About this Recording
8.110896 - MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 / Lieder und Gesange aus der Jugendzeit (Walter) (1947)

Great Conductors • Bruno Walter

HMV had previously released a recording of Bruno Walter conducting just the Adagietto from the same concerts in January 1938 at which his famous recording of the Ninth Symphony was set down in the Musikverein with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. This performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, however, was the world première commercial recording of the complete work and was often cited by the conductor as one with which he was most satisfied.

The Fifth Symphony was a work that Walter understood particularly well, having worked closely with the composer himself during the protracted revision and publishing process. In his memoirs he refers to the composer’s difficulties with the orchestration as well as the disconcerted public and critical reception of the first performances of the work. After much protracted manoeuvring, the première took place in Cologne on 19th October 1904 with the Gürzenich Orchestra under the baton of Fritz Steinbach, the friend and noted interpreter of Brahms. Mahler was acutely sensitive to location as well as the choice of conductor. His enterprising new publisher at Peters Edition, Henri Hinrichsen, was actively trying to set up follow-up performances of the symphony in Leipzig with Stavenhagen and in Berlin with Nikisch. Stavenhagen had also taken it upon himself to programme the symphony in Munich, where the composer had received such a drubbing following this conductor’s failure in the Third Symphony earlier the same year. Following the unusually generous allocation of two private reading rehearsals instigated by Arnold Rosé at which an unpaid Vienna Philharmonic had run through the work the previous September, Mahler was fully appreciative of the difficulties posed by his latest symphony. Particularly in terms of the considerable advance in his own compositional idiom and the orchestral virtuosity required, he was desperate to avoid another failure and did not want Stavenhagen anywhere near the piece, most especially in Munich, where he needed to repair and build his bridges. Writing to Hinrichsen, he twice proposed himself to conduct or ‘Herr Kapellmeister Walter, who knows well what I am trying to do’.

Although Walter was formally invited to conduct the Leipzig performance, in-fighting between local symphonic societies prevented the concert from taking place. In the end neither of the planned performances with Stavenhagen took place, nor was the Cologne première a runaway success. Even though Mahler himself conducted several performances to greater acclaim, notably in Hamburg in March 1905 and at Strasbourg in May, his performance of the work in Vienna in December was given a critical mauling. He remained openly ambivalent about a work he frequently referred to as ‘accursed’. The contrapuntal complexities and more abstracted move away from the song-based approachability of the earlier Wunderhorn symphonies continued to dog its progress in the repertoire for many years afterwards. It says much for the young Bruno Walter that the composer was so confident in his abilities to take the work forward at the time of its creation.

By this time Walter had been acquainted with Mahler for nearly ten years and had become a close friend as well as colleague. His own famous account of his reaction to their meeting in Hamburg where he had been engaged at the Stadttheater is worth repeating:

‘Past experience, gathered in a middle-class environment, had taught me that one may meet genius in books and scores, in the enjoyment of music and drama, in the art treasures of museums, but that the living man was more or less ordinary, and real life a sober affair. And now I felt as if a higher realm had opened up to me – Mahler, in looks and behaviour, struck me as a genius, a demon: life itself had suddenly become romantic. I cannot better describe the elemental power of Mahler’s personality than by saying that its irresistible effect on a young musician was to produce in him, in the shortest space of time, an entirely new attitude to life.’

Walter’s affinity with the composer and unstinting advocacy of his works throughout his long career have become the stuff of legend and lend his recordings a special authority. While the Europe of 1905 remained baffled by Mahler’s new direction, notable progress was made by the Fifth Symphony in the United States. The American première took place in Cincinatti with two performances under Franz von Stucken as early as March 1905. The symphony went on to be heard in Boston, Philadelphia and New York in 1906 under the baton of Wilhelm Gericke. These performances generated a much more positive reaction and sowed the seeds of development that were made especially fertile when Bruno Walter’s career extended to transatlantic engagements.

Following the merger of the New York Symphony Orchestra with the Philharmonic in 1928, the new management was eager to secure the services of many of the most celebrated European conductors. The increasingly threatening political and racial tensions on the continent lent added incentive for US contacts to be developed and so it was that Walter shrewdly accepted an offer to guest conduct the New York Philharmonic for a seven-week period in January and February 1932. From the start he made it clear that he wanted to programme works by contemporary composers. Given a choice between the fifth symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner in addition to works by Krenek, Schmidt, Prokofiev and Daniel Gregory Mason, the music of Walter’s mentor won through; moreover he conducted it from memory.

Mahler frequently expressed a fervent wish to be able to come back seventy years later to conduct his works, famously sensing that his time would come. Although slightly earlier in the time frame, Bruno Walter was undoubtedly the next best thing. The uncannily direct chemistry between composer and conductor in some ways mirrors that of Delius and Beecham, the essential difference being that Walter initiated a renaissance of interest, whereas the English conductor did not, but their innate musical sympathies and understanding remain very complementary. Walter’s main areas of activity during the Second World War were New York and Los Angeles, where his championship of Mahler continued unabated. He recorded the Fourth Symphony with Desi Halban, the daughter of Selma Kurz, with whom he had often worked in pre-First World War Vienna and also gave the New York Philharmonic première of the Ninth Symphony. When Rodzinski announced his resignation from the musical directorship of the Philharmonic in February 1947, Walter was immediately nominated as ‘Music Adviser’ to succeed him.

It is salutary to listen to this recording of the Fifth Symphony from 1947 when, well before the revival of the following decades, the composer’s international profile was probably at an all time nadir. Immediately noteworthy is the duration, a significant ten minutes shorter than many performances from the latter part of the twentieth century. In an Adagietto of intermezzolike brevity and concision, Walter’s clarity of phrasing and a sentient orchestral balance that allows the suspended harmonies to speak sustain the music all the more affectingly. In the work as a whole a lean directness and lack of indulgence allow the symphonic structure to register with tautness, logic and considerable power. Purpose and direction never flounder and are substantially enhanced by an orchestra audibly exulting at the top of its form.

Although Walter’s public piano accompanying engagements became less frequent during this period, he always remained loyal to Lotte Lehmann and of course, Kathleen Ferrier. Recording these mostly Wunderhorn songs with Desi Halban must have been especially poignant for him, their reminiscences of youthful times casting a nostalgic and sobering shadow at a time not long after the death of his wife and the destruction of the whole way of life celebrated in them.

Ian Julier

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