Many of today's record collectors, myself included, grew up with Bruno Walter's stereo set of the complete Beethoven symphonies. These were recorded in the late 1950s in Los Angeles with the "Columbia Symphony Orchestra," a smallish ad hoc ensemble comprised of members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood studio musicians. These recordings were taste-setters for at least one generation of music lovers, and they've hardly left the catalog, in one incarnation or another, since their original release on Columbia Records.
The Bruno Walter who conducted the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, however, was not the Bruno Walter who had led the New York Philharmonic a decade earlier. After his heart attack in 1957, his conducting became mellower – perhaps because he no longer could exert himself to the previous degree, or perhaps because he knew that his life-clock soon would slow down and stop. (He was born in1876, and he was 81 at the time of his heart attack.) The word "valedictory" sometimes has been used to describe Walter's last recordings, and it is good to remember that this word literally means "saying farewell." (The phrase "Indian summer" also is used.) Beethoven was not a morbid or moribund composer, however, not even when he wrote his last symphony. One of the many beauties of his symphonies is that they can be interpreted in different ways – there is no one "right" way to play any of them. Walter's "valedictory" Beethoven set is a finely (and finally!) proportioned classic, and no one can fail to be moved by its serenity, and by the way in which the musicianship seems to rise godlike above earthly matters.
Evaluating Bruno Walter solely on the basis of his stereo recordings, however, is rather like evaluating Verdi solely on the basis of Otello and Falstaff, or Shakespeare solely on the basis of The Tempest. It is the truth, but it is not the whole truth. The set under review here is an excellent example of what I am trying to convey. Walter recorded the nine Beethoven symphonies with the New York Philharmonic between 1941 and 1953, and they were originally released on either 78-rpm discs or monaural LPs. (The exception is the "Pastorale" Symphony, which was recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra.) Actually, two of the symphonies were recorded twice: Walter recorded the "Eroica" and the Fifth in 1941, and then remade them in 1949 and 1950, respectively. This set pairs the two earlier recordings on a bonus CD. (Six CDs are being sold for the price of five.)
For those who know Walter only through his late recordings, this set will be a revelation of sorts. The Walter fingerprints are all here. These interpretations are genial, plain-spoken, and classically-based. There's no sense of a disciplinarian or a perfectionist at the podium – for better or for worse! Melody is emphasized, and there is suaveness and a sense of humor present which seem to have been Walter's legacy from the Vienna Philharmonic, which he also conducted extensively. But here, the intensity has been raised a notch or two higher. There's a volatility, an animal excitement present here which is mostly lacking in the Columbia Symphony Orchestra versions.
No conductor's Beethoven cycle is absolutely successful. It is better to pick and choose among several, but on the other hand, it is rewarding to hear the same interpretive voice throughout. I feel that – this time around anyway – Walter was at his best in the symphonies he recorded last: the First, the Second, the Fourth, the Seventh, and the Ninth – a truly a monumental and humanistic performance. Having said that, I prefer his tauter 1941 "Eroica" and Fifth to the 1949 and 1950 remakes. Throughout, repeats are a sometime thing.
These are digital "transfers and restorations" dating from 2004. (John Wilson was at the helm for all the symphonies except for the 1941 "Eroica," on which he was joined by Ramon Khalona and Aaron Z. Snyder.) Music & Arts does not tell us what sources were used, but my guess is that the original shellac or vinyl recordings were used in most, if not all, cases. (Recording tape was not generally used until after World War Two.) The recordings show their age. There is surface noise, and other sonic artifacts, and sometimes Walter's dynamics challenge the limitations of the medium, and distortion is the result. I haven't heard previous transfers of these recordings, so I cannot compare Wilson's efforts to earlier attempts, but I feel comfortable saying that these minor disadvantages are more than offset by the immediacy of the sound. Indeed, both in terms of interpretation and sonic impact, these recordings are more exciting than the ones Walter made in stereo. Are they better? I would not be so foolish as to go out on that limb. Suffice it to say that both sets have their place in any serious collection.
This set is not for sale in the United States. The Internet has made the world a much smaller place, however, and the Net-savvy should have little difficulty in purchasing this set from businesses based outside of the U.S. – for example, from Amazon.co.uk. It is well worth the small effort!
Copyright © 2006, Raymond Tuttle