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Bruno Walter: The Complete Columbia Acoustic Recordings
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz, Op. 77: Overture [10:14]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-47)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61: Nocturne [4:39]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-69)
The Damnation of Faust, Op. 24: Minuet of the Will-o’-the-Wisps [4:36]
Richard WAGNER (1813-83)
Tristan und Isolde: Liebestod [6:10]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude to Act 3 [4:49]
Götterdämmerung: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [7:43]
Siegfried Idyll [17:44]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 [20:55]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. 1924-25, Columbia Studios, Petty France, London

There is some doubt as to when Bruno Walter (1876-1962) commenced his recording career. In a famous recorded interview (included with some, but not all, issues of his stereo recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony) Walter declared that he made his first recordings in Berlin in ‘either 1900 or 1901’. He then went on to describe the difficulties of making recordings at that time. Yet his earliest recordings which have turned up and been documented so far appear to be Polydor and these (English) Columbia Graphophone Company recordings from the first half of the nineteen-twenties. As the health problems experienced by Walter in his later years did not include dementia and its associated memory loss, his statement must be taken seriously. Perhaps he attended those early Berlin sessions but did not personally conduct the orchestra. This question would seem to offer an avenue for Walter scholars to research.

The present recordings were made during the last months of the pre-electric, acoustic process. As such they all suffer, to a greater or lesser extent, from limited frequency and dynamic ranges. Each one starts with what sounds like heavy background noise, but it is remarkable how soon the brain begins to filter that out so that one finishes up being able to concentrate on the music. An effective technical trick used on some vintage reissues (but not here) is to insert surface noise between the tracks, so that it is continuous and hence less conspicuous throughout the disc.

Walter re-recorded most of the music presented here one or more times in the studio, taking advantage of big developments in audio technology which came in the decades following the introduction of electrical recording in 1925. Two of these re-recordings – an early electrical Siegfried Idyll with the RPO and a 1938 Der Freischütz Overture with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra - are available on Pristine PASC492 (‘Walter Rarities Volume 2’). The works he did not return to in the studio are those by Mendelssohn and Berlioz, and Wagner’s Liebestodt. I exclude from my discussion ‘live’ recordings of certain works which have from time to time turned up on CD. The value of this issue is two-fold: firstly, it enables us to trace how the conductor’s interpretation of a piece he recorded more than once developed over time. Secondly, it gives us at least an outline of Walter’s interpretation of music which he never re-recorded.

I commenced by listening to two pieces which I also accessed on later Walter recordings: Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. Walter made six studio recordings of the Idyll, the largest number of recordings he made of any music. This RPO edition, by no means Walter’s fastest, is warm and expansive and in common with all the performances here, has its share of then-fashionable portamento. Unfortunately, the limited dynamic range prevents the big central climax which starts around 10:30 from registering effectively. The 1953 US Columbia recording with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is, of course, far superior in sound quality and registers all the climaxes well, but – in my United Archives transfer – this is still not high-fidelity sound. The treble is somewhat attenuated, the bass a bit tubby and these effects place a ‘veil’ over the orchestra. The duration, at 16:17, is almost a minute and a half faster than the RPO performance and altogether this is a more powerful and concentrated exposition of the music than either of the other Walter performances I have heard. My last comparison was with Walter’s 1959 recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (most recently reissued in Sony’s boxed set ‘Bruno Walter: The Edition’). After coping with the sonic rigours of the two earlier recordings, it was a pleasure to relax with Sony’s nicely expansive early stereo sound. The performance has much in common with many of Walter’s late recordings in being warm and satisfying – not especially dynamic, but not diffuse either (despite its 18:16 duration).

These three issues come without any information as to the number of players involved. Given that acoustic recordings had to use reduced forces, the RPO version may well have had close to fifteen players, the number who gave the original performances for Cosima on her birthday on Christmas day, 1870. The other two sound as if much larger forces are in play. Some commentators say the New York performance is Walter’s finest of the work. I’d rate it the best I know, while reminding the reader that there are three studio recordings I haven’t heard.

Walter was ambivalent about Richard Strauss. He admired the music but had serious reservations about the man. Although after the Second World War Strauss was cleared of charges of collaborating with the Nazis, Walter had experienced at first-hand the composer’s readiness to accommodate to the Third Reich. So it is not surprising that Walter seldom brought Strauss’s music into the recording studio. His two recordings of Death and Transfiguration were among the exceptions to this. This RPO acoustic version really gripped me. The recording allows just enough dynamic range to enable the climaxes to register and one is conscious of some really powerful and concentrated playing. Walter’s characteristic warmth and flexibility never get in the way of structural cohesion and momentum. Most of the instruments which should be heard are heard, including the harp and tympani. (Perhaps the tympani are a little too loud towards the end, but bear in mind the recording process didn’t allow balances to be adjusted once the recording had begun.) With a duration of 20:55, I wouldn’t hesitate to call this a great performance. Walter’s 1952 New York studio recordings of this work and Don Juan (both available in Sony’s Bruno Walter Edition) were the only LP recordings he made of Strauss’s music. Naturally, both have incomparably better sound than the RPO recording (superior, also, to the New York Siegfried Idyll discussed above). The NYPO Death and Transfiguration - which at 21:53 is somewhat more expansive than the RPO version – is a powerful performance. Yet it is the RPO performance which stays in the mind.

The recording of the Liebestod allows for enough modest expansion during climaxes to see how well graded these peaks are in Walter’s interpretation. His Der Freischütz Overture seems warm and vital and all the other interpretations on the disc will satisfy, provided we use some imagination to fill in the information denied us by the original recording process. Still, it’s hard to imagine any transfers improving on Pristine’s for a considerable time to come. Producer Mark Obert Thorn writes in his liner notes that some of the items were sourced from American Columbia “New Process” pressings. After the abandonment of acoustic recording, the industry and reviewers commonly used the term “new process” to refer to electrical recordings, which these plainly are not. Was the label anxious to avoid these discs being perceived as obsolete so soon after they had been made?

While this disc is not for the general collector, Walter maintains – more than half a century after his death – a well-deserved world-wide following among music lovers. This disc is for them.

Rob W McKenzie

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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