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Schubert: Symphony No 8; Mahler Symphony No 1 / Walter

Release Date: 09/27/2005 
Label:  Orfeo D'or Catalog #: 562021   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Franz SchubertGustav Mahler
Conductor:  Bruno Walter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian State Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Mono 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Recorded in the German Museum at Munich (the National Theatre was then still a bombed-out ruin), this concert of October 2, 1950, marked Bruno Walter?s historic return to the city where he was chief conductor 1913?22. Also on the program (not included here) was the overture to Weber?s Euryanthe. Walter?s superb ?Unfinished? features a powerful and dramatic first movement and a slow, nostalgically lyrical Andante. Of the various Schubert Eighths I have heard from Walter, this one is the most expressive. Incidentally, I listened to this disc only after Read more submitting my review of another conductor?s Eighth; otherwise, Walter?s would be mentioned there in my list of favorite ?Unfinished? recordings.

Probably the main attraction here for most collectors is Walter?s sensitive yet urgent Mahler First. While similar in concept to his 1954 studio recording with the New York Philharmonic, this one has the extra frisson that usually occurs only in live performance, and its energetic finale is vastly preferable to Walter?s under-powered stereo version with the Columbia Symphony (Sony). Mahler?s First was still rather exotic fare in 1950, especially in Germany, where the work was banned as ?Jewish decadence? during the Third Reich. In fact, prior to Horenstein?s 1952 Vox LP, the sole studio recording was the Mitropoulos/Minnesota from 1940 (Columbia Masterworks Heritage). The latter is quite different from Walter?s: it?s performed in a more exaggerated style that anticipates later readings by Leonard Bernstein. By contrast, Walter tended toward a safer, more comfortable ?middle of the road? manner that steered clear of the more radical implications of Mahler?s art. After all, Walter avoided the turbulent Sixth Symphony altogether (as did Klemperer), and he rarely conducted the avant-garde Seventh; to my ears, Walter?s identification with Mahler?s music was at its most complete in Das Lied von der Erde , especially the 1952 recording with Ferrier and Patzak (Decca). However, every once in a while, before his fires dimmed in the later 1950s, Walter (1876?1962) would cut loose and go for more, like he does here.

Two contemporary live radio broadcast recordings provide intriguing foils to Walter?s approach. One is a 1949 Berlin Radio reading conducted by Ernest Borsamsky, and the other is a 1952 Vienna Symphony account from F. Charles Adler (Tahra 230/240). Exactly who Borsamsky was remains a mystery: some insist a conductor by that name really existed, while the CD liner notes (Dante LYS 429-430) suggest that Borsamsky was possibly a pseudonym for Hermann Abendroth or Ferenc Fricsay. Adler?s name needs little introduction for seasoned collectors: he was the first to give us LP recordings of the Third and Sixth Symphonies back in the early 1950s (these deserve CD reissue in better sound than the short-lived Conifer transfers from England). Adler (1889?1959) studied briefly with Mahler, and reportedly he was a chorus master in the Munich premiere of the Eighth Symphony.

Since all three readings are live, there are occasional horn clams, a few muffed entrances, and some off-center intonation. By and large, Walter?s Bavarian ensemble is slightly superior, perhaps a dividend accrued from its many performances under Richard Strauss during the war years. Sonically, Adler?s recording is the clearest and most immediate. Borsamsky?s sound is a little ?gray? but decent. Walter?s is the only one performed with an audience present, and occasionally that?s a distraction (e.g., the opening of the Scherzo is somewhat spoiled by annoying coughs and squeaky seats). Style-wise, Walter and Borsamsky are discreet in terms of string portamento, while Adler is distinctly old-fashioned. Many of Adler?s details (e.g., euphonic horns, expressive portamento, expansive phrasing) strike me as perhaps the closest thing to hearing Mahler himself in this music. Walter is quickest everywhere save the Scherzo. Walter?s first movement is a very nimble stroll across the meadow (12:03), even faster than the old Mitropoulos (13:34; both conductors omit the exposition repeat). Adler is consistently the slowest (at a total timing of 59:09, he?s one of the slowest ever, period). His leisurely first movement (17:36) is easily the most atmospheric. All do a fine second movement; whoever he was, Borsamsky here and elsewhere delivers some of the most purely beautiful string-playing of any Mahler on disc. In the Scherzo, each conductor provides an aptly satirical and out of tune contrabass solo (Walter?s is the most subtle); all three treat the Klezmer band music with more dignity than the norm, while Adler is the most rustic in the Ländler episodes.

Walter?s coda is absolutely hair-raising. This is a hero?s triumph, well earned and bravely won. Adler is very effective at his broader tempo (here and there are ensemble issues: Adler?s baton isn?t always in the right place, but his heart invariably is). The Borsamsky sounds a little tired at the close, but his players hang in there valiantly. All three conductors do an effective ?Scotch snap? on the two chords that close the work.

For me, these Walter/Borsamsky/Adler recordings are ?desert island? choices, along with the Horenstein (Vox) and the 1954 Scherchen (Westminster). All, of course, are in mono. My current stereo preference is the live 1979 Kubelík/Bavarian Radio (Audite), though hearing it after these flavorful old masters was like going from a ripe, textured Cheddar to a slightly refrigerated Velveeta. The two stereo accounts I most hope to hear on CD are the 1964 Willem van Otterloo/Vienna (Concert Hall LP) and the 1970 Wyn Morris/New Philharmonia (Pye LP). The latter presents the earlier 1893 edition, with the lovely ?Blumine? in its proper context.

In short, this Orfeo CD captures Walter?s artistry at its finest. Warmly recommended.

FANFARE: Jeffrey J. Lipscomb
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 8 in B minor, D 759 "Unfinished" by Franz Schubert
Conductor:  Bruno Walter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian State Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1822; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 10/1950 
Symphony no 1 in D major "Titan" by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Bruno Walter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian State Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1888/1896 
Date of Recording: 10/1950 
Notes: Composition written: Leipzig, Germany (1888).
Composition revised: Germany (1896). 

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