Notes and Editorial Reviews
We're talking major discovery here. This magnificent in-concert New York performance of Gustav Mahler's final symphony-cum-song-cycle is musical gold, putting three of the four available Bruno Walter performances of his great friend and mentor's masterpiece in the shade. This recording originates from a performance on February 22, 1953, remastered from an off-air FM radio tape. Music & Arts apologizes for some hum, but I found the sound to be remarkably full and present, vastly preferable to the conductor's studio version of a decade later, which even in the latest Bruno Walter Edition incarnation (Sony) suffers from an opaque and cloudy recording quality.
More crucially, although, like most of his late Mahler recordings, the 1960 Das Lied is appealing for its integrity and Viennese Gemütlichkeit, seven years earlier Walter was a much more energized Mahlerian, and this performance fairly crackles with electricity and tension, qualities lacking in his late Mahler recordings. Set Svanholm is a much more involved soloist than the stodgy Ernst Haefliger, who sounds listless by comparison. The Swedish tenor sings with a wonderfully hearty vigor, Svanholm's almost defiantly projected Der Trunkene in Frühling notably vibrant and full of character. Elena Nikolaidi is somewhat more problematic. Initially, I found the Greek contralto's fluttery timbre and wide vibrato off-putting; but Nikolaidi's singing improves as the performance continues, and, despite the shaky upper register, her rich-toned singing of the Abschied is quite affecting, the long farewell of the coda heartbreaking.
Yet it is Walter's dynamic conducting and the fabulous response of the New York Philharmonic (known at the time as the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra) that makes this a performance to treasure. Listen to the desolate flute, for example, at the start of the Abschied, and the firmly pointed and wonderfully expressive orchestral playing that follows. With magnificent playing by the New York musicians, Walter elicits a wider range of orchestral coloring and a richer vein of emotion, with a firmer and more incisive grip than on his other performances.
As of this writing, Schwann lists the classic 1952 Vienna performance with Ferrier and Patzak as deleted. While not quite equaling that performance, I'd have to rank this second, below the Vienna performance of the previous year, but above the 1960 studio version (despite some fine singing by Mildred Miller) and the 1936 Vienna performance with Kerstin Thorborg and Charles Kullman (available on a variety of historical labels, including Music & Arts). Indeed, I would say this is one of the very best versions ever committed to disc. Bernard Haitink's burnished performance offers unearthly singing by Janet Baker, now available on yet another unbeatable Philips Duo set of Mahler's orchestral songs. Unlike the Philips and Sony discs, Music & Arts includes full texts and translations, commendable in a historical label where the majors won't provide one. The sound is remarkably rich and focused, with orchestral detail much clearer than on the 1963 Sony or the 1936 Vienna performance. There is a two-minute gap in the source tape about thirteen minutes into the Abschied, which is filled in with an AM broadcast tape of the same performance, and while the change in acoustic is jarring, it's not that big a deal.
A wonderful performance, an essential buy for Mahlerians and Bruno Walter fans, and one of the most worthy of Music & Arts's yeoman historical excavations.
-- Lawrence A. Johnson, FANFARE [7/1997]