Listeners who evaluate Bruno Walter solely on the basis of the stereo recordings he made with the "Columbia Symphony Orchestra" (largely members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and various Hollywood studio ensembles) are, quite frankly, missing the boat. Walter (born Bruno Schlesinger) had a heart attack in 1957, and what he recorded after that time during his so-called "Indian summer," wonderful as it was, was not always typical of his earlier work.
Walter's only studio recording of Bruckner's Ninth was taped by Columbia Records in November 1959. He had recently conducted the work in concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Columbia sessions were arranged to take advantage of this. While the average for a Bruckner symphony is about ninety to one hundred players, it appears that the group Columbia recorded was about thirty percent smaller, possibly because the recording venue itself was relatively small. The result, while not anemic, was Bruckner with punches pulled. The tempos in each movement were slower than they had been during any other Walter performance of this symphony, even slower than in the live performance that preceded the studio recording.
This Music & Arts release contains a complete live broadcast concert from 1946, presumably from New York City. The label indicates that this material is "previously unreleased." According to annotator Mark W. Kluge, this 1946 performance of Bruckner's Ninth was the first that Walter gave after emigrating to the United States in 1939. This is not the Bruckner Ninth we know from Walter's studio recording! In the first and second movements, Walter's tempos shave about two minutes from the 1959 reading. In the third movement, the 1946 performance is three and a half minutes faster! Given the fact that some conductors have taken twenty-five or twenty-six minutes over this valedictory movement, Walter's 20:08 is remarkable. The result, not just in the Adagio but throughout the symphony, is a masculine Bruckner Ninth without self-pity. While other conductors interpret this symphony as a radical departure from Bruckner's earlier works, in 1946, Walter seemed to be more interested in showing how much the Ninth had in common with its predecessors. If this symphony usually seems too emotionally disturbing, the present performance replaces discomfort with a warm objectivity.
Beethoven's Leonore Overture #2 also received a volatile, biting performance during this concert, one that differs greatly from Walter's studio recording from 1960. While Walter's last recorded thoughts on this overture seemed focused on establishing its structural integrity, Walter's 1946 performance is more spontaneous, and lays bare Beethoven's rather disheveled architecture.
The orchestra plays well in both works, with no more technical glitches than one would expect on such an occasion. One must remember that these are not edited studio recordings.
The source materials for this CD were 16-inch transcription discs. There is some surface noise, but pitches are steady, and there is little distortion. It is not difficult to listen to; in fact, this is great sound for its time. The audio restoration is by Aaron Z. Snyder.
Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle