of fire – indeed the “brio” as marked - in the first movement; comparison with Cluytens' and Karajan’s No. 1 in his first set for DG slightly later reveals Walter as slightly tame; both the other conductors sound more alert and mould phrases more expressively; however the Second, albeit more “Mozartian” than a stepping-stone to the “Eroica”, is first supremely elegant in the opening Adagio then morphs in to a more heroic mode in the Allegro con brio. The elegant, affectionate Larghetto is succeeded by a rollicking Scherzo and an exuberant finale; the sense of cohesion missing in the Fifth is very apparent here.

The “Eroica” starts off a little reticently compared with the immediacy and impact of Cluytens but this is a gentler, more civilised interpretation of great clarity, maintaining excellent balance between orchestral voices and masking an inner strength. The “singing” quality peculiar to Walter’s manner with Beethoven comes increasingly to the fore and this lyricism comes without mannerisms or overt effects. Ultimately, despite its quiet beginnings, there is no lack of power or grandeur here.

The “Choral Symphony” has been greeted with disappointment in some quarters, led by the “Penguin Guide”, which complained of a lack of tension. I do not share that reservation, finding plenty of drama and momentum in the quick, nervy, staccato opening movement; I wonder to what degree those knowing the circumstances of the recording referred to above are finding what they expect to hear. Yes, there are slips by the trumpet, some poor tuning and sloppiness in the brass and woodwind but nothing serious. The Presto is similarly sharp and propulsive, and if the Adagio is at times a little under-stated, it is still “cantabile”. I find both the choir and the solo vocal quartet to be excellent in the finale: the baritone makes his mark on his first entry with his incisive delivery and pleasingly rapid vibrato, the tenor is virile with plenty of lower register in his timbre, Nell Rankin is firm, strong and more audible than most mezzos, and the soprano, although slightly thin-toned but secure and nails the top B confidently. The choir is lusty and committed; after all, it was for them that Walter changed the recording venue and crossed the continent.

The two overtures here are played with brooding majesty, even if Klemperer finds more impetus in “Leonore II”.

The inclusion of the Violin Concerto is real bonus as this has long been a celebrated version. Francescatti plays in fluent, impassioned fashion, characterising the violin’s two voices in the finale very distinctly, but Walter’s accompaniment is equally fine: confidently shaped and so warmly expressive, especially in the Larghetto.
Ralph Moore



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