Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 9
Bruno Walter, cond; Isobel Baillie (sop); Kathleen Ferrier (con); Heddle Nash (ten); William Parsons (bs); London PO & Choir
MUSIC & ARTS 1243, mono (62:04) Live: London 11/13/1947
This is the performance’s third incarnation on a Music & Arts CD. The first appeared in 1992, as a straight CD transfer of the original Music & Arts/Bruno Walter Society LP of 1980; the second came in 2007, in collaboration with Pristine Audio, utilizing its new XR remastering system. The
latest one is again a joint effort between the two companies, crediting both Pristine’s Andrew Rose and Music & Arts’s Aaron Snyder. The transfer is much quieter and more refined than even the 2007 one, and would be well worth the upgrade. The basic sound quality is variable—it comes and goes in parts of the first movement and finale—but is surprisingly well detailed at its best.
The performance is another matter: in the opinion of
’s Mortimer H. Frank (author of the excellent booklet notes), the finest of Walter’s preserved versions of the Ninth, and I wouldn’t disagree. Here is Walter as the “missing link” between the approaches of Toscanini and Furtwängler, succeeding in reconciling the high drama and single-minded momentum of the former with something of the improvisatory timeless quality of the latter.
The first movement has all the familiar Walterian features, but at a faster-than-customary tempo (14:24; his other versions clock in between 15:00 and 16:10): in the opening stages, the rhetorical flexibility of pacing—a crisp, keenly urgent introduction preparing a main theme of massive deliberation and crushing power; then in the second-theme area, a marvelous combination of quicksilver volatility and singing fullness, allowing plenty of breathing space at the fast tempo (hear the intricate woodwind figuration at bars 138 ff.). Many imaginative touches include Walter’s interpretive license with the timpani part in the long tonic pedal through the recapitulation of the first theme: in place of Beethoven’s notated sustained onslaught, a series of waves in crescendo/diminuendo, for maximum dramatic impact (very well caught by the microphones, as is the all-important timpani part in the Scherzo). Throughout, the LPO responds with total concentration and commitment.
The Scherzo has great dash, majesty, and a special quality of more fullness—of tone and articulation—than is usually heard here. At 14:48, the slow movement is the fastest of Walter’s performances, approaching Toscanini’s
version at 14:21 (RCA, 1952). There is an exceptional fervor here, with a rare improvisatory feeling; in the main reprise of the variation theme (bars 99 ff.), hear the horns’ ecstatic singing out against the first violins’ dancing figuration—unforgettable! The contrasting theme in 3/4 is swift and richly nuanced. Like the rest of the performance, the finale excels in both fire and breadth, generating enormous excitement. The chorus sings as if possessed, and the solo quartet is outstandingly characterful (even if the great Isobel Baillie can’t quite nail the climactic high B toward the end).
By way of comparison, Walter’s 1949 studio recording with the NYPO (Music & Arts) has a much more rugged, monumental feel; his late (1959) recording with the Columbia Symphony is smoother, more molded, and much slower. Finer than either is a live VPO version from 1955 (Orfeo): lean, sweet, light-textured, with an unforgettably beautiful slow movement. But for sheer electricity and spontaneity it must yield to the 1947 London performance.
Strongest possible recommendation.
FANFARE: Boyd Pomeroy
This recording has been available for some time in other transfers but the present issue derives from restorations by Andrew Rose for Pristine Audio in 2008 and Aaron Z Snyder in 2010. I have not heard the earlier versions so that I cannot compare them, but the results on the present disc certainly sound remarkably good for their date - much better than many live recordings from ten or even twenty years later - especially bearing in mind the notoriously difficult acoustic of the Albert Hall as it was at that time. The result is that one can concentrate on the performance without too many distractions. Admittedly there are some remaining problems. The balance is at times odd, with the timpani very prominent, the first violins are apt to disappear unpredictably into the distance, and there are moments of severe congestion, but there is nothing here that seriously obtrudes in listening to the performance. It does help to be able to imagine what is missing at times and to have an idea of what the live balance would be, but this is clearly an issue to appeal essentially to those who know the work well already so that this should not be too much of a problem.
I find it difficult to imagine concert life in London so soon after the war in a city dominated in my childhood memory by bomb sites and shortages. It is a pity that the brief notes in the booklet do not mention what else was on the programme for this concert or say anything else about its context but what matters is the performance itself. It is powerful and energetic - not words I would use about Walter’s later recordings but very obviously in the same exciting vein as the superb Met
Fidelio of 1941 that Naxos reissued some years ago. The first movement is fierce rather than mysterious - possibly the recording has something to do with this - and the second very lively, if short on repeats. The wonderful lyrical approach to the slow movement leads to a finale that for once seems to be treated as a whole rather than a series of short sections and to lead inexorably towards the final release of energy at the close.
This is a live performance and not everything is perfect. To my surprise Heddle Nash sounded effortful at first whereas William Parsons, despite a somewhat dry tone, is much better than I had expected. The two ladies meet most of the formidable requirements of their roles as well as you would expect - a pity that there is so little of them. The choir are also very good and I imagine that occasional indistinctness to be the result of the recording and the hall rather than their performance. The orchestra are generally good despite some occasional faults of intonation and ensemble. If anything these add to the excitement of the occasion. The audience are allowed some brief applause at the end and provide a few coughs and other noises during the music but these are not too obtrusive.
All in all this is an issue which will appeal to any admirer of the conductor or to listeners wanting to hear a performance of the Choral which stands somewhere between his great contemporaries Toscanini and Furtwängler. This is certainly not for anyone without a more modern and better recorded version of the Symphony in their collection but it is very well worth hearing for its own merits and as an instructive comparison with the modern mainstream of historically informed performance.
-- John Sheppard, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Written: 1822-1824; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 11/13/1947
Venue: Royal Albert Hall
Length: 61 Minutes 14 Secs.
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