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Bruno Walter: The Complete Columbia Album Edition

Bruno Walter: The Complete Columbia Album Edition

When it comes to big ‘complete editions’, nobody does it quite like Sony. Back in the mid ‘90s, they issued a fairly comprehensive survey of Bruno Walter’s recordings for Columbia (CBS) on CD, and very fine it was too. But it wasn’t totally complete…

This handsome new edition is complete, so it features Walter’s earlier hard-to-find New York mono recordings along with the later stereo remakes. ‘Original Jackets’ presentation gives us the Columbia LP album covers/disc labels, and all recordings have all been newly re-mastered at 24bit/96kHz. 

 But who exactly was Bruno Walter? Born in 1876, he was one of the most important conductors of the 20th century. He personally knew Gustav Mahler, and premiered several of his works (including the 9th symphony and Das Lied von der Erde) after the composer’s death in 1911.

Walter’s dates – 1876–1962 – overlap those of podium rivals like Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957) and Wilhelm Furtwangler (1886–1954). But, living a few years longer meant a large number of his Columbia recordings were stereo – unlike Furtwangler’s and Toscanini’s mono-only legacy.

Starting in 1941, Bruno Walter made his first Columbia recordings in New York; Beethoven’s Eroica and an Emperor concerto with Serkin. There followed more Beethoven and Mozart symphonies, plus Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ and ‘Great C Major’ symphonies.

The first Mahler 5

In 1947 came the first-ever com­mercial recording of Mahler’s fifth symphony. Still largely an unknown composer at that time, Mahler himself had led the very same Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York for a couple of seasons almost 50 years earlier.

Walter’s early New York record­ings were made before the use of magnetic tape became widespread. Instead, Columbia used 16in lacquer discs running at 33.1/3rd rpm – not short-duration 10in 78’s. As a result, the consistency and continuity of both performance and sound are excellent.

Sony’s 1994 CD issue of Walter’s Mahler 5 sounded remarkably good for the period. But there were a few crackles and swishes that could not (at the time) be got rid of. However, this new transfer has eliminated these noises completely, and the recording now sounds even better than before.

Likewise, the 1941 recording of Beethoven’s Eroica sounds remarkably clear and detailed, and not greatly inferior to Walter’s 1949 remake – the latter presumably recorded on magnetic tape. True, Columbia’s 1941 mono sonics are a bit bright and ‘peaky’, but clarity is excellent.

Bruno Walter’s first stereo sessions seem to have been held in February 1957, when he began recording Mahler’s Resurrection symphony in Carnegie Hall. Unfortunately, he suffered a serious heart attack shortly after, so the recording wasn’t completed till Feb 1958.

For health reasons, Walter relocated from the East coast of America to the West coast, and from then on nearly all his subsequent stereo recordings (except Schubert’s Unfinished and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde) were made with a ‘pick-up’ orchestra called The Columbia Symphony.

Age brings Mellowness

Generally speaking, where Walter recorded the same work more than once, the earlier mono (New York)performances are tougher and more-fiery than the later stereo (Columbia symphony) versions. Typically, the latter tend to be slower, warmer, and more lovingly phrased.

The two accounts of Schubert Great C Major illustrate this perfectly – the 1946 NY performance being crisp, taut, and strongly projected, while the 1959 stereo remake is more romantic – perhaps even verging on the sentimental at times.

Not that I’m complaining! Hearing such a heartfelt, warm, and loving performance provides a welcome antidote to today’s cold brusque ‘hipster’ interpretations that make Schubert 9 sound hard, nasal, and utterly charmless. Given a choice, I know which I’d rather have!

Likewise, the New York mono set of the Brahms symphonies show the tougher more acerbic side of Walter compared to the more-lyrical stereo West-Coast cycle recorded a few years later. Both are excellent, but the earlier set shows that Walter wasn’t all sweetness and light. 

That said, I was all but transfixed listening to the stereo version of Brahms’ hard-to-get-right third symphony – thrilled to hear how Walter shapes this work to perfection. The re-mastered recording sounds wonderful too – amazingly-good in terms of richness and depth.

A lavish 200 page hard-bound book gives background detail on the recordings – where they were made, and when – plus alternative album covers and lots of interesting pictures of Bruno Walter – many I’d not seen before. A full discography of Walter’s other recordings is included too…

The set also includes all the various interview and rehearsal discs Bruno Walter made for Columbia, including John McClure’s fascinating ‘A Working Portrait’ that came with the original In-Memoriam Mahler 9 set on LP. 

All told, this is a wonderful set that does Bruno Walter proud. It’s a labour of love for all concerned, and an object lesson in how a record company should honour the legacy of one of its great artists, and I wish more would do the same. Buy a c

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