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CD Review

Opus Kura 2116
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
Opus Kura OPK2116

This disc is primarily for Bruno Walter fans, but that's not to say they won't enjoy this disc very much. There are – to my knowledge – at least three Walter "Pastoral" recordings. There's the lovely stereo account on Sony Classical, the monophonic account with Philadelphia last seen on Sony and Pristine Audio, both in France, and this one. I've encountered it just once, on the (now out-of-print) "Great Conductors" series from EMI. Arguably, this is the least of the three accounts. The Vienna Philharmonic of 1936 (1938 for the Haydn) was not yet fully affected by war, but neither do they have the polish that made them famous later. Here they are in unusually good form for the period.

The disc opens with a fine reading of Haydn's "Military" Symphony. Tempos are old-fashioned but the charm is undeniable. Though mostly remembered for his Beethoven and Mozart among the earlier composers he conducted, Walter's Haydn was another specialty. While the string playing is not the most alluring, the overall conception is totally convincing and the playing is vigorous. The sound is variable despite the label's claim of a new remaster for 2016, and the hiss may prove distracting. However, that shouldn't keep you from the music, which comes through with surprising clarity.

Until Sony Classical gets over its irrational fear of the monophonic goldmine it sits upon, this is the Walter "Pastoral" of choice for fans of historical recordings. Nothing really beats his Columbia Symphony account, though it's become increasingly hard to convince younger listeners that a Californian pickup band produced one of the greatest Beethoven recordings of all time. That qualifies as historical, too, but if you insist on mono, you made find this an easier purchase than the Philadelphia account from a few years later. Simply put, this is a beautiful reading. Walter's sense of pacing is second to none, and the orchestra plays very well given the date. The sound isn't ideal, and lacks bloom.

Still, how lovingly shaped is the Andante! The Finale also has a marvelous flexibility of pulse, and the closing pages are effective despite some odd balances. The wind playing is occasionally sour throughout. While the sound – as mentioned – isn't great, there's at least some solid bass and the hiss is minimal. There's no way I can recommend this as a first choice, and I'd suggest picking up the "Great Conductors" issue if you can find it. Firstly, the notes are terrible here, even for Opus Kura (a Japanese label distributed generously by Albany music). Secondly, the EMI release holds the conductor's wonderful New York Brahms Second. However, that might be a hard set to find, and should you already have Walter's complete New York Brahms, you may not need it anyways. I realize there's a lot of caveats here, but whether on EMI, Sony, Pristine, or Opus Kura, the Walter "Pastoral" remains an experience for the ages.

Copyright © 2017, Brian Wigman