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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

Opus Kura 2117
  • Symphony #1 in C minor, Op. 68
  • Symphony #3 in F Major, Op. 90
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
Opus Kura OPK2117
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To my knowledge, these are the first of Bruno Walter's recordings of these works in the studio. To my ears, they are also the least of the lot. To recap briefly, Walter left us two cycles of the complete symphonies. His New York cycle is the better played of the two, but also poorly recorded. The stereo cycle with the much-maligned Columbia Symphony Orchestra lacks polish but certainly falls easier on the ear. The New York cycle holds a magnificent Second, while the Columbia set holds a reference Third. Both are essential if you care about the composer.

The present performances may not hold the same universal appeal, and I would argue that this disc is best left to historical recording enthusiasts. However, this being Walter in Brahms, there's still much to savor. First, despite some screechy strings (and to be frank, none of Walter's Brahms is free of this issue) the Vienna Philharmonic of 1936 and 1937 is not yet wholly damaged by the horrors of wartime Europe. Secondly, these performances feature a younger and healthier Walter on the podium. This is no small advantage, though the Columbia cycle proves clearly that our portrait of Walter as a sick and mellow old man needs revision. Third, I can't think of another conductor (Jochum and Levine come to mind) who had such a consistently firm grasp of both works equally. Conductors who give us a stunning First are often tripped up by the Third (Toscanini), but the reverse can also be true (Szell).

Walter is in full command both physically and musically. The inner movements of the Third are a clinic on how this music should sound. The outer movements don't strike me as rushed (New York has this problem) but they bristle with energy and excitement. The First is exciting without ever turning crude. As stated, the Vienna Philharmonic plays quite well. Opus Kura also gives us a fine sonic picture, and I don't imagine these performances could realistically sound much better than this. The disc proclaims that the sound has been newly re-mastered for this issue, and I'll believe them.

If you want Walter's Brahms in mono, the New York set is excellent. If you want Walter's best Brahms, you go for stereo (though again, the New York Second is reasonably well recorded, and very special). If you want to know what Walter was doing in Vienna other than Mahler, you'll get this and his early "Pastoral'. As always, Opus Kura provides atrociously translated notes and little in the way of attractive packaging. Still, Albany Music deserves our thanks for distributing the recent titles devoted to Bruno Walter. I'm certainly glad to have them, and I expect you will be too.

Copyright © 2017, Brian Wigman