Bruno Walter - The NBC Symphony  - Complete Concerts, Vol. I   (5-Immortal Performances IPCD 1144)
Item# C1916
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Bruno Walter - The NBC Symphony  - Complete Concerts, Vol. I   (5-Immortal Performances IPCD 1144)
C1916. BRUNO WALTER: NBC Symphony Concerts 1939, Vol. I: Bruno Walter, Cond. and Pianist; Divertimento #15 in B-flat, K.287; Piano Concerto #20 in d, K.466; Symphony #40 in g, K.550 (Mozart); Oberon - Overture (Weber); Symphony #92 in G (Haydn); Symphony #1 in c (Brahms); Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, #8 (Corelli); Symphony #1 in C (Beethoven); Suite After English Folk Songs (Mason); Tod und Verklärung (Strauss); Le Corsaire Overture; La Damnation de Faust - Menuet des follets; Ballet des sylphes; Marche hongroise; Symphonie fantastique (all Berlioz);. A Faust Overture; Siegfried Idyll (both Wagner); Symphony #1 (Mahler), featuring broadcast announcements by hosts Gene Hamilton and Robert Waldrop. (Canada) 5-Immortal Performances IPCD 1144, Live Performances, March 11-April 8, 1939, New York. Restoration and Transfers by Richard Caniell. Elaborate 28pp booklet features notes by James A. Altena & Richard Caniell. - 787790581482

CRITIC REVIEW: Henry Fogel, FANFARE, March/April 2021

"This remarkable set may well cause you to revise your views about Bruno Walter, as it did me. I have always admired his conducting very strongly, but I also probably pigeon-holed him in my mind as a 'genial' interpreter of the Austro-German repertoire. That image was implanted in many of us from his stereo recordings for Columbia made in the last decade of his life (Walter died at the age of 85 in 1962). As I came to know his earlier recordings, however, I began to recognize a more complex musical personality. The NBC radio broadcast performances captured here are positively incendiary, and while they retain many of the familiar virtues that marked Walter’s conducting, they add to those a level of dramatic intensity that is quite special.

I will make some introductory comments before discussing the specifics of each concert. The superb accompanying notes in the program booklet, written by FANFARE colleague James A. Altena, give valuable information and insights, and provide very helpful comparisons of these performances with Walter recordings of the same repertoire.

Categorizing a performance style runs the risk of simplifying something that is quite complex. In general, Bruno Walter’s tendencies were toward warmth and the establishment of a singing line while never burying subsidiary voices. Within the boundaries implied by this description, he could vary his approach considerably. The performances here lean, sometimes strongly, in the direction of quick tempos and sharper edges than was often the case with him. Altena points out that these performances in 1939 were Walter’s first in front of an orchestra trained by Arturo Toscanini. Even over the brief span of five NBC Symphony concerts broadcast between March 11 and April 8 that year, one can hear an orchestra adjusting to Walter, and Walter adjusting to the orchestra in return.

There is another issue underlying the music-making here. As far back as 1933 Walter’s life became difficult because of the rise of Hitler. Walter was born Jewish as Bruno Schlesinger in 1876 but converted to Christianity in 1898 when he was at the Riga Opera. When he returned his position as principal conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in March, 1933, Walter was forbidden to conduct a scheduled concert and was stripped of the post. He showed up to a scheduled concert of the Berlin Philharmonic the same month, but Nazi threats of a riot in the hall led to another cancellation (reprehensibly, Richard Strauss replaced Walter on the podium).

Walter moved to Vienna and was appointed artistic director of the Vienna State Opera, but after the Anschluss in 1938 he found himself without work and without a country. He was conducting in Amsterdam at the time of the Anschluss, but his eldest daughter Lotte was arrested in Vienna. Walter was able to get her released through influential connections. The marriage of his other daughter, Gretel, was falling apart (later, in August, her estranged husband would kill both Gretel and himself), and Walter was trying to find safe passage and housing for other family members. Musicians are, of course, no more able than other human beings to compartmentalize, and it is not illogical to suggest that the stress, drama, and rage that must have been boiling inside of Walter, and which persisted at a distance after he came to America, had an impact on these five broadcast concerts.

Immortal Performances has fit each concert on a single CD by retaining an abridged version of the broadcast commentary and applause. I will discuss each one separately.

March 11, 1939—All Mozart: Divertimento #15, K 287; Piano Concerto #20, K 466; Symphony #40, K 550 This concert represents Walter’s first exposure to the NBC Symphony and, of course, the musicians’ first exposure to him. Divertimento K 287 for strings and two horns was presented with some cuts (three of the six variations that make up the second movement), probably to fit NBC’s broadcast time limitations. Interestingly, the Divertimento is the only one of the three performances here that fit my expectations, in that it is a warm, relaxed, and very flexible reading. Walter employs a greater degree of both portamento and rubato than would have been likely under Toscanini, and it is impressive how well the musicians seem to have adjusted to their Viennese guest

In Piano Concerto #20, which Walter conducts from the piano, and Symphony #40, however, things are different. While Walter’s flexibility and warmth did not completely desert him, they are present to a lesser degree, replaced by a driving intensity and sharper accenting than one hears in any number of Walter’s other recordings of these two pieces. The NBC Symphony plays very well, and there is a clear sense of musicians carefully listening to and reacting to each other. In both his piano playing and conducting, I hear something of the Walter of later years, but to my ears those characteristics are not truly embodied in these performances.

March 18, 1939—Weber: Oberon – Overture; Haydn: Symphony #92, ‘Oxford’; Brahms: Symphony #1

By the second week, it is clear that Walter and the musicians are beginning to understand each other. This is where the melding of Toscanini’s incisiveness and Walter’s more rounded attacks begin to sound as if they can live with each other. In addition to the crispness of orchestral attacks and releases, another marked difference between the two conductors was in their conception of sound. Walter, like most German and Austrian conductors, tended to build his orchestral sonority from the bottom up. Everything rested on a foundation established by the cellos, double basses, and lower brass. Toscanini’s approach led to a less weighty, brighter sonority. One problem for Walter’s approach is that Studio 8H tended to work against his coloristic preferences, though even by this second week he clearly had adjusted to the point where he compensated to some degree for the dry acoustic.

The OBERON Overture performance is warm, vivid, and very well played by the NBC musicians. It makes me wish that conductors would regularly include pieces like this in their programs; Weber overtures used to be standard repertoire, and the smile brought by Walter’s reading underscores the sad fact that they are far less commonly heard today. The Haydn 'Oxford' Symphony also receives a buoyant performance, but it suffers in particular from the 8H sound when compared to Walter’s studio recordings made a year earlier in Paris.

However, the Brahms First Symphony recorded here (and never released before) has become my favorite Walter recording of the piece. It is absolutely electric, even ferocious, in its momentum and drive. While listening to it I began to realize what must have been roiling inside him after everything he and his family were put through by the Nazis, added to the tension, more than five years later, of not knowing where they would eventually be able to settle (eventually, of course, it was the U.S.). The finale of this Brahms First is on fire from the introduction through the closing chords. While driving the NBC Symphony quickly, Walter pulls back hard for the chorale tune near the end. From that point onward he organizes the music perfectly. This is a performance not to be missed.

March 25, 1939—Corelli: Concerto Grosso in D, op. 6/5; Beethoven: Symphony #1; Daniel Gregory Mason: Suite After English Folk Songs; Strauss: Tod und Verklårung

Walter’s approach to the Corelli Concerto Grosso is certainly old-fashioned, as one would expect, but the reading is also lovely. There is a richness to the string playing that no modern conductor would encourage, and a weight to the opening chord implying that we are about to hear a Beethoven overture. But if you put aside the current received wisdom, you are likely to be seduced by the warmth and lovely singing tone of the strings, and the overall energy of the playing. Walter plays the harpsichord continuo (though it is often buried in the texture). The same blending of cantabile playing and kinetic energy marks the Beethoven First Symphony as well. This is the only live Walter recording of the work, and it is quicker than his studio recordings. In addition, the reading has a degree of dramatic tension and release that also goes beyond his studio efforts.

Walter maintained a friendship with the now obscure American composer Daniel Gregory Mason (1873–1953) and conducted three of his pieces during his career. Two symphonies by Mason were programmed with the New York Philharmonic, but here we get a work of slighter weight. Although English folk songs form the basis of Mason’s suite, the orchestral treatment seems straight out of the central European Romantic style. (In his notes Altena compares it to Russian and Swedish folksong arrangements by Max Bruch, a very apt analogy.) Walter wasn’t simply doing his duty to American music; he conducts with passion, energy, and affection. He balances the orchestral textures particularly carefully, so that we can hear Mason’s skilled orchestration. is a lovely addition to both Walter’s and Mason’s discography.

TOD UND VERKLÅRUNG is given a phenomenally dramatic reading. The subject’s fight against death is as powerful as I think I have ever encountered, and the following transfiguration glows with a remarkable richness and beauty of orchestral color. Most impressively, Walter manages the transition from one to the other perfectly, with acutely judged adjustments of tempo and dynamics. The final climax is shattering. To give you an indication of the ferocity of this performance, its duration is 21:13. The closest timing for that in my collection (which contains 34 recorded performances) is Strauss’ own, at 21:24. Furtwängler is almost a minute longer (22:05), and all the others are longer than that. Most of the quickness is concentrated in the central battle with death, which leaps out of the speakers. By the end of their third weekly concert together, it sounds to me as if the NBC players and Walter came to fully understand each other, and the orchestra found a way to give him what he asked for.

April 1, 1939—All Berlioz: Le Corsaire; La damnation de Faust - Minuet of the Will of the Wisps; Dance of the Sylphs; Rákóczy March; Symphonie fantastique

For his fourth NBC concert in 1939 Walter offered an all-Berlioz program. Berlioz is a composer we don’t usually associate with the conductor, but in fact Walter consistently performed and recorded Berlioz’s orchestral works. He had made a recording of the Symphonie fantastique with the Paris Conservatory Orchestra less than two months prior to this concert. The readings of LE CORSAIR and the excerpts from LA DAMNATION DE FAUST are superb. The former takes a bit of time to get warmed up, but once it does Walter’s reading exhibits dramatic energy and brilliant orchestral colors. He has similar success with the Faust excerpts. The wit and insouciance of the 'Minuet of the Will of the Wisps', the feather-light touch in the 'Dance of the Sylphs', and the thrust of the 'Rákóczy March' are present to an ideal degree.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the Symphonie fantastique. There is much to recommend it. Walter’s attention to voicing and to subtle shifts of dynamics, along with his ability to tie the sprawling piece into a unified whole, are unique and valuable qualities. I also really like the touches of portamento in the string playing, particularly in the first three movements. However the second movement, 'Un bal', turns rather heavy-footed, and the final two movements lack the dramatic excitement I have come to expect. This may well be a matter of personal taste, because Walter clearly has a great love for the music as he hears it, and as he conveys to the players.

April 8, 1939—Wagner: A Faust Overture; Siegfried Idyll; Mahler: Symphony #1

Walter’s five-concert engagement by NBC concluded with music directly from the core of his repertoire––Wagner and Mahler. This is the most gratifying of all of these concerts, which should take nothing away, though, from the treasures contained in the previous four.

The two Wagner works receive lovely performances. The early FAUST OVERTURE is given a reading of surprising weight and concentrated tone, and SIEGFRIED IDYLL features more extremes of tempo and dynamics than Walter’s beautiful 1953 studio recording with the New York Philharmonic. For its heartfelt warmth and tenderness, that one would be on my desert island list of Walter recordings. Here there is a stronger contrast between fast and slow sections, a somewhat sharper pointing of instrumental details. Without supersede superseding the studio recording, the NBC one makes for a wonderful complement to it.

Prior to this performance of Mahler’s First Symphony, New York’s most prominent orchestra, the Philharmonic, where Mahler once served as music director, had played the work on subscription concerts in three seasons: 1909–10 with Mahler conducting; 1920–21 under Mengelberg (a New Year’s Eve performance was led by Joseph Stransky); and the 1923–24 season with Walter. There were also two summer performances under Willem van Hoogstraten during the Philharmonic’s Stadium Concerts in 1926 and 1933. Mahler was still enough of a rarity, however, that it was admirable for NBC officials to allow Walter’s programming of a full symphony (as opposed to the Adagietto of the Mahler Fifth, which was common in those days). I know of the almost legendary status of the conductor’s 1961 stereo studio recording with the Columbia Symphony, but if I had to choose only one version to live with, it would be this 1939 reading.

I can imagine much going on in Walter’s mind. This was the conclusion of his visit to the NBC Symphony; the future of his career was by no means a certainty; he and his family had suffered extraordinary indignities at the hands of the Nazis; and now he was going to perform a work by a composer the Third Reich had banned. Maybe I can be accused of reading too much into the occasion, but this stands as one of the great Mahler performances I have ever heard. All of the contrasting elements that are a part of Mahler’s musical makeup––beauty, love of Nature, pain, earthiness, wit - are balanced perfectly. The heavier-than-usual application of rubato and portamento, particularly in the second and third movements, might well mirror the way Mengelberg would have conducted this music. The musicians respond to the challenges of what must have been unfamiliar music with passion as well as accuracy. This is a magnificent conclusion to a terrific set.

The usual attributes of Immortal Performance releases are all present. The booklet goes so far beyond what virtually any other company offers that comparisons are irrelevant. In addition to Altena’s fine essay, there are wonderful photographs, helpful recording notes by producer Richard Caniell, and complete documentation of the sources. Most importantly, the sonic restoration is superb. There is nothing Immortal Performances can do about the dry acoustics of Studio 8H, but they have softened the edges as much as possible. The inclusion of the NBC announcements (which are, admittedly, a bit self-important) and applause, both abridged to accommodate each concert on a single generously-filled CD, adds to the atmosphere of what it must have been like to be sitting at home listening to music-making as superb as this. Five stars: Valuable and exciting historic broadcasts lovingly restored."

CRITIC REVIEW: Ken Meltzer, FANFARE March / April, 2021

“A marvelous, important new release from Immortal Performances presents a series of five weekly radio concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter, broadcast between March 11 and April 8, 1939. In terms of recordings, Bruno Walter is best known for his extensive catalogue for Columbia Records (now, Sony Classical), and especially a series of stereo LPs he made in the final years of his life. They are treasurable recordings indeed, but they only tell a part of the story of Walter’s achievements and artistry. The Columbia monophonic recordings made in the 1940s and ‘50s document a more intense and propulsive interpreter (Sony Classical’s recent ‘Bruno Walter: The Complete Columbia Album Collection’ offers numerous opportunities to compare Walter in the same repertoire at different stages of his life). To this we may add that Walter, like many conductors of his era, was generally an even more intense and engaged artist in live performance on the concert stage and in the opera house. That intensity is further accentuated in the live performances of the wartime years. Like his contemporary Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter’s concerts from that era often embody a life or death struggle not recaptured in the later interpretations (throughout the NBC SO concerts, you can hear Walter, time and time again, vocally exhorting the musicians to give their best). Again, this is not to say that the wartime recordings are necessarily superior to what Walter later achieved. But they are magnificent, unique documents, and essential for an understanding of Walter’s conducting legacy.

At the time of these NBC SO concerts, Walter was 62, and at the height of his powers. The NBC SO, the orchestra RCA assembled in 1937 for Arturo Toscanini, following the Italian Maestro’s departure from the New York Philharmonic, was a first-rate ensemble. Those factors alone would command attention to this IP set. But the concerts include numerous works Bruno Walter never recorded commercially. While portions of these 1939 Walter-NBC SO concerts have been issued by labels specializing in historical performances, the IP set constitutes, to the best of my knowledge, the first time these concerts have been issued in their entirety.

Generous portions of the broadcast announcements by hosts Gene Hamilton and Robert Woldoff are included. The superb liner notes are by my FANFARE colleague, James A. Altena, a Walter devotee, scholar, and co-author of the conductor’s discography. James provides a detailed and absorbing description of the circumstances surrounding these concerts and the performances, along with comparisons to other Walter commercial recordings/live performances of the same repertoire. Richard Caniell’s Recording Notes provide additional context. A glorious collection, essential for anyone interested in the legacy of Bruno Walter, one of the 20th century’s podium giants. Highest recommendation."

Five stars: the complete series of Bruno Walter’s magical 1939 NBC SO concerts”


“The entire Immortal Performances production of five CDs (priced as four) proves both striking and informative, with fine photos of Walter and Toscanini, and an expansive essay from James A. Altena of FANFARE Magazine and long-time devotee of the career of Bruno Walter. Volume II, devoted to Bruno Walter’s appearances with the NBC Symphony from 1940, already awaits release. These issues come highly recommended.”