Magazine article Gramophone

Two Unmissable Symphony Sets

Magazine article Gramophone

Two Unmissable Symphony Sets

Article excerpt

It's easy to forget, at this remove, what a major figure the conductor Bruno Walter was in 20th-century musical life, particularly as figures such as Toscanini and Furtwangler seem to have assumed God-like positions which somewhat distort historical perspective. Having worked closely as a young man with Gustav Mahler, Walter went on to hold some of the biggest conducting jobs in pre-war Europe--he headed the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Bavarian State Opera, held a guest post with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and appeared regularly at La Scala, Covent Garden and with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics. He was also a devoted champion of new music (he was a composer himself). As a Jew, he was forced to flee Europe after the Anschluss and after the war he settled in the United States where he worked with many of the leading orchestras (he held an advisory post with the New York Phil immediately at the end of the 1940s).

Late in his fife he enjoyed something of an Indian summer when working with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble created by Columbia Records, aka CBS, from freelance musicians based in Los Angeles (slightly confusingly there was also an East Coast Columbia Symphony which drew on New York musicians and with which Beecham, Stravinsky and Bernstein, among others, recorded). With this magnificent Californian ensemble Walter, a man of great gentleness and integrity, recorded much of his core repertoire. Sony Classical has recently reissued Walter's Brahms recordings (following earlier sets devoted to Mozart and Mahler, not to mention a lavish 39-disc Bruno Walter Edition).

If you don't know Walter's recordings, this is a good place to start as it provides a perfect introduction to his wonderfully humane music-making. As well as the four symphonies, the overtures and the Haydn Variations, this five-CD set also contains the Schicksalslied and the Alto Rhapsody (Mildred Miller) and, with the New York Philharmonic, the Double Concerto (Francescatti and Fournier), A German Requiem (Seefried and London) and a quartet of Hungarian Dances. There's a sense of rightness about Walter's Brahms --the orchestral playing exudes affection (the players clearly adored their conductor) and the overall mood is generally lyrical. But don't think for a moment that these performances bask in some kind of constant autumnal glow--there's fibre here, too, and considerable power. Of the four symphonies, I've always loved Walter's way with the central two--No 2 has a warmth and glow about it that doesn't preclude the mystery the work should also surely embrace and No 3 comes close to perfection, a performance that satisfies on every level. …

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