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Beethoven: Egmont Overture; Mahler: Symphony No 4 / Walter, Vienna Philharmonic

Beethoven / Mahler / Seefried / Vpo / Walter
Release Date: 02/22/2011 
Label:  Orfeo D'or Catalog #: 818101   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ludwig van BeethovenGustav Mahler
Performer:  Irmgard Seefried
Conductor:  Bruno Walter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Mono 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MAHLER Symphony No. 4 1. BEETHOVEN Egmont Overture Bruno Walter, cond; Vienna PO; 1 Irmgard Seefried (sop) ORFEO C 818 101 B, mono (62:44) Live: Salzburg 8/24/1950

With this release in its historic live Salzburg Festival series, Orfeo has thankfully restored to the catalog one of the truly great performances of the Mahler Read more Fourth, and added to that the premiere release of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture from the same concert. (Unfortunately, no recording has survived of the other piece from the program, Mozart’s Symphony No. 39.) The Mahler was originally released in 1985 on Varèse Sarabande VCD 47228, and the same mastering was reissued in 1990 on MCA Classics MCAD 42337. There was also a release on Originals SH 836, which I have not heard, but unless Originals simply pirated the other release it is virtually certain that its version is sonically much inferior, as well as lacking any booklet or other documentation.

To deal with the Beethoven first, there are now five extant performances by Walter of the overture. In addition to his studio recording with the New York Philharmonic from December 4, 1954—presently available on both a Sony CD and an ArkivMusic CD reissue – there are two live broadcasts with the same forces dating from January 31 and November 7, 1943; the first was released on Wing WCD16 in Japan, whereas the second has only circulated privately. Next comes a live performance from September 24, 1950, with the Berlin Philharmonic, from Walter’s only postwar concerts with that ensemble; that appeared in 1991 on Arkadia CDGI 738.1 but otherwise has never been reissued. Finally, there is the version presented here. Interpretively all five largely follow the same outline in their relative proportions, though there are some marked differences. The January 1943 performance, displaying a Toscanini-like adrenalin, is by far the fastest, clocking in at 7:06; the November 1943 performance comes in at 7:33, Vienna at 7:48, Berlin at 7:59, and the studio recording at 7:57. The two performances from 1943 are, as one would expect, in poor sound, particularly the one from November; by contrast the Berlin and Vienna performances, particularly the latter, are well preserved. Despite having marginally the slowest timing the Berlin rendition gives the impression of being slightly more fleet because it is harmonically somewhat less weighty, particularly in the bass register; this may be to some degree an artifact of the recorded sound, but I also suspect that part of the difference lies both in choices made by Walter and in the distinctive sound of that orchestra. The Vienna performance is Walter’s personal antipode to his January 1943 outing and has some fascinating unique touches. I can think of no other performance of a work by Walter in which he comes interpretively so close to Furtwängler, with an emphasis more transcendent and metaphysical than humane and lyrical. There is great breadth of phrasing to the slow introduction; the bass line is played with tremendous fullness and weight; and, in contrast to Walter’s more typical clear delineation of distinct phrases, there is a constant dovetailing and overlapping of instrumental lines. The recorded sound has extraordinary richness for a monaural broadcast, though there is also a marginal degree of microphone overload and corresponding slight harmonic distortion, enough to be noticeable but not enough (for me, at any rate) to be distracting. This and Walter’s studio version are his two best of the work.

Along with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, the Mahler Fourth is the work most often represented in Walter’s recorded legacy, with no fewer than 12 or 13 (see below) extant surviving performances, only one (from 1945) being a studio recording. I have all of these except the one from Philadelphia. Some performances have had multiple issues; the following table lists the most significant release in print for a given item:

Date Orchestra Soloist CD Issue (if any)

02/06/1944 NY Phil. Desi Halban none (private collection)

05/10/1945 NY Phil. Desi Halban Sony SMK 64450

02/04/1946 Philadelphia Orch. Desi Halban none (private collection)

03/25/1947 Boston Sym. Desi Halban LYS 315 (out of print)

08/24/1950 Vienna Phil. Irmgard Seefried Orfeo C 818 101 B

09/04/1950 Frankfurt Mun. Orch. Annalies Kupper Tahra TAH 642/44

04/19/1952 Rome RAI Orch. Carla Schlean Tahra TAH 620-621

06/06/1952 Concertgebouw E. Schwarzkopf Globe 6900

06/19/1952 Concertgebouw E. Schwarzkopf Music & Arts 1090

01/04/1953 NY Phil. Irmgard Seefried Music & Arts 656

05/12/1955 French Natl. O Maria Stader Tahra TAH 587-589

11/06/1955 Vienna Phil. Hilde Güden DGG 435 344-2 (out of print)

05/29/1960 Vienna Phil. E. Schwarzkopf Music & Arts 4705

It is disputed whether the two 1952 Concertgebouw performances listed above are the same or not; I believe they are (June 6 being the correct date), which reduces the total to 12. That performance was also released in a 14-CD commemorative set for the Concertgebouw, Q-Disc MCCL 97018 (reviewed by James H. North in Fanfare 28:1). A few other CD issues merit mention. The 1955 Vienna performance was also issued on Andante 4973, a four-CD set devoted to Mahler performances with Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic (reviewed by Christopher Abbot in 26:6); alas, it too is out of print. The 1945 New York studio recording is also available on Naxos 8.110876 (reviewed by Abbot in 27:3; he also reviewed the 1960 Vienna performance in 29:1). Finally, Pristine Audio has refurbished and reissued the 1953 New York performance; I have not heard that issue, but Henry Fogel in 31:2 reported a major improvement in the sonic quality that made the performance a revelation.

Out of this embarrassment of riches, which version(s) should be commended to the person who is not a Walter performance collector? I would immediately narrow the choice down to three: Vienna 1950, New York 1953, and Vienna 1956. The 1950 Frankfurt performance is positively gruesome in every way, a rare disaster in the Walter discography. The 1952 Rome and 1955 Paris performances have substandard orchestral playing, mediocre recorded sound, and inferior soloists. Of the four performances with Halban, only the studio recording comes into consideration; while long honored among historical collectors for its pioneering status (though it was preceded by a 1930 recording made in Japan!), compared to the live performances from Vienna, Amsterdam, and New York it comes off as surprisingly stiff and suffers from boxy sound. Of the Schwarzkopf performances, Amsterdam 1952 is preferable to Vienna 1960 both sonically and interpretively; in the latter, Walter’s farewell to Vienna at age 84, the reluctance to say Lebewohl results in a torpid performance with distended tempi. Also—and I know I will find disagreement from some here—I find Schwarzkopf to be inferior to both Seefried and Güden; her interpretation is simply too mannered and arch to convey the requisite sense of ingenuous delight in the bounty of Heaven.

Of the three remaining contenders, I would put the New York performance to one side as sonically inferior to both versions from Vienna unless Pristine’s remastering has done even more to improve the sound quality than I imagine is possible. The 1955 Vienna performance is, as mentioned, out of print; I cannot locate any copies of the issue on DG, and available used ones of the Andante set are expensive. However, if you happen to come across either one at an affordable price, don’t hesitate to acquire it. While virtually identical to the 1950 Vienna performance interpretively, the orchestral playing is a bit more polished, there is somewhat less tape hiss (though the recorded perspective is also slightly more distant), and most critics who have compared the two consider Güden the superior soloist. The DG issue also comes with a terrific performance of Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, another piece that Walter virtually owned during his lifetime.

All this brings us at last to the present release. While respecting the general critical preference for the 1955 rendition for the reasons just cited, I gave my heart to this one long ago as one of Walter’s three greatest surviving performances (the others being his 1942 Mozart Don Giovanni and his 1948 Beethoven Missa Solemnis ) and that affection has not been shaken. Despite occasional minor instrumental infelicities (e.g., a few slightly ragged string section entrances), this has always struck me as a subtly more intense performance than that from 1955, with a greater degree of underlying tension seeking final resolution. I also prefer the more immediate recorded sound, even with the more pronounced tape hiss and occasional microphone overload already noted with the Beethoven overture. Finally, I prefer Seefried to Güden in the finale, though both are excellent; while the latter is more technically polished and has a voice of more childlike timbre, the former (in her first-ever collaboration with Walter) sings with more feeling, shaping her phrases with luminous radiance. And, of course, Walter’s mastery of the score is simply unrivaled; no other conductor had, or likely ever will have, the profound grasp of all its nuances granted by both his intimate friendship with the composer and his personal experience of fin de siècle Vienna, the milieu in which the score was conceived and sculpted. Above all, the transcendental closing pages of the third movement have a spiritually transforming beauty matched by few, if any, other performances of any other work by any artist. This is not only Walter’s greatest performance of the Mahler Fourth; it is, despite its sonic limitations as a historic recording, the desert-island choice for the work.

There is one minor caveat, which is a matter of taste. Contrary to my expectations, I prefer the mastering of the previous Varèse Sarabande/MCA issue to the present Orfeo disc. The Varèse Sarabande/MCA issue used the 30 ips Agfa acetate master tapes recorded from stage microphones via direct feed to a Magnetophon machine by the German engineering team of Remington Records. Orfeo does not state its source, other than that this was an ORF radio broadcast of the Red-White-Red broadcasting network, but it usually has access to the original masters. One wonders if in this case those masters were made by ORF rather than Remington. In any case, the Orfeo issue is more harsh in the treble range and weaker in the bass. Of course, this could also be simply a result of different choices in remastering and equalization, and the Orfeo engineers may have elected a lesser degree of intervention that some might find preferable. The really odd thing is that the sonic quality of the Varèse Sarabande/MCA mastering of the Mahler resembles that of the Egmont Overture on the Orfeo CD more than does Orfeo’s own mastering of the Mahler. Used copies of the MCA issue are still available on the Internet at reasonable prices, should these comments tempt anyone to investigate them.

As with all the releases in this series, Orfeo provides a model booklet with photos, extensive comments from the performers and contemporary reviewers, and a catalog of prior releases in the series. As you have probably already guessed, this disc has an ironclad lock for one of the five entries on my 2011 Want List. If such a thing as a recommendation higher than the highest one possible could exist, I would bestow it; this is simply immortal.

FANFARE: James A. Altena
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Works on This Recording

Egmont, Op. 84: Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Bruno Walter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1810; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: Live August 24, 1950 
Venue:  Salzburg Festival 
Symphony no 4 in G major by Gustav Mahler
Performer:  Irmgard Seefried (Soprano)
Conductor:  Bruno Walter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892-1900; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: Live August 24, 1950 
Venue:  Salzburg Festival 

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