Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op 34* [15:07]
rec. 7 October 1947, Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles
‘Tragic‘ Overture, Op. 81 [12:14]
rec.19 December 1954
Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 68 [42:35]
rec.21 January 1951
Hungarian Dance No 17 in F sharp minor [3:25]
rec. 4 February 1951
Double Concerto for violin and cello in A minor, Op 102 [32:36]
rec. 4 February 1951
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 73 [37:45]
rec. 4 February 1951
John Corigliano (violin); Leonard Rose (cello)
*Hugo Strelitzer Choir; Hollywood Bowl Orchestra
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Bruno Walter
All items except Op 34 rec. Carnegie Hall, New York. Mono
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC485 [69:58 + 75:48]
Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major, Op 83 [46:17]
rec. 28 January 1951
Symphony No 3 in F major, Op 90 [30:54]
rec. 28 January 1951
Violin Concerto in D major, Op 77 [37:12]
rec. 20 December 1953
Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op 98 [40:43]
rec. 11 February 1951
Dame Myra Hess (piano);
Erica Morini (violin)
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Bruno Walter
All items rec. Carnegie Hall, New York. Mono
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC489 [77:14 + 77:55]
In the first few weeks of 1951 Bruno Walter conducted the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York (PSONY) in a Brahms cycle that has become the stuff of legend. Here Pristine offers the bulk of those performances – I believe Volume 3 will include the German Requiem and, presumably, the D minor Piano Concerto. Andrew Rose has remastered the recordings using his XR process. It will be noted that one or two performances are not from the 1951 cycle. That’s because a few of the 1951 originals, including a performance of the Violin Concerto with Zino Francescatti, appear to have been lost. In the case of missing items a live recording from as near as possible to 1951 has been used instead. I’m not sure how many of these performances have been released before on other labels. I do know of one Tahra release, which I have not heard, which included the same performances of the Second Symphony, the B flat Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto. That release was the subject of an earlier review by Jonathan Woolf.
The sole disappointment of either volume comes with the performance of Song of Destiny. This is one of the performances that have been “patched in” to replace a missing element of the 1951 cycle. The performance was given in 1947 in Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles with the venue’s eponymous orchestra. The work is sung in English, although, to be honest the Hugo Strelitzer Choir might as well be singing in Serbo-Croat. To be fair, they’re not helped by the recording itself, which makes them sound woolly, but they don’t help themselves by singing with excessive vibrato, as was often the fashion in those days. It’s a pity because there’s much to admire about Walter’s direction of the piece. The wonderful long orchestral introduction is beautifully shaped and later, in the fast section, the performance is fiery indeed. The sound is satisfactory.
The sound is much improved for the 1951 ‘Tragic’ Overture. . This performance is trenchant and highly energetic. The First Symphony begins with a big, broad introduction after which the first movement Allegro is strong and purposeful; Walter is not prone to lingering. The lyrical second movement is very nicely done. In effect there’s no gap between the second and third movements – was it like this in performance, I wonder? Initially this movement proceeds fluently but Walter injects real urgency into the central section. He maintains great tension throughout the long introduction to the finale and once the Allegro non troppo, ma con brio is reached his conducting has genuine drive. This account of the finale is a terrific, gripping experience and I’m not surprised the New York audience responded with an ovation. If I had to select one word to sum up this fine performance of the First Symphony it would be “urgent”.
For the Double Concerto Walter’s soloists were two leading members of the PSONY: John Corigliano (concertmaster 1943-1966) and Leonard Rose. The latter had joined the orchestra as principal cellist in the same year as Corigliano and left to pursue a solo career some months after this performance, after the orchestra had appeared at the 1951 Edinburgh Festival. Both soloists are highly accomplished and play well together. In the first movement their respective solo parts are strongly projected, a fact accentuated because they’re quite forwardly placed in the recording. They find lots of poetry in the Andante and play most persuasively. The only slight blemish is that Corigliano sounds over-emphatic just before the close (8:42) but that may be due partly to the close balance. During the finale I found the sound a bit uncomfortable in the loud tuttis and here also I was more conscious of the closeness of the soloists. Nonetheless, this is an estimable account of the concerto.
In the Second Symphony the violins sound a bit shrill at times but that didn’t stop me relishing the performance. Walter makes the first movement surging and forward moving. He invests the music with fine impetus and his conducting has a great deal of tension. The cellos sing out their melody passionately at the start of the second movement; in fact the whole movement is characterised by ardour. I love Walter’s account of the finale; it’s thrusting and ebullient. The music-making is really exciting, though not in any way showy. As the movement draws to a close there’s tremendous drive in the closing pages. Unsurprisingly the New York audience greet this with acclaim and rightly so for Walter and the orchestra have given a very fine account of the symphony.
Volume 2 opens with a performance of the B flat Piano Concerto in which Dame Myra Hess is the soloist. In his review of the Tahra issue Jonathan Woolf described the performance as “a spacious and noble reading” and I wouldn’t dissent from that judgement. Hess and Walter make the first movement big and heroic. There are occasions when Hess is stretched by the virtuoso demands of the solo part (7:38 for a few bars is an example) but her conviction gets her through any such brief spells and what matters is that she and her conductor convey the spirit of this magnificent music. The Allegro appassionato is suitably turbulent. The Andante opens with a lovely cello solo, presumably played by Leonard Rose, and the melody is no less rewardingly experienced when Brahms reprises it towards the close. Overall this is a most eloquent and dignified account of the movement by all concerned; Dame Myra’s pianism is wonderful to hear. The performance is crowned by a spirited traversal of the finale. The sound is good; Hess is in the foreground but not excessively so.
Then we are treated to a magnificent reading of the Third Symphony. Andrew Rose explains in a note that he used two sound sources for this transfer, one of which was damaged in the upper frequencies and one in the lower frequencies. He was able to use digital cutting and pasting to put good upper frequencies over good lower frequencies, marrying up the two sources to make a satisfying whole. That’s my paraphrase of the technical explanation; to me it sounds like engineering alchemy! All I can say is that the results sound completely convincing to me. Indeed, there’s a strong case to be made that this is the best sound in either volume. And these painstaking efforts were well worthwhile because the end result is that we’re able to enjoy a performance of great stature. The first movement is super: Walter maintains excellent momentum and knows instinctively when – and by how much – to ease off for the more lyrical episodes without losing overall focus. In short, he judges the movement’s structure perfectly. The Andante is expansive and beautifully moulded while the Poco allegretto is expertly poised. The start of the finale has tremendous momentum and then (from 5:32) Walter relaxes unerringly into the symphony’s twilight close. This is a memorable performance.
More painstaking restoration work has been necessary in the first movement of the Violin Concerto but for a very different reason. I’ve not heard the Tahra release of this 1953 performance but Jonathan Woolf noted that, at one point in the first movement the soloist appears to come adrift. As Jonathan put it “after some tough passagework Morini’s intonation buckles, she loses composure, plays a bare approximation and in fact then misses a phrase altogether.” The Pristine documentation alerted me to information not available to Jonathan or, presumably, to Tahra. Let the New York Times 1975 obituary of John Corigliano tell the story. “Mr. Corigliano’ s poise as floor leader of the orchestra showed in 1953 when Bruno Walter was conducting the Brahms Violin Concerto with Erica Morini as soloist. Shortly before the cadenza in the first movement, the A string of her violin snapped. Mr. Corigliano, quickly handed her his own instrument so that she lost only a note or two. Then, aided by another member, he was able to replace the string and return the instrument just in time to attack the cadenza.” Andrew Rose’s solution to this issue has been to splice in the relevant passage from Morini’s 1956 commercial recording for Westminster. Jonathan Woolf identified the problem at around 10:40 in the Tahra version so I listened with particular care to the couple of minutes around that point and I have to say that the splicing in is truly seamless. The results may not replicate precisely what happened in Carnegie Hall that day in December 1953 but I think that what Andrew Rose has done gives a very sensible and musical solution to a problem which would have spoiled repeated listening,
I like the Morini commercial recording in which she’s partnered by Artur Rodzinski (I have it on Westminster Legacy 471 200-2, coupled with the Tchaikovsky concerto) and I like this performance with Bruno Walter too. She’s not infallible as a soloist, as Jonathan Woolf rightly pointed out in his Tahra review, but her playing gives a great deal of pleasure and she and Walter work well together. I don’t know what first movement cadenza she plays – it’s not the familiar Joachim – but it’s the same as on the 1956 recording. Despite a few frailties she gives a poetic reading of the slow movement and the finale has plenty of spirit. Though she does occasionally retreat from the foreground in the huge first movement her playing for the most part commands our attention.
Volume 2 ends with a commanding performance of the Fourth Symphony. The sound has arguably the fullest bass in either volume. That’s not an entirely mixed blessing as the bass line and the timpani do boom at times. Also the sound is often somewhat congested in loud passages but none of this detracts from the gripping performance. The first movement is marvellously taut though the lyrical passages are satisfyingly done. The pace for the Andante moderato is relaxed but just because the speed is relaxed doesn’t mean that the same description applies to the performance; Walter’s interpretation is focused at all times. His performance is a very fine one. The Allegro giocoso is very lively – the triangle makes its presence felt too. Here the recording is somewhat overloaded at times. The finale is fiery and dramatic expect for the slower central section which is truly searching. This is a magnificently cogent reading of the passacaglia. This performance of the Fourth must have been a great experience for those fortunate enough to be in Carnegie Hall on that occasion.
These two sets contain performances of great stature. Walter was a great Brahms interpreter and these readings prove that in spades. The members of the PSONY respond to his conducting with great skill and commitment. Of course, you can hear more recent studio recordings of Brahms by Bruno Walter: Sony Classical have issued his recordings made in the late 1950s and early 1960s in a bargain-priced box of 5 CDs (88430 72592). Inevitably, the sound is better on those discs but the recordings, fine though they are, don’t always have the urgency and grip that these live performances demonstrate. I don’t know what source material Andrew Rose has used but he’s worked wonders. Any sonic limitations are as nothing compared with the priceless value of being able to hear these superb performances some 66 years after most of them were given. I’m now impatient to hear the remainder of the 1951 cycle in Volume 3.