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ClassicsOnline Home » MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 (Walter) (1938)
Great Conductors Bruno Walter (1876-1962)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911): Symphony No. 9
Among the most admired conductors of his generation, Bruno Walter, who was born in Berlin on 15th September 1876 and died in Beverly Hills on 17th February 1962, developed a close association with Mahler from the very outset of his career. During 1894-6, he assisted Mahler in Hamburg, the latters favourable impression confirmed when he obtained for his protégé a post in Breslau. The two were reunited in 1901, when Walter became Mahlers assistant at the Vienna Hofoper. Despite the latters controversial departure in 1907, Walter remained there until 1912, in which year he conducted the Viennese première of Mahlers Eighth Symphony and the world première of the Ninth.
Bruno Walter spent the next two decades as Director of Music in Munich and then in Leipzig, meanwhile consolidating his reputation throughout Europe and in America. Distrustful of the more radical trends in contemporary music, he gave important premières of operas by Korngold and Pfitzner (Palestrina), introduced Puccinis Turandot to Berlin in 1926 and gave an enthusiastically received Mozart opera cycle in Paris in 1928. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, he returned to Austria, where his opera productions at Salzburg achieved legendary status. The 1930s also saw the making of several recordings, including Mahlers Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony, both recorded live only weeks before the Anschluss made his remaining in Austria impossible.
Resident in the United States from 1939 (he took American citizenship seven years later), Bruno Walter was Music Director of the New York Philharmonic from 1947 to 1949, recording Mahlers Fifth Symphony. His most famous Mahler recording, however, dates from 1952, and features Julius Patzak and Kathleen Ferrier in what many still regard as the definitive Das Lied von der Erde. A visit to Britain with the New York Philharmonic in 1958 marks the beginning of the surge of interest in Mahler in this country, the Second Symphony receiving a mixed critical but enthusiastic public reception. Bruno Walter was active on the podium and in the studio until just before his death, his last recording being the Ninth Symphony of Mahler, of which he had given the first performance almost half a century before.
A close friend of Thomas Mann and latterly an advocate of Rudolf Steiner, Bruno Walter had definite ideas on the purpose of music, both as a phenomenon in
itself and its rôle within society, such as determined both his choice of repertoire and even the works of those composers closest to him. He never, for example, conducted Mahlers Sixth Symphony on account of what he saw as its nihilistic conclusion. Moreover, he could afford to be selective in his approach, at a time when integral symphony cycles were only just becoming an issue with record companies.
Bruno Walters pre-war account of Mahlers Ninth Symphony would not have been preserved for posterity were it not for the redoubtable Fred Gaisberg, who persuaded his firm The Gramophone Company that the work, to be given at the Musikverein on 16th January 1938, could more practically, from a technical and economic point of view, be recorded live. Five rehearsals were available to sort out problems of balance and related matters, while two recording machines were in operation during the actual performance so as ensure an overlap in what was recorded, recording on magnetic tape not yet being a possibility. Fears as to the deterioration of sound in fortissimo passages proved largely unfounded. As Gaisberg commented in his memoirs Music on Record, "The well-filled hall toned down the resonance of this great orchestra to a rounded-out sound of rich mass and depth, yet without dissipating the higher frequencies of the instruments". The finished waxes were returned to England prior to the Anschluss with Germany on 11th and 12th March, Gaisberg visiting the exiled Walter in Paris to play him the results - and remembering that "So delighted was he with the results that his usually sober face brightened up considerably".
Those who know Walters Mahler Nine only from his 1962 studio recording will be surprised at the relative swiftness of his interpretation in 1938. The pointilliste opening measures of the Andante comodo seem to take up from where Das Lied von der Erde left off, and the lilting expression of the Vienna Philharmonic strings are preternaturally attuned to the ethos of Mahlers writing. Walter does not treat the movement as a series of increasingly emotive climaxes, but as a cumulative sequence of dynamic terraces, its formal culmination left unfulfilled at this stage. The sepulchral transition music has rarely sounded so ominous as here, and the movements virtual collapse is tellingly capped by its struggle, soulful but never histrionic, to regain emotional balance, and a coda whose spareness of texture only enhances its tranquillity of mood.
Bruno Walter sets a trenchant course for the Ländler fantasy that follows, the apogee of Mahlers interest in this most Austrian of dance measures, here taking in aspects of decadence and world-weariness which intensify as the movement proceeds. A sense of desperation has insinuated itself by the final fast section, the players pushed to their collective limits, and the grim humour of the coda confirms that Mahlers Viennese vision is anything but an idealised one.
This ambivalence breaks into anger in the Rondo Burleske, Walter not sparing security of ensemble in the desire to give the music its head. The trio section does not need a jarring change of tempo for its sense of repose to emerge, and Walter obtains a palpable sense of anticipation going back into the rondo music, the hysteria of the coda pushed to the bounds of playability.
At this juncture the final Adagio is poised to make its rightful impression. Again, Walter does not trade on the movements emotional reserves as have many more recent conductors, over-anxious to prove it the culmination of Mahlers creativity, and the apogee of the symphonic tradition itself. A questing, onward motion is maintained through the appearances of the main theme and contrastingly austere episodes. Walter is as mindful to give the heart-easing pastoral interlude its due as surely as he makes the themes climactic second return the consummation of the whole symphonic process. The coda has gravitas but no false soul-searching, Walter focusing on the rationality of Mahlers musical thinking right through to the benediction of the closing bars. It was a benediction that, in the Vienna of January 1938, was to prove tragically short-lived.
The present transfer was made using pre-war U.S. Victor "Gold" pressings. Although the recording has always been claimed to have been taken down during a single performance, the fact that the first side of the Rondo and the last side of the Adagio show "1" as the take number (where the rest of the sides are "Take 2") implies that they came from an earlier concert. The recording is quite vivid for its time; however, in order not to overload the grooves, a good deal of gain-riding was done by the original engineer. I have attempted to restore the dynamic contrasts for this reissue.
Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the worlds most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings. Obert-Thorn describes himself as a moderate interventionist rather than a purist or re-processor, unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.
There is no over-reverberant cathedral sound in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many authorised commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially released restorations.
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MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 (Walter) (1938)