Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies Nos. 39
Bruno Walter, cond;
OPUS KURA 2107, mono (74:44)
A small red balloon in the lower right-hand
corner of the booklet cover advertises “New Master 2013.” Presumably a new remastering is meant, or else perhaps Nipper has sought out another master’s voice to which to hearken. Facetious quibbling about stilted English aside, Opus Kura originally issued the performance of the “Jupiter” Symphony on OPK 2023 in 2002, and the other two symphonies in OPK 2019 in 2005. (Don’t ask me why a release from three years later has a lower catalog number.) Unfortunately I do not have the previous issues to compare against these, but I will rashly assume these to be superior transfers.
For unknown reasons that baffle me, Walter’s pre-war Mozart recordings previously have consistently been subjected to inferior remasterings on CD. The old Keith Hardwick transfers for EMI (which did not include the Symphony No. 40), to my mind inexplicably praised in many quarters, virtually suffocate everything in an aural goo of added reverberation, with artificially pumped-up bass frequencies and shorn-off treble frequencies. The later Japanese EMI transfers are significantly superior to those, but still a far cry short of the magnificent LP transfers of symphonies Nos. 39 and 41 in EMI Japan’s “Great Recordings of the Century” series, being considerably more noisy; No. 39 remains somewhat bass deficient and shrill on top, while No. 41 has a lot of very distracting crackle. The Lys issues appear to have taken the EMI Japan issues and subjected them to a bit of filtering on top and bass boosting on the bottom. It isn’t badly overdone and so some people might find the result more to their taste; I prefer the EMI version in No. 39 but the Lys version in No. 41. The Idis transfers are horrible and to be avoided at all costs.
Here, we at last have good news across the board. While Opus Kura follows its trademark approach of little or no filtering, the greater degree of residual surface noise is comparatively minimal, and is more than compensated for by the opening up of the entire frequency spectrum. The bass sounds natural and not boomy, and the treble frequencies now have body and bloom without shrillness. More interestingly, while most of the different issues are correctly pitched (the Lys transfer of Symphony No. 40 is flat), the new Opus Kura issues somehow sound more lively and crisp, as if the tempos are slightly quicker. The greatest improvement is worked in the earlier (1929), inferior, and problematic Columbia 78rpm sides for the Symphony No. 40; while this sonic sow’s ear cannot be made over into a silk purse, the results here are a quantum leap beyond all predecessors, with the Finale in particular suddenly coming to unexpected life. The generic booklet notes about Walter in Japanese and English are the same as in every other Opus Kura issue of recordings by that conductor.
As for the actual performances, they are for a somewhat specialized taste nowadays. (To my great surprise, there are no reviews of them in the
Archive, though reviews of other Walter performances refer to them.) Walter of course approached Mozart through the lens of his era, which predated the findings of the period-practice and -instruments movements by a few decades. These are ripely Romantic interpretations, with full string sections employing a noticeable degree of portamento. Of course, Walter’s humane warmth and unique lyricism are always in evidence, and in the Symphony No. 41 (which also has markedly superior recorded sound compared to the other two works offered here) one can revel in the unique sound of the pre-war Vienna Philharmonic. The Symphony No. 40 is the weakest of the three, interpretively as well as sonically; the first movement is simply poor, being wayward and slack, though the Finale conjures up a frenetic energy not found in any of Walter’s numerous other surviving accounts of the score. However, while these performances hold great interest for me as both a dedicated Walter maven and as historical documents of bygone performance practices, when I wish to hear Walter’s Mozart I invariably turn to his more tautly dramatic monaural recordings from the mid-1950s with the New York Philharmonic. (The stereo remakes with the Columbia Symphony, while lovingly made, sometimes suffer from a degree of sluggishness and generally do not represent Walter at his best, though the Finale of the “Jupiter” is an absolute marvel.) In sum, if like me you have and cherish those Japanese EMI LP pressings, transfer them to CD yourself and hang on to them for dear life; but for anyone interested in these performances, these new Opus Kura remasterings are a necessary replacement for any previous CD editions, and highly recommended accordingly.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 40 in G minor, K 550 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra
Written: 1788; Vienna, Austria
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